Books

Outdoor Art and the Private Playgrounds of Privilege

Spread in Outdoor Art featuring work titled "Bankers" by Jason deCaires Taylor. (Photo by author for Hyperallergic)
Spread from ‘Outdoor Art,’ featuring “Bankers” by Jason deCaires Taylor (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It starts with the title: Outdoor Art. Simple, straightforward, you might think. Given that the book (out from Prestel) is large and glossy, you might imagine that it’s going to be a photo-rich overview of important works of outdoor art from around the world. The deception is intentional. That is not what this book is.

In fact, the author Silvia Langen, an art collector, author, and member of the family behind the Langen Foundation, which operates a private museum in a sculpture park in Germany, has created a neoconservative tome that is sharply dismissive of government-funded sculpture parks — which she intentionally leaves out of the book, claiming they all suffer from a “chronic lack of space and funds” and declaring that hosting large-scale public sculpture is a challenge they can “scarcely rise to.” The book also falls over itself to praise those who have created private sculpture parks — including their vast, often 1%, wealth — and who are determined to remake some slice of the world in their image.

Of the 25 sculpture parks discussed in the book, three are not open to the public at all. One is open only one day per year. Another is described to readers as “best viewed from a hot-air balloon.” And the majority of the others require you to request guided tours or access in advance and are open only limited times of the year.

As the book outlines, the fortunes many of the included collectors rely on to fund their parks came from mining, speculating on real estate, inheriting wealth, advertising, or the vague capitalist catch-all: entrepreneurship, i.e. money hoarded by displacing people, exploiting labor, and exploiting local resources. And so many of the artists mentioned are a litany of usual blue-chip suspects: Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt, Marina Abramović, Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Goldsworthy, and countless mentions of James Turrell, whose Roden Crater receives its own chapter, despite remaining closed to the general public because of its decades-long construction.

Put that all together and you’ve got one of the most out-of-touch art texts I’ve read in some time.

Francis Alÿs, Game Over (2008), Jardín Botánico Culiacán, Mexico, © Hubertus Langen/Jardín Botánico Culiacán/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015 (Image courtesy of publisher.)
Francis Alÿs, “Game Over” (2008), Jardín Botánico Culiacán, Mexico (© Hubertus Langen/Jardín Botánico Culiacán/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015, image courtesy the publisher)

There are numerous quotes that are so deeply backward as to be laughable if they weren’t tragic demonstrations of the book’s decidedly colonialist bent. In the third chapter, the artist Hannsjörg Voth describes his search for a location for his work this way: “I went in search of a primal landscape as yet untouched by human hands…” And then, just a couple of short sentences later, apparently with no irony whatsoever, Langen writes this about Voth obtaining access to land in Morocco, where he eventually placed his work: “He had to make endless visits to government offices before he was at last granted permission to build on the ancestral homelands of the nomads of the region.” Which is to say, the land had very much been touched by human hands, thousands upon thousands of them, over many centuries.

The same exact trope arises later in a chapter about the projects of the Australian artist Andrew Rogers, who the author brags has created “the largest Land Art park in the world” in Turkey. Again, the white male artist “deliberately places his own marks in untouched landscapes.” Sure, let’s call Turkey, one of the most important cultural crossroads in the world and one of oldest settled regions on Earth “untouched,” and let’s also pretend that Rogers is the first human to encounter Cappadocia.

Not Vital, Büna libra (2011), Fundaziun Not Vital, Switzerland, © Eric Gregory Powell/Courtesy Fundaziun Not Vital/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015
Not Vital, “Büna libra” (2011), Fundaziun Not Vital, Switzerland (© Eric Gregory Powell/Courtesy Fundaziun Not Vital/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015, image courtesy the publisher)
Nek Chand Saini, untitled, The Rock Garden, India, © Hubertus Langen/The Rock Garden/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015 (Image courtesy of publisher.)
Nek Chand Saini, untitled, “The Rock Garden, India” (© Hubertus Langen/The Rock Garden/Outdoor Art, Prestel 2015, image courtesy the publisher)

Among the 25 chapters there are a smattering that discuss places where the creators, by and large artists in these cases, have less feudal connections to the land. There’s one chapter focused on Not Vital, whose park intersperses sculptures on a slice of steep mountain land next to the village Sent, near the eastern tip of Switzerland. Vital’s family has centuries-old roots in the village, where he and a minority of others still speak the Romansh language and where his park winks and nods at the local culture he is helping to preserve.

Another chapter highlights the sculpture garden of late artist Nek Chand Saini, located in Chandigarh, India. Built by hand by Chand, the garden is constructed entirely of materials he reclaimed from his work as a roads inspector during the time of Chandigarh’s development. Building his original 13-acre work in a gorge on public land, he sought to create a space that resisted the Westernization of the home he landed in after the partition of India and that served, for him, as a “kingdom of gods and goddesses.” His creation later become a public park that is one of the only spaces in the book open year round to all.

OutdoorArt5
‘Outdoor Art: Extraordinary Sculpture Parks and Art in Nature’ by Silvia Langen, published by Prestel (click to enlarge)

Ultimately the author, Langen, seems to want to have it two ways. In her introduction she writes that permanently installed outdoor art allows collectors to “make a stand against the art market and its increasingly speculative nature.” But in fact, the deliberate control and remaking of land by individuals means that the vast majority of people featured in her book have ultimately created private, personal theme parks for themselves. This point becomes particularly acute when she gushes about the New Zealand collector Alan Gibbs and his tanks, helicopters, amphibious vehicles, and blue-chip artworks, telling us, “At weekends he meets up with his grandchildren and friends in his own specially constructed Wild West town, where they enact shoot-outs in cowboy costumes.”

At best the author is muddled and clueless, at worst she is an apologist for neo-colonialist collectors and artists. Instead of a thoughtful survey, the book feels like a checklist for wealthy travelers and an attempt to legitimize many collectors’ ambitions. But what’s most galling about the book is that it uses the veneer of art and assumed cultural value to whitewash the realities of how many of these spaces came to be. It’s telling that the very first park described in the book was created by Bernardo Paz, whose iron ore extraction business helped ravage parts of the countryside of Brazil. It seems now that Paz is trying to atone for his sins by acquiring thousands of unmined acres and hundreds of artworks, all of which are under his control and which he is actively reshaping. In important ways, those two things, the extraction and the creation of his private park, are very similar acts, and one does not erase the other.

Outdoor Art: Extraordinary Sculpture Parks and Art in Nature by Silvia Langen, published by Prestel, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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