Land Art: One Step at a Time
The primary source of inspiration for the innumerable classical painters, landscapes continue to hold a distinct air of mysticism within the fine arts. Romantic, deadpan, experimental or reconstituted and recycled spaces all come under this heading. Instead of being the subject for a canvas, landscapes became the canvas itself after the Land Art movement, which became a distinct artistic genre towards the end of the 1960s. Themes of environmental awareness, the search for the sublime or spiritual and exploration became widely visited topics under this new heading as artists returned to the land in an effort to create something truly organic.
The Earth Works exhibition of 1968 marked the true beginning of the Land Art movement, but what is often considered to be the birth of the discipline are Walter De Maria’s plans (created in 1961) for his piece Mile Long Parallel Walls in the Desert (1961 – 1963). Landmark land art works, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty are still under conservation to this day, and new works by the likes of James Turrell are currently being constructed or developed. Changing seasons and weather variations create the framework for these pieces, an obvious contrast to work confined to the constraints of a gallery space. Land art – also referred to as earth art – often reconstitute a space and use its resources in a recycled form to create a stable or semi-permanent overall structure. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is constructed along the banks of a dead sea where it is not as susceptible to erosion and the deconstructive powers of the ocean.
For Simon Beck, vast landscapes of pure unadulterated snow in inhospitable and difficult to access landscapes are the temporary canvas for his white graphic motifs, created entirely through the use of snowshoes. Harsh conditions ensure that Beck’s work is visible for only a matter of hours, thus highlighting the need for them to be documented, often in a rush to beat the ominous clouds circling in on the site. There is an awareness of the space, a respect that needs to be recognized at all times, as a few meters in the wrong direction could be extremely dangerous, even fatal.
Looking for something to document on his snow trails, Beck moved into the realm of land art and thus had something he could continue to work with and take home in the form of a photographic image. In this regard, the works have a painterly element that differentiates them from the more sculptural pieces associated with the land art movement of the 1960s. The very nature of the medium also limits the lifespan of such works, and their transitory nature (each one may only last under a full day as fresh snowfall will blanket the landscape) means documentation plays a large role in Beck’s work. We briefly caught up with Simon to talk with him about his way of working and the challenges it entails. Or: the challenges involved.
What drew you to creating such large scale works in the first place?
Things got going when I bought snowshoes and a digital camera. I made the pieces as big as the available flat area; most of the flat areas in Arc2000 are about the size of one long day’s work.
What role does documentation / photography play in your work?
The photos are the main reason for making them, as they are the permanent creation. A drawing is two-dimensional, so a photo is a good representation of graphic snow sculptures.
Are there any themes you like to work with?
Geometrical designs work best, especially with fractal edges.
How much preparation goes into one piece?
It varies a great deal. It can be several hours when I am being paid for a commissioned design, but usually it’s simple designs. To be truthful I should spend more time planning indoors.
Is your work influenced by other artists or is the landscape itself the pure inspiration?
Neither. It is a matter of thinking up a design that can easily be set out and that I haven’t done before. Some are copies of crop circles.
What are some of the dangers involved?
The greatest danger is suddenly getting too tired to go on – there is great danger of hypothermia. Bad weather does not represent much of a danger as even slightly bad weather conditions will wreck the drawing, so one would not be tempted to remain outdoors for long. Also, one always has to think about the safety of the ice and know where it is weak, and avalanches can damage it so you have to watch out for that as well. Avalanches are a danger, but all the sites in Arc2000 have pistes nearby, so if they are open for skiing then the site is safe. There is a small part of the Lac Marlou that has to be avoided at times because of avalanche danger. The water bowl is off limits before the slope above it has been blasted, and the Lac du Carroley has a slope above it that can be lethal. I don’t use the Carroley much as it is a long distance, but it would be a site to avoid if the slope above is likely to avalanche, as a big avalanche would send shockwaves through the whole lake and the ice sheet would get damaged, making it unpredictable.
What drives you to create such vast works in inhospitable conditions?
I regret to say that selling the photos is now the main motivation, because I have made all of the interesting designs that are easily set out, so the setting out and measuring now takes an increasing amount of time. And I need funds to buy better equipment, especially a remote controlled aircraft that can carry a heavy camera. Then there are lights for working and night photography, and a snow mobile and sledge for transporting the equipment around – the costs are adding up.
What are your dream locations for future works?
Ignoring all problems such as the weather, crevasses etc: The Vallée Blanche on the Mt Blanc range, and northern Norway to shoot in the lights of the northern lights. The reservoir in New York’s Central Park would also be interesting to work in. Yosemite has some decent sized flat areas.
Thank you Simon, for this insight.
Click on the image above to see some of Simon Beck’s recent work.