Nancy Holt at Pentre Ifan dolmen, Pembroke National Park, Wales, 1969. Photographed by Robert Smithson. ©Nancy Holt, VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2013

Nancy Holt at Pentre Ifan dolmen, Pembroke National Park, Wales (1969). Photographed by Robert Smithson. (image ©Nancy Holt, VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2013)

LONDON — Land art is having a moment in the UK. It was building last year with two shows, in Margate and Birmingham, by perambulatory artist Hamish Fulton. More ‘walking art’ is afoot in Sunderland. April found Nancy Holt on show in Manchester. And in maritime city Southampton, we have not one but two land art exhibitions, one of which will take a three stop tour of the region. The genre has nothing if not geographical spread.

Uncommon Ground is the title of the show at the municipal Southampton City Art Gallery. This survey of al fresco artistic practice covers 1966 to 1979, with two dozen UK artists. It was a cerebral movement, best represented by fading black and white photos. And five rooms here, which look like council chambers, do little to add to the drama. The show feels like a study of planning applications. And in at least one case — John Latham — the work is just that.

Richard Long, “A Line Made By Walking” (1976)

Look more closely, however, and you will find that Land Art on these isles was a source of humour, whimsy, and excitement. These austere photos and geological sculptures are the by-product of events which, of course, took place in full colour and are as expressive and creative as any painting.

What else can you say about the volunteers buried up to their necks on a Liverpool beach, or the ‘cut here’ dotted lines made with sheet metal around features of a London park, or a little trick of perspective made by arranging two sticks in a field to defy foreshortening? Such are the witty and vivid contributions of Keith Arnatt, David Lamelas and Jan Dibbets.

The best-known piece in this show is also one of the most performative. Richard Long, a student at the time, helped kick off an international art movement by walking back and forth in a field outside London. The track he left became the art, a drab photo the mere by-product. “A Line Made by Walking” may be the first artwork made exclusively with a pair of feet, and as such it is both radical and ridiculous.

Just one of the pieces in the show could be called flamboyant, namely “Landscape for Fire” by Anthony McCall. In a well-choreographed film made in an Essex airfield, several droog-like figures in white suits walk a careful grid arrangement pouring petrol and starting fires. The light is fading and the performance ends in near darkness with one participant, who may or may not be McCall, running a ginger backward sprint holding a live flare.

Anthony Mccall, “Landscape for Fire” (1972)

At this point it might be worth making the inevitable comparisons between British land art and the form it took in the US. One major factor in transatlantic difference was this: the old country has already been worked over. Long puts it thus: “England is covered with huge mounds and converted hills and probably you know Stonehenge, although that is one of the least impressive of all the things. In fact most of England has had its shape changed —practically the whole place, because it has been ploughed over for centuries — rounded off.”

In other words, this small island is, like a much loved artwork, already bathed in aura. This can be felt in an arrangement of 61 stones from the Bristol Channel, which Long arranges in a perfect circle for the gallery. It features in the touring show at Southampton and bears comparison with much larger stone circles to be found around Britain.

Across town, American Robert Smithson, makes his stone circle with radial arrangements of gravel, each arm of which is dissected with mirrors. It is an entirely new form in freshly quarried chalk. As he has said: “The actual disruption of the earth’s crust is at times very compelling.” He also quotes philosopher Heraclitus, who said, ‘The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion’. Is it any wonder land art got a reputation for machismo in the US?

Robert Smithson, Wistmanís Wood (1969). Photographed by Nancy Holt. (image ©Nancy Holt, VAGA, New York/DACS, London, 2013)

This city’s University gallery, John Hansard, is showcasing work made on an extensive trip round Britain by Robert Smithson and wife Nancy Holt. There is no whimsy or flamboyance about their art, unless you include the manoeuvres of heavy earth moving machinery, to be seen here on film.

Smithson is of course synonymous with his Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake, Utah, and the screes of asphalt he tipped down a cliff side near Rome. But Holt is no stranger to scale herself and is also known in Utah for 18ft concrete Sun Tunnels, visible for up to 1.5 miles. The couple practice engineering as much as art.

Nancy Holt at Pentre Ifan dolmen, Pembroke National Park, Wales (1969). Photographed by Robert Smithson. (image ©Nancy Holt, VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2013)

Smithson and Holt came to Britain in 1969 following the former’s inclusion in a landmark show at the ICA, When Attitudes Become Form. They travelled England and Wales and made scaled back work in the landscape with horizontal mirrors (Smithson) and orange paint (Holt). Colour photos were also made and, in the university’s modern space, these look younger than their 40 years of age. The couple snap one other in wooded glades. Instead of working over these landscapes, the bucolic settings appear to work on them.

But still, Smithson’s ‘confusion’ of rubble contrasts with the mystical oneness of Long’s stone circle. And unlike his newly dug Chalk Mirror Circle, the British works in town are generally non-invasive and at times reverent towards the clay from which we‘ve sprung. Just look at Derek Jarman’s psychedelic film trip in Avebury or Bruce McLean’s gentle interventions at Barnes Brooke. With its long tradition of gardening, an activity Smithson deplored, Britain has a longer history of husbandry towards the natural world.

Robert Smithson, Mirror Displacement (Grassy Slope), England (1969). (image ©Estate of Robert Smithson / licensed by DACS, London 2013. Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai.)

David Nash is both sculptor and gardener and, where Smithson sees entropy, the British artist sees hope. His legendary “Ash Dome” is a work in progress, a ring of trees which for more than 35 years are being trained to form a shelter. The work’s secret location in North Wales makes it all the more potent.

“When I first planted a ring of 22 ash trees … in 1977, the Cold War was still a threat,” the artist told Sculpture magazine in 2001. “There was serious economic gloom – very high unemployment in our country — and nuclear war was a real possibility. We were killing the planet, which we still are, because of greed … To make a gesture by planting something for the 21st century, which was what the Ash Dome was really about, was like a long term commitment, an act of faith.”

Uncommon Ground can be seen at Southampton City Art Gallery (Civic Centre Road, Southampton, UK) until August 3, after which it travels to several museum destinations in the region through June 2014. Nancy Holt & Robert Smithson: England and Wales 1969 can be seen at John Hansard Gallery (University of Southampton, Avenue Campus  Highfield Rd, Southampton, UK) through August 17.

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Mark Sheerin

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared...