The national history of land art

KATÓ Eszter

(From previous issue No.37)


Over recent years, various forms of land art (earth art, public art, nature art, etc.) have been gaining more and more ground, not only in several countries around the world but in Hungary as well. Over the last decade in Hungary, more and more institutes of higher education have started to specialize in this area of fine art. However, the national history of land art is poorly documented, and no detailed summary about the topic has been published up to this day. The aim of my thesis was to compensate this, also providing a framework for a first land art park in Hungary. This article introduces the results of my research in art history from the perspective of a landscape architect.

Hommage for Robert Smithson

Hommage for Robert Smithson

About land art in general

The concept of land art

In the 1960s and ‘70s, several artistic trends appeared all over the world, which marked out a territory in the borderland between landscape architecture and art. Over the years, the demand for a comprehensive denomination has arisen on the part of artists' and art historians' as well as on the part of landscape artists'. However, specifications that have emerged in this way are most often unreliable and misleading. This conceptual confusion may be solved by the consistent use of a specialist term – land art – the definition of which is as follows:

Land art includes those open-space pieces of art which have been made with the demand of art and which have a close and inseparable connection with their environment (they are sitespecific). The completed works and the hosting environment together form the land art work. The connection to the land can be manifested in the use of both living and lifeless materials, or “local energies” such as genius loci, cultural heritages, special landscape features etc.

Because of the site-specific nature of these works and because the location is known before the planning stage, the work and the environment have an inseparable connection from the first stages of creation.

The presence of land art in universal art

The root of land art

The first works of land art – or earth art, as it is called in the USA – were created in the 1960s and 1970s, responding to the phenomena of the consumer society (mass consumerism, object fetishism, the standardizing effect of mass media) gaining ground in developed countries. The stepping away from the world of galleries, the desire for gigantic sizes, the conquest of nature and the use of its materials are the characteristics of “classical” land art works, such as the works of Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson. In most cases, works were made in places far from civilization, and a characteristic feature was the use of primary geometrical shapes, taken over from the practice of minimal art.

With humility in land

At the same time as the previously mentioned artists, a group of artists appeared with an intense humility towards the land, and the term ‘nature art’ was used to designate this different artistic stream. Differently from the creators of classical land art, these artists – Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and their companions – were motivated by being closely linked with nature, rather than just moving away from the industry of galleries. In general, their works are smaller and are made of materials and made with tools that can be found locally. In several cases, the works are of an ephemeral character, so their depreciation, or in other words their place in a natural cycle, is an integral part of the artistic process.

It is important to emphasize that the term of “art of nature” does not refer to a definite artistic movement, but rather it refers to the internal motivation and the attitude of the creator. The products serve to represent the recreation of harmony with nature, with the emphasis being transferred away from the product towards the process of becoming absorbed in nature.

Hungarian land art

National history of land art

Appearance of land art in Hungary

At the end of the 60s, the need to ‘catch up’ with western art appeared, and in visual arts this led to the development of neo-avant-garde, which in turn gave rise to a new attitude towards nature coming to the fore. Since there was no system of galleries or art dealing at this period in Hungary, while naturally being motivated by the experimental mood, artists were motivated not so much by their being able to leave the ‘white box’ of the walls of their studios and showrooms, but rather by the desire to escape from the current political climate. As a result, in most cases smaller, ephemeral works were created, since political authority, as directed by administrative policy, reserved monumentality in art for itself.

From the beginning, land art in Hungary was characterized by different kinds of approaches, which are best represented by the two most readily identifiable groups in the study of land art, the Pécsi Műhely art group and the Fáskör art group. However, it is important to note that the majority of (early) works were not created by mature artists of land art, but rather by artists who turned to land art as a source of inspiration. Accordingly, the first decades of Hungarian land art are characterized by the peculiar blending of neo-avant-garde tendencies.

Members of the Pécsi Műhely art group, above all Károly Kismányoki, Kálmán Szíjártó and Károly Halász, are generally admired for achieving synchronicity with western artistic events in experiments in types of land art. Their “Visual Operations” served to help understand the dimensions of space, while their purpose was to address the question of how abstract geometrical drawings made in the isolation of the studio might have an impact on the reality of threedimensional land. However, in this case we cannot make too much of the close relation of being linked with nature, since the artists conciously made sure only to "touch" nature during their experiments. The involving of land in itself has no distinct specified (sacral, ecological or other) message, but it serves rather as a neutral, meaning-purifying background of the objects placed where the interventions are performed. It is important to note that members of the Pécsi Műhely art group knew about the leading movements of western European and American art, so their works were motivated by the desire to achieve synchronicity with western artistic events.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.37/

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