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The Land is the Canvas

by Meredith Randall

From 22 – 29 May 2011, 13 artists were invited to Plettenberg Bay to take part in South Africa’s first international Land Art event, entitled Site_Specific. This artist-led project was conceived by Strijdom van der Merwe and Anni Snyman in an attempt to create more opportunity for Land Art in South Africa.

Land Art has always occupied a rather distinct space in the art world. Originating in the 1960s, it was considered to be on the fringes of the then radical Conceptual Art movement. Land Art is best categorised as a medium-defined art in the same vein as painting or photography. By its very nature, Land Art is typically created outside the gallery setting; it uses the land as its canvas, and anything from one’s hands to earth moving equipment as its tools. Creating art out of sticks, stones and dirt and leaving it outside, exposed to the elements, means that most projects can only be remembered. The works erode rapidly; this natural transformation frequently provides the conceptual underpinning of the work. Today we often know these ephemeral works only through photographs.

Working outside, directly into the land – and free of the gallery setting – allows artists to work on an epic scale. For example, an early icon of Land Art, Spiral Jetty, created by Robert Smithson was nearly a half a kilometre long. Visiting the art requires a physical journey often far away from urban settings. It is a destination in itself.

Land Art was in many respects intellectually fired by the counterculture movement of the 1960s, creating monuments in the expansive outdoors that could not be possessed and allowing for small, domestic photographs or other mementos of the site to be offered to the galleries, collectors and patrons. A few intrepid collectors have Land Art installed on their estates. As most iconic Land Art is spread across multiple continents, jet-setting enthusiasts must travel to see their favourite makers.

As with most definitions, there are always exceptions and often an artwork belongs in more than one category or defies labelling. Christo and Jean-Claude, who are well known for wrapping buildings or installations such as The Gates in New York’s Central Park, are often considered Land Artists although the artists themselves resist such classification.

Strijdom van der Merwe is probably the best known Land Artist based in South Africa. Motivated by the lack of Land Art related events in South Africa he and Johannesburg based artist Anni Snyman decided to create Site_Specific. The pair was soon joined by Heather Greig, Erica Lüttich and Margaret O’Connor to lead the organisation. They invited local and international artists who grasped the opportunity to be part of this project.

The invitees’ art typically included objects. In some instances they had already created individual pieces that could be considered Land Art. For each of the artists, coming to Plettenberg Bay took them outside their normal practice – they were forced to experiment. Each was rewarded by a distinctly interesting piece.

The landscape has its natural cycles: the sun rises and sets; the tides come in and go out; the rains come and go; living creatures grow and die. Some of the artists, such as Strijdom van der Merwe, Hannelie Coetzee, Gordon Froud, Anni Snyman, Angus Taylor and Andrew van der Merwe purposefully created artworks that could only be fully realized with the passage of time and in interaction with the natural cycles.

In agreement with the local municipality of Bitou, the artworks on public land were allowed to remain for two weeks: the week of the events surrounding Site_Specific and the following week. Within this limited time scale, artists created marvellous temporary installations.
Urs Twellmann from Switzerland came to explore the rich terrain of Bitou. Capable of producing tight, sharply defined strokes with a chain-saw, Twellmann created multiple vessels for temporary installation during the week of events.

Through a play of shadows and densely packed words, Marco Cianfanelli utilised his love of text to question how we read the landscape. Challenged by the invitation to explore the natural environs, Jan van der Merwe brought his installation art out of the confines of the gallery setting and let it face the outdoors for the first time.

Historically, Land Art has often been placed in big empty spaces; one can often imagine some miraculous force helped to create it. In a similar vein to fiction’s magical realism, standing near many of the artworks included in Site_Specific one could envision a world in which physical properties behave in a slightly different way. Joining the artists in Plettenberg Bay was the dynamic Italian based pair of Gabriele Meneguzzi and Vincenzo Sponga, that collaborated on Land Art projects since the early 1970s. They created a classic Land Art piece which, through humour, allowed the viewer to imagine that we hold the power to sew continents together.

Site specific art can also be its own distinct genre of art in which the location informs the creation of the art. When the art is outside, this designation can easily overlap with Land Art, as Site Specific Art describes geographically bound conceptual art and Land Art is a medium. Mark Wilby, who curated a series of Site Specific projects in the Karoo in the late 1990s and early 2000s was invited to participate in Site_Specific in Plettenberg Bay. He constructed an artwork that challenged the distinctions so often drawn between the various forms of art.

Land Art is inextricably bound to the landscape. Often environmental artists use Land Art to advance a cause. Carol Nathan Levin created two works, one independently and one in collaboration with Charles Levin. Each provoke the viewer to consider the vexed issue of how best to care for the world we inhabit. Charles Levin and Carol Nathan Levin collaborated to create a Site Specific sculpture in front of the contested desalination plant in Plettenberg Bay. Taking a JoJo rain water container as their material, they were able to create a dynamic twirling monument to the problems of solving water shortages.

In front of St Peter’s Anglican Church Erica Lüttich created a beautiful temporary memorial by wrapping 12 trees in red fabric to probe how we determine our sense of ‘belonging’. Lüttich also led the Hillbrow-based Boitumelo group to Plettenberg Bay. This community group created the “Veil of Hope” as an expression of self-empowerment.

Photographer, Elizabeth Olivier-Kahlau, was invited to Site_Specific to document the artwork. Because Land Art is often temporary and physically distant, it is shared through photographs. Photography’s role within Land Art is complex: sometimes it is considered an extension of the artwork, in other instances photography is a means of documenting what happens in a faraway location, often it is a combination of the two.

To best record the fifteen Land Art works on display at Site_Specific, Olivier-Kahlau often woke at dawn to utilize the morning’s soft light. In many instances, the artists collaborated with Olivier-Kahlau to further explore different aspects of their work. Marco Cianfanelli gathered passers-by to help move his logs into the waves to extend the concept that his driftwood hailed from another world. After the photo shoot was over, he returned the art further up the beach so it would not be washed out to sea.

A photograph freezes a moment. Olivier- Kahlau was able to capture Andrew van der Merwe’s remarkable capacity for mark-making with droplets of water. Her sensitive images capture the essence of the temporary installations that were created. At times, such as with Angus Taylor’s Los where she frames the sculpture against the backdrop of the homes of Plettenberg Bay and the sculpture’s reflection in the water, her photographs add another layer of meaning to the art. Olivier-Kahlau’s interpretation of the invited artists’ works is presented in this book.

Urs Twellman takes his own detailed photographs of his projects and offers them as “postcards”; he views this as an integral component of sharing his work. Twellman is very clear about differentiating his images of the work that he produces from those that are captured by other photographers. His expository visual statements are a continuation of his vision, while other photographers’ pictures are the beginning of a new vision, an alternative view of his work. Alternatively, Anni Snyman utilises some of the photographs that she took as the basis for a new artwork. To explore this often subtle differentiation, the artist’s website is included in each of the artists’ profiles.

During an interview on SABC, Hannelie Coetzee was questioned on what is the point of making art that so quickly disappears. The ephemeral nature of most of the pieces created for Site_Specific is a fair criticism. She replied: “When I have the opportunity to travel abroad and visit a famous gallery I see art that I might not ever see again. I leave with only a memory of what I experienced when I saw the work.”

There were so many parts of Site_Specific that were beautiful, poetic and heartrending. The memory of each proves the durability of the project in its entirety.

The purpose of the event was to open up the field of Land Art in South Africa and to artists based here. This book is to serve as a permanent document to record the outstanding creations of Site_Specific.

Author: Meredith Randall