A while ago I wrote about Land Art and its power to change viewer perspectives. While land artists vary widely in approach, each work draws attention to the environment it’s in and the conditions at the time of its creation. Artists invite us to open up and really see our surroundings, whilst also recognising the constantly shifting nature of our earth as pieces are left to change and disintegrate with the elements. Each of these artists encourages us to see a little differently and invites us to view the natural world as something we’re in dialogue with, a source of collaboration, not a space we dominate. 

Now, writer Briana Hilton invites us to consider the next iteration of land art through the use of unusual materials and applications.

Ice, Metal, And Plastic: A Look At Unusual Land Art Installations

Recently Art News unveiled Michael Heizer’s monumental sculpture installation, City, nestled in the Nevada desert, touting it as one of the largest artworks in the world.

Constructed primarily from natural resources such as sand, cement and other materials sourced from the neighbouring desert terrain, City incorporates a raw and organic feel. Yet, this natural aesthetic is punctuated by the sharp contrast of stele (stone or wooden slabs) and metal bars adorning some of the structures. This unexpected synthesis of materials is a testament to the innovation of many land artists, who ingeniously integrate diverse elements like metal, ice, or plastic into their installations, often achieving dramatic effects.

Ice as a canvas

David Popa hails from New York City, but is famous for creating land art on land and sea — most notably Fractured, a project installed on ice floats in Southern Finland. Using just charcoal and earth, Popa created a series of portraits on fractured ice floats. His portraits are temporary in nature as the ice inevitably melts in time. In line with this, Popa is careful to use only natural materials that won’t harm the earth once they’re absorbed along with the melted ice, including ochres from Italy and France, chalk from the Champagne region, and powdered charcoal Popa makes by hand. (In fact, powdered charcoal also works to purify water and remove toxins, therefore positively impacting the environment).

Popa’s works ‘draw connections between the ephemerality of human life and the environment. Whether depicting his wife or newborn child in intimate renderings, he highlights the inevitability of change as time passes, seasons transition, and the climate warms’. Always destined to melt, Popa’s beautiful land art is preserved only through video and photography taken with drones

Incorporating metal into negative sculptures

American land artist Michael Heizer specializes in large-scale, outdoor, and site-specific sculptures. In 1967, Heizer created North, East, South, West, which involved digging two geometrically-shaped pits in the Sierra Nevada mountains, before lining one with plywood, and the other with sheet metal. Indeed, metal is a popular material amongst artists. Not only is it a visually-striking material, but it’s also very affordable, practical, and highly malleable.

North, East, South, West, Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Tom Vinetz

Once completed, Heizer called his works ‘negative sculptures’ and an example of ‘ultra-modern art’. His most recent installation, City, was inspired by Central and South America’s ancient cities, as well as the Indigenous practice of mound building. The installation consists of a series of structures (called Complexes) spanning ¼ mile wide and 1 1/2 miles in length. Heizer used gigantic stones, sand, and cement to build City, while also including huge geometrically-shaped metal bars to serve as decoration on Complex One, and a stele as tall as 42 feet on Complex Two.

Plastic wrapping  

Christo Claude began his career as an artist by wrapping everyday objects as an artistic experiment. However, he soon progressed from small-scale projects to larger and more complex pieces of land art. With his wife, Jeanne, Christo has created a number of monumental land art displays over the decades — often to much fanfare and controversy.

One of the couples’ most famous installations is Wrapped Coast  – One Million Square Feet (1968); which involved wrapping a whopping 90,000 square meters of plastic fabric around a Sydney coastline. It took the couple, along with many students and volunteers, a total of four weeks to wrap one and a half miles of coastline and cliffs up to 85 feet high in light-beige plastic. The landscape in Sydney’s picturesque Little Bay was completely transformed through art, forcing the viewer to reconsider the potentiality and impact offered by land art.

Notably, the couple never provide commentary to explain their works to the audience. Rather, they stick to placing epic sculptural installations in outdoor locations not typically used by artists, such as coastlines, bridges, and islands. In turn, the audience can benefit from a fresh perspective on the natural world they’re used to seeing. ‘We create a gentle disturbance for a few days,’ Christo said in an interview. ‘We make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary.’ 

Land art serves to get people thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural world. By incorporating unusual materials like ice, metal, and plastic into their installations, several artists have successfully put their own spin on this age-old movement. Where the form goes next, and the power it holds over its audiences to change their relationships to the natural world, remains to be discovered.