It’s true that many earthworks are, more or less, monumental holes in the ground, macho and grandiloquent gestures of passing men. This show wisely skips the handy fruit of those simplistic reviews. Instead, “New Earthworks” highlights how the eight featured artists and collectives merge the strategies of these older endeavors with a contemporary understanding of ecology, territory, and performativity. Sometimes the exhibit at the Arizona State University Museum of Art in Tempe takes on a sense of caring, of “working” or “for” the health of the planet – and our survival, now that the he nascent environmentalism of the 1970s has a much more desperate inflection.
Several projects give “earthwork” the connotation of “bodywork”. Sam Van Aken practices a measured form of breeding by grafting several heirloom varieties of stone fruit into single trees, including one he planted on university grounds. In the same way, Whirling (2019), an “immersive” four-channel video installation by Hope Ginsburg (with Matt Flowers and Joshua Quarles), documents a (non-artistic) project to reseede coral reefs using fabricated scaffolds. On the preacher side, the desertArtLAB collaborative presents a cart of cactus gardeners called Mobile ECO-STUDIO (2013), which they use to distribute native succulents to beautify vacant lots, replenish drought yards, and supply community gardens. These three projects achieve different types of environmental efficiency.
The weakest work in the series is the most flagellant: Arkansas Traveler (2020), by Scott Hocking, involves a reclaimed steel windmill bent into a shape resembling a drunken cowboy and featuring wings cut out of a fiberglass boat hull. The whole thing is tinted with “bone black”, one of the artist’s favorite materials, a carbon pigment once made in bulk from the bones of slaughtered bison. The work presents the westward settlement and farm system as a kind of sloppy, soot-stained bender; since it’s obvious, the sculpt mostly reads as a gag on Manifest Destiny. In contrast, a 2018 video by Carolina Caycedo, Appearances/Appearances, depicts a ritually choreographed scene in the Huntington Library, Museum of Art and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, the lush bio-strip of railroad baron Henry Edwards Huntington. Caycedo’s team of black and brown dancers inhabit this collector-colonial space as if haunting it, passing through movements from Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions. The symbolic nature of their gestures is emphatic – the house and gardens remain ornamental, their hands remain empty and their haunting is limited to the video. But the piece is remarkable as an exorcism of a certain type of stolen “worked” earth, and a functional recognition of the earth.
by David Brooks Death mask for landscape (2022) is another elegy for plundered land. The artist created 3D scans from drone footage of patches of the Amazon rainforest that were at risk of being overrun for clearcutting, agriculture or aluminum mining, then turned them into small aluminum castings grouped together. The high technology of drones and lidar (a remote scanning technique) made these elementary memorials possible; the forests that stretched in miniature around the floor of the gallery have now disappeared. Moreover, the use of aluminum that might have been mined from these very sites is more than a cute concept: it illustrates a key principle of early earthworks, Robert Smithson’s site/non-site dialectic, according to which a work of art in a gallery – the non-site – could trace a huge metaphorical arrow to an external time or place, i.e. the site.
The show features a few “action items”, like the cactus cart – works that use the site/non-site relationship as an exhortation to move on and do good. One of the most passable is that of Steven Yazzie Yumeweus (2022), a consumer hydroponics tower planted with amaranth, an ancient grain, and circled with traditional sand paintings in the hexagonal patterns of organic chemistry. The implication is that, again, terracing is body work: we should maintain what we have, restore what we have lost. This upbeat take is complicated by faint fragments of land reconnaissances projected onto the nearby wall in a corny animated font. Can we ever meaningfully, let alone materially, repair the damage our arrogance has done to the earth? Does it matter that the building occupying this piece of unceded territory is a museum or, as Smithson put it, a void?