Some day I will learn to visit grupa o.k. more frequently in order to better time my awe to their discoveries, but that day is not yet. And so I just saw their January post of Walter de Maria’s contribution to Willoughby Sharp’s foundational exhibition Earth Art, staged in 1969 at Cornell’s White Museum.
When Sharp asked De Maria to participate in the show, the artist wrote back a letter outlining his project. Proposing to exhibit a mattress and an audiotape of crickets in the room (presumably Cricket Music), Sharp promptly rejected the work, stating, “in no uncertain words that each artist in the show had to touch dirt.” In the wake of Sharp’s decision, an alternative proposal was submitted according to the curator’s requirements. Sharp later described De Maria’s installation of the accepted work:
[De Maria flew in and during the opening—and there were hundreds of people going through the museum—he had the cartons of earth emptied into the center of the floor, and then he got his only tool, which was a push broom, with bristles and a long handle, and he pushed the earth into a carpet that was about two inches high. And when that was done to his satisfaction—he did it very meticulously—he took the broom and turned it so that the end of the broom handle became a marker and very slowly, across this tablet of earth, he wrote G-O-O-D, and then F-U-C-K…As soon as Tom Leavitt (then director of the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University) saw that, and realized that there were kids at the opening as well as the president of Cornell, they cordoned off the room, put up Sheetrock, and the next day the piece was swept up and dispersed.]
This long retelling of Sharp’s story is important for reassessing De Maria’s earth-based projects and reinserting the foundation of sound to his overall career. According to Sharp, the earth carpet was Plan B; dirt became essential because of curatorial limitation. More akin to his much earlier ironic game pieces, such as Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961), where the viewer is constantly reminded that what he or she is doing is meaningless, Good Fuck is an irreverent jab at the art community.
The title itself is a gimme, obv, but it’s the idea of dirt as De Maria’s Plan B and curatorial imperative that sticks with me. Also as Adams’ footnotes point out, Sharp’s timeline doesn’t quite compute. In her 2013 review of MOCA’s Land Art show, Suzaan Boettger notes that De Maria’s piece stayed on view for several days, but when the university came after it, he and MIchael Heizer both pulled their works in protest. [Boettger brings it up because they both refused to participate, officially, in the MOCA show, too, thus sucking up all the attention by their absence.]
Kenneth Goldsmith announced aarea.co this morning, “One Square Kilometer (for Walter de Maria)”.
Kenneth Goldsmith’s 1×1.jpg at original scale. It’s there! I promise!
It is a 1×1 pixel jpg scaled to 3,779,527 pixels wide–which by common calculations is 1 kilometer of pixels–and 4,320,000 pixels long–which is, by the same calculations, 1.14km of pixels. Ceci n’est pas un square.
The result is a massive, black monochrome, scrollable in a browser window. I don’t know what it is to Kenny, but the gap between the image’s single-pixel essence and its 7-figure pixel scaling is interesting to me.
Also interesting: the original source of the pixel dimensions used for this calculation. Because screen resolution and pixel density will affect how 1km it actually is. Goldsmith’s code for aarea.co currently contains only a Google Analytics script, but perhaps it will some day have responsive scaling, that yields a 1-Km Square on whatever screen or device it is viewed with.
A few minutes after Kenny’s tweeting about it, Mario Santa Maria responded with a link to his project, 1 km Z Lightning: A Tribute to Walter de Maria, 27-07-2013, the day we learned of the artist’s death. Mario takes a square photo of de Maria’s Lightning Field [below] as wide as the browser window and, apparently using the same pixel calculator as Kenny, scales it to 3.78whatever million pixels tall.
Which got me thinking. I mean, repeating the project didn’t require thinking; that came instantly, and it was all I could to do wait a few hours so I didn’t step too hard on Goldsmith’s tweet traffic. And changing my dimensions to an actual square 3.78m x 3.78m pixels was easy, too, and surely such a massive proportional change, of 140 meters, would count as transformational, should Goldsmith ever decide to sue. [Can you imagine how awesome that’d be?]
But what image to use? The immediate answer also feels like the most natural, but it might not turn out to be the best: the 300×404 pixel jpg of Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy), 2003 which I’ve been resizing and printing since 2008. Pixel-level distortion of poor image is my bag, baby. And so I made 1km, an adapted appropriation of Goldsmith’s code (sans Google’s), with my square dimensions and my image. At 1km-sq, one of my pixels appears to be 12,600 pixels wide. Scrolling across the image is like swimming through a gradient colorwheel [What are pixels to a digital fish?]
I’ve toyed around with random image grabbers, which I may use at some point. Or a 1km button, to blow up any image on the site to 1x1km scale. Or I’ve thought of opening it up with an image uploader, but srsly, I don’t want to see your giant Trump and/or porn. [Or, probably inevitably, as Stormy forecasts, both]. But I will change it from time to time to see what other images look like on this deMarian, Goldsmithian scale. For now, I’ll leave it to Kenny to print them all out.
One of them, anyway: Michael Heizer Double Negative, 1969, south side, where the calving of boulders and sediment is becoming significant. image: August 2016, greg.org
There is so much about Sturtevant I don’t know, and it amazes me every time I find out something else about her and her art.
For example, have you read Bruce Hainley’s book about Sturtevant, Under The Sign of [sic]? Of course you haven’t, because if you had, the other week when that New Yorker profile of Michael Heizer came out, ALL you would have been thinking and tweeting and yammering about was Sturtevant’s Heizer Double Negative.
I repeat, Sturtevant had a project to repeat Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, within months of Double Negative‘s unveiling, and it was called Heizer Double Negative.
And it would have been NEXT TO Double Negative. Let’s read on.
[Ibrahim] Mahama is largely concerned with the way in which these materials are given meaning as commodities, as well as literally, as products of a given environment. The economic circulation of the jute sack is informed both by various transferences of value (from the container of commodities to a unique commodity by appropriation) and processes of exchange (from the official Cocoa Board to the quotidian lives of traders and consumers).
– curator Osei Bonsu [via Ellis King]
And it goes on from there. Ibrahim Mahama is a 28-year-old Ghanaian artist whose large-scale installation of repurposed jute sacks, stitched and draped, provides the overwhelming coda to All The World’s Futures, Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He’s also been called “the next Oscar Murillo” by none other than Stefan Simchowitz, who claims he discovered the artist “on the Internet” and gave him his career. Now ArtNEWS is reporting that Mahama is being sued by Simchowitz and his dealer-partner Ellis King, for breaking their exclusive contract to represent him, and for “de-authenticating” nearly 300 [!] artworks he previously signed. The value of those artworks is now claimed to be nearly $4.5 million.
The complaint filed by Simchowitz in Central California Federal Court is eye-opening for its combination of candor, hubris, and delusion. [Here is a pdf, it’s only 17 pages, so read the whole thing.] The ArtNEWS article explains the circumstances of Simcho’s case very clearly, so read that, too. I don’t need to recap it.
Ibrahim Mahama’s 2013 installation at KNUST Museum, Ghana
What I find so extraordinary is Simcho’s claims at having made Mahama’s career and his audacious manipulation of Mahama’s work. Let’s look at the first one first:
8. Prior to meeting Simchowitz, Mahama had little, if any, recognition in the Western art world. Mahama had never displayed his work in any gallery or exhibit outside Ghana, either individually or as part of a group. He had made few sales of his work, if any. His work was not included in the collections of any museums, and exhibitions of his work were limited to Ghana. In short, Mahama was virtually unknown to the art world and had no experience exhibiting his art outside of his home country.
9. In or about 2012, Simchowitz contacted Mahama through Facebook. Simchowitz had seen photographs of some of Mahama’s pieces online, principally consisting of draped jute coal sacks, and thought that he showed promise. Simchowitz eventually introduced Mahama to Ellis King, and the parties agreed to work together.
The timing here is not trivial, and Simcho’s 2012 claim is vague at best. But in late 2012 Mahama showed one of his first jute sack installations during his MFA show at KNUST, El Anatsui’s alma mater and the leading art school at the top university in Ghana. That’s where artist/filmmaker/curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim scouted him out and began collaborating with him, introducing him to her international network. As Ayim put it:
I agreed to collaborate with him, connected him with collectors, wrote about him to institutions like the Tate and the Saatchi, to provide him a bridge at that early stage of his career. The art world, like so many others, is so full of corridors and gatekeepers that an artist, especially one working and living in Ghana, could go their whole lives without ever being able to sustain themselves through their work. I am a little weary of institutionalising this kind of ‘residency’ as I’m not keen on that particular play of power and never have been, the thought of myself as a purveyor whose word ‘makes or breaks’ an artist is a little sickening, as I don’t adhere to that notion of privilege. And yet, there is no denying that an email here, a phone call there, from someone who has already built a reputation through their work, can enable an artist like Ibrahim to have his art seen in galleries and museums internationally, enable him to have a residency in London, to sell and provide himself an income, to stay living in Ghana rather than moving abroad, to not compromise on his vision.
And that is almost exactly what happened. In 2013 Mahama had a residency in London at Gasworks; created a jute sack installation at the Saatchi Gallery [and another in 2014]; and, according to the lawsuit, in October 2013 he agreed to sell Simcho & King six “Lots” of sewn jute sacks for £90,000. Two Lots, Simcho claimed, totaling about 5,000 sf, would be for two installations in King’s Dublin gallery. In 2014 the other four “Lots” [which I estimate to have been 8-9,000 sf total] went to London where they were cut up and stretched to make 309 separate, painting-lookin’ artworks in three different sizes [9×4.5′, 8×4′ and 6×3′].
Which would turn out to give the young Mahama a new perspective on commodity, appropriation, and the process of exchange. Simcho’s suit says the “Contract” with Mahama was oral, yet there is obviously email traffic that flowed throughout the relationship. Mahama, the suit says, visited Simcho’s guy in London “to oversee and approve the stretching process.” Months later, in Dec. 2014, Mahama went to Dublin where he installed King’s show, and where he “signed the 294 Individual Works.”
“As a result [of the Dublin show in January 2015], the formerly unknown Mahama suddenly rose to fame,” claims Simchowitz. This, after two shows at Saatchi, a London residency, participation in DAK’ART, the largest African biennial, and an announced show at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles, and certainly after the decision to be in Enwezor’s Biennale [though two months before the public announcement]? No. Simchowitz did not make Mahama famous. He tried to buy big into momentum surrounding a clearly ambitious, talented, young–and recognized–emerging artist.
And then he sold big right ahead of the Biennale announcement. Simchowitz says he made Mahama’s career, and made him famous, but the collectors he flipped to didn’t even know who “the next Oscar Murillo” was they were buying: “I’ve sold Ibrahim’s work to ten of my best collectors without telling them what they will be getting,” Simcho told Los Angeles magazine, “I called it the Simchowitz Trust-Me Special.”
Lot 107: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014, “Signed and dated ‘Ibrahim 2014’ on the reverse.” It already found its way from Simcho to secondary market dealer Inigo Philbrick, who cashed it out for £12,500 in June 2015. image:phillips
What would Mahama call it? Despite having sold the material and signing them, the artist clearly had second thoughts about the 300 stretched works, and about continuing with Simchowitz and King. Another important exploration of capital, commodification, exchange, and colonialism, I guess. During the Dublin show the artist cut ties, asserted that the 300+ works were no longer authentic, and claimed control and copyright over the installations.
The suit says 27 stretched works were sold for around $16,000 each. That’s almost $450,000, at least double the dealers’ entire outlay. The lawsuit is over the impending worthlessness of the remaining 282 stretched works, which comes to $4.45 million. Plus expenses. Simcho can’t claim he lost money on Mahama; only that he hasn’t made enough. And enough here means at least a 20x return.
So WTF. The copyright thing is a non-starter. The only way Simcho can claim copyright on artworks is if he claims he made them, in which case, they’re even less than worthless, or he documents they were work-for-hire, which who even ever? The biggest issue of the lawsuit is whether it’s even valid. Does Mahama selling entirely other work directly to an unidentified California collector give the court enough reason to examine events that transpired between parties in Ghana, London & Dublin? Lawyers can tackle that one.
It all leaves the question of the stretched artworks. Which, though he regrets it, Mahama was apparently involved in making. And signing. Part of me says, so what? Richter signs stuff that’s not art. He excludes stuff that he’s made and sold. Is an artist bound for life by every creative decision he makes at 26? That’s the risk of buying early work from emerging artists. It might be famous someday, it might be worthless. Simcho’s real problem is that he had 300 pieces of it. He tried to buy it all. He bought all the guy’s materials in bulk, then he chopped them up. He turned installations into paintings. Not paintings in the art sense, but as a unit of exchange: painting like breaking a hundred into singles so it goes farther at the club.
Ibrahim Mahama, Adum Train Station installation, 2013, image via: publicdelivery
There is one subset of 15 unsigned works which might show Mahama the way out of this dispute. Simcho calls them “the California Works,” because he has them:
Each of the unsigned pieces was created at the same time, in the same place, by the same person (Atkins), in the same manner, from the same materials, and for the same cost to Plaintiffs as the works Mahama did sign. On information and belief, Mahama did not provide any reason why he failed to sign the California Works.
59. Bearing Mahama’s signature to verify their authenticity and provenance, the California Works may be sold for approximately $16,700 each. Without his signature, the pieces are simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames, which impacts their commercial value.
He says “Simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames” like it’s a bad thing. Yet the transactional history, the embedded memory and experience, and the transformation of those jute sacks is at the core of Mahama’s practice. What if he just kept on making them, as an infinite edition? Instead of de-authenticating Simcho’s 300 Mahama pseudo-artworks, why not just devalue them, by making as many as anyone in the world wants?
John Cliett’s photo of Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, 1977, on the cover of Artforum (Apr. 1980)
From the beginning, access to The Lightning Field has been tightly monitored by the administrative machine surrounding the project. Visitors to the site are required to spend the night and are not allowed to take photographs during their stay. Indeed the entire project is predicated on the viewer’s personal physical experience of the work in its location. Yet, at the same time, the artist and his patrons have also sought to stake out a particular presence in the wider discourse of contemporary art for The Lightning Field, a goal they have accomplished in part through a carefully orchestrated approach to photographic documentation.
[John] Cliett worked from the beginning with De Maria on formulating the scheme for photographing The Lightning Field; many of the most often-reproduced images of the Field, including those which famously introduced it to the art world in the pages of the April 1980 issue of Artforum magazine, come from his two summer sessions. Indeed, that so many viewers have come to know The Lightning Field through these images–a fraction of the total he took, strategically promulgated over the years by the artist and Dia–emphasizes their essential role in the artist’s plan for shaping the image and promoting the “idea” of the work.
Well beyond the artist’s own writing, Jeffrey Kastner’s interview with The Lightning Field photographer John Cliett has been central to my understanding of the work since 2001.
Cliett told of taking the extraordinary, iconic, and extremely difficult pictures of The Lightning Field, but also of how images are antithetical to de Maria’s concept for the work. This contradiction between the artwork and the art system surrounding it generated tension similar to other Land Art. During the 1970s and 80s when Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was considered “lost” or invisible under the Great Salt Lake, the artist’s film became the focus of critical attention.
De Maria felt that even this iconic imagery, which Cliett later jokingly compared to “a Pink Floyd album cover,” could only ever fail to communicate the experience of the work. “Walter’s work is designed to create an environment where a viewer can have a highly personal relationship with a work of art that is completely unique to each individual,” Cliett said.
But the images had another purpose, controlling the discussion of the work, as I was reminded when I re-read Kastner’s interview this summer:
With respect to the copyright, if you control the picture of a work of art, you will control everything that’s said about it, because nobody will publish an article without pictures. So you get the right to pick, and that’s a very powerful thing.
After many discussions, dreams, and failed attempts over 22 years, we managed to get a trip to The Lightning Field together for this summer. We built the rest of our cross-country road trip around it and got home a couple of weeks ago. A visit takes basically 21 hours, starting at 2pm, no stragglers. Dia’s folks on the ground drive you to and from the remote site. There is room for six people in the cabin; in addition to our family of four, there was a young couple from Brooklyn.
I’m not sure when I decided to livetweet our visit to The Lightning Field, maybe after I started seeing people I knew from Twitter in the registry. Or when I read one excited, tweet-sized comment left by a dealer about soaking in the sublime, which seemed like a lot to feel before you even get there. And so as I was about to learn the difference between an image and an artwork, I started thinking about real and virtual, individual and network, living and publishing, an account and an experience, a livetweet and IRL.
Without wanting to blow my actual encounter with The Lightning Field, I was interested to isolate what happens when you approach an experience with a livetweeting mindset: do livetweeters dream of 140-character sheep? Since there was cameraphones, and no hope of connectivity anyway, I decided to write my tweets down. My black Field Notes book looks very iPhone-ish, and I was quickly aware of being glued to it like any other screen, so I did not write every tweet in real time; I’d put some in my mental drafts folder and batch them.
There’s still a lot that didn’t make it in. Stuff I left out. But from there, also what de Maria left out. After several ventures into and around the Field, the artist’s almost total silence on the land itself is stunning. “The land is not the setting for the work but part of the work,” wrote de Maria, in bold, at the beginning of his Artforum essay. He wrote that the site was “searched by truck over a five-year period,” and that’s about it. The entire rest of his statement is about the hyper-precise calculations, surveying, and technical challenges of manufacturing and installing the poles. There are two pages of credits for the companies and construction workers involved.
Like Cliett’s photos, de Maria’s industrial fetish text was intended to manage the discourse around the work. No one could dismiss it as nonsensical, non-serious or unintentional. And it’s not some basement project, either; this is not your grandpappy’s mile of fence. Yet the only way to get around The Lightning Field is on foot, and the landscape makes you literally watch every step. And then there were the coyotes howling at sunrise, hoo boy, that was freaky.
I ended the livetweeting right before our ride came, but one of the most interesting parts for me was the drive back to town, and the conversation with Kim, the longtime Dia staffer who runs the guest program on the ground. I decided not to tweet that, though, just as I didn’t really mention our cabinmates too much. Besides basic respect for their privacy, I figure that’s also truer to the work: tweets aren’t reporting, but a reflection of a single, individual experience.
Once I had this notebook of tweets, I had to figure out what to do with it. I scanned them and figured I’d play them back, tweet them in real time. That idea quickly ran afoul of my schedule. I guess I could have set a script to automatically post them at the prescribed times, but instead I tweeted each by hand, beginning yesterday at around 2 o’clock New Mexico time. I didn’t anticipate the friction of overlaying this recap of The Lightning Field with my back-to-normal life. Where visiting The Lightning Field was an intensely physical experience, livetweeting The Lightning Field became all about time. I could not anticipate the next tweet accurately; I was always way too early. I got in trouble for tweeting at the dinner table. I realized only after I started that twitter-as-usual would kind of blow the whole thing, so I stopped retweeting and responding to people until it was done. [Sorry!]
I may work the tweets up into an edition, a facsimile notebook or something. Dan Perjovschi made a little sketchbook facsimile for Kunsthalle Basel a few years ago that I like, and Field Notes are the perfect on-brand readymade. Or maybe I’ll do some other project, involving barnwood, Hudson’s Bay blankets and yoga mats. I don’t know yet, but something’s sure to come of it.
image: via usnews
I may have tweeted smack about it when I thought it was just old newspapers and coins, but that’s only because initial headlines of Samuel Adams’ and Paul Revere’s time capsule in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House criminally underplayed the presence of this amazing, engraved silver plaque.
THIS is EXACTLY the kind of thing people should put in time capsules: slightly-precious-but-not-too items handmade to commemorate the occasion. These artifacts capture the moment, but more importantly, they retain an historical significance, and who knows, in time they may accrue an aesthetic aura as well.
image via reuters
The Boston time capsule plaque also benefits from the connection to the still-relevant Revere brand; whether he actually made it or not, it feels plausible, authentic. There is also the handmade aspect: I have an engraved ring, and a stationery die, but a whole engraved plaque? That’s something.
[It’s not the intern who wrote this USNews piece’s fault for describing every item in the time capsule in terms of its market value, and the impact a Revere attribution & provenance might have on it. Every report has that. It’s just another sign of who we’ve become as a culture. Like Antique Roadshow.]
A more interesting cultural change is the invisibility/illegibility of whatever the plaque actually says, and what it might mean. The Masonic context goes unremarked or glossed over in the mainstream coverage of the plaque. He that still hath ears, two hundred years on, let him hear, I guess.
Walter De Maria, Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1965, at the Prada Fndn’s exhibit in Venice in 2011, image: @fabyab
De Maria created at least one work in silver. It was for his patron at the time, Robert Scull, who fronted the dough for the fabrication of a series of polished metal sculptures. Silver Portrait of Dorian Gray (1965) is just that: a mirrored silver plaque behind a velvet curtain that darkens and oxidizes over time. The artist’s instructions on the back offer the owner the chance to wipe away the stains of aging, though: “When the owner judges that enough time has passed, this plaque may be removed to free and clean the silver plate.” The promise of immortality, the opposite of a time capsule, at least for the mirror. Your call, Miuccia!
image: UPDATE A brief dive into the history of time capsules tells us we need to pay more attention to the Masons, and to the Egyptians. The birth of the modern/20th century time capsule is linked to the discoveries of relic-filled Egyptian tombs and pyramids. And in a list of the International Time Capsule Society’s 1991 list of the Top Ten Most Wanted Time Capsules is this:
5. George Washington’s Cornerstone Today’s custom of burying time capsules is in part an outgrowth of Masonic cornerstone-laying ceremonies. Through the centuries, Masons have officiated at rituals which often include placing memorabilia inside building cornerstones for later recovery.In 1793, George Washington, a Mason, performed the Masonic ritual upon the laying of the original cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. Over the years, the Capitol has undergone extensive expansion, remodeling and reconstruction, but the original George Washington cornerstone has never been found. It is unknown whether there is anything inside of it.
Walter de Maria, Art By Telephone, 1969, installed in “When Attitudes Become Form,” Kunsthalle Bern
For the 1969 conceptual group show “When Attitudes Become Form,” curated by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern, Walter De Maria submitted Art By Telephone.
A black phone sat on the gallery floor next to a little sign in English and German: “If this telephone rings you may answer it. Walter De Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you.”
In his wonderful book, The Lightning Field, Kenneth Baker quotes from De Maria’s proposal for the piece that the artist will “telephone into the exhibition and over the period of the month use $200 worth of telephone time in conversing with whichever visitor’s fate may have been placed near the telephone, about any subject at all.”
Besides this invocation of fate, which, more in a minute, I’d completely forgotten the artistic implications of international long distance charges. Phone calls used to be really expensive. I can’t find the rates for Switzerland, but a November 1969 article in the NYT mentions a NY-to-London rate of $2.40/minute. So De Maria’s piece would have been maxed out in less than an hour and a half.
Or Walter De Maria, that gave us the phone, and he said, “I never called.” You know, the piece is the phone and it says, “When the phone rings, on the other side will be Walter De Maria speaking to you.” But he never called in Bern. [audience laughter]
So De Maria pocketed the money? So smooth, so hilarious. I’m sure had they known, the Swiss would have protested that, too. Celant goes on:
So I said, “Walter, what we can do?”
“Oh, no no, this time I will call.”
And he did. And he spoke with Miuccia.
image: getty for prada, via let them talk, which lol
Here’s that convo, by the way, from the May 29 opening part of the show, placed by fate and publicists. Now the driveway moment:
You know, there are so many personal things, you know, then he was supposed to call me, and, unfortunately he died.
And so then we have to take the piece off, because naturally, after he passed away, the piece was not available–was not possible anymore, you need–when the rings start, on the other side is Walter De Maria, but Walter is dead. So we have to took a picture, and we have to replace–so there’s this kind of life element in this kind of show, that I like very much, and that’s biography.
Damn. This. This is why I’m a fan of unscrubbed transcripts. It just feels more.
Also, I’m really not clear why they had to remove it once the artist died. Wouldn’t his not calling at all be a more historically accurate recreation of the installation in Bern? The Venice show opened June 1st, and De Maria passed away on July 25th. Roberta Smith’s obituary said he’d had a stroke in May, but was undergoing treatment. Did he call anyone else? Was he still able to talk? If not, was it still somehow less problematic to show the piece when he was alive, but incapacitated?
Because, though I readily acknowledge Celant knows the artist and his intentions for the piece far better than I do, but I’d totally show that phone. The idea of leaving the phone out after De Maria was gone is not nearly as sad as the idea that the only person he spoke to was Miuccia Prada. Besides, what if he called? update:Untitled (Study for Art By Telephone, After Walter De Maria), 2014
Last summer I wondered about finding and visiting Walter de Maria’s Las Vegas Piece, three miles of trench bulldozed into the Nevada desert in 1969. [Technically, I wrote about the Center For Land Use Interpretation’s account of leading curator Miwon Kwon’s graduate seminar on a hunt for Las Vegas Piece, and about how the artist prepped people for visiting the piece, and about just recreating the damn thing already, we have the technology! Did you know Sturtevant worked on plans to make a double of Double Negative? On the ravine on the Mormon Mesa right next to Michael Heizer’s fresh original? Holy smokes, people, read Bruce Hainley’s book. But that’s another post.]
Yes, the piece is supposedly lost, and now de Maria is, too. And so all we’re left with is his description of Las Vegas Piece from his 1972 oral history interview with Paul Cumming.
But no, there is another. The late curator Jan van der Marck wrote about visiting Las Vegas Piece in the catalogue for an exhibition of “instruction Drawings” from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman collection at the Bergen (NO) Kunstverein in 2001. van der Marck was a founding curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and was involved in organizing artists’ response to the police violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But that’s another post, too. Here’s van der Marck’s crazy story of what amounts to an Earth Art junket: [with paragraph breaks added for the internet]:
Earth art turned into a personal experience for me in February 1970 when Virginia Dwan invited me and a few German art writers and museum directors to join her and the artists Michael Heizer and alter De Maria on a quick inspection of some new works in the Nevada Desert. From the Las Vegas airport our small band traveled ninety-five miles in north-northeastern direction on unpaved roads, in the back of Heizer’s pickup truck.
That afternoon was going to be devoted to De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece, which he would describe to us only as “an extensive linear work on a flat valley floor.” An hour before sundown we arrived at our destination and were gripped by the stillness of the landscape. Before us stretched a freshly dug, eight-foot deep ditch in the sage brush-covered desert soil, in the distance loomed the purplish mesas.
We had to lower ourselves into the bulldozed trench, which wind and erosion already had given a natural look, and we were to start walking. Other trenches would branch of, the artist warned us, and choices had to be made, but it would not take us long before the layout could be deduced from the turns with which we were faced. The first man or woman able to draw a mental map was encouraged to shout and would be declared the winner. And, by the way, De Maria added, ‘don’t go the full three miles, because if you do, you are not much of a mathematician!” The configuration we were to discover for ourselves in the least amount of steps was a one-mile incision into the landscape meeting another one-mile incision at a right angles [sic]. At the midpoint of each one-mile stretch a set of half-mile ditches branched off, meeting each other at a right angle and forming a perfect square. Walter De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece, long reclaimed by the desert and inaccurately described in the literature, was seen by a hand-full [sic] of people.
Yes, let’s take things in order. First, the hilarious image of Michael Heizer blazing down a dirt road in BF Nevada with a truckload of German museum directors. This is a thing that happened.
Next, “declared the winner”? De Maria apparently positioned the experience of his piece as a game and a competition, a mathematical mystery that visitors were supposed to calculate with their bodies and draw in their heads. What is that about? And anyway, who is going to judge this competition? If a curator cracks an earth art mystery in the desert, and no one’s within a mile of them to hear it, do they make a sound?
There’s a big point I’ll get to, but let’s jump to the end, where van der Marck calls out [in the footnotes] Carol Hall’s 1983 paper “Environmental Artists: Sources & Directions” for an inaccurate description of Las Vegas Piece. Well, my diagram above would need correcting, too. According to van der Marck, the two mile-long lines in Las Vegas Piece met, and each was bisected by a half-mile trench, which met in turn to form the square. Which would look more like a right angle bracket, like this:
But the artist himself needs correcting, too. Because the diagram I drew was based on de Maria’s explanation to Cumming. And the biggest difference of all, of course, is that de Maria told Cumming the trench was “about a foot deep, two feet deep and about eight feet wide.” Yet van der Marck said it was eight feet deep and that they had to lower themselves into it. This is a non-trivial difference. If it was the former, then visitors would be in constant sight of the surrounding landscape and each other. If it’s the latter, they’re completely cut off. From everything. All they have is the view along the trench, and the darkening sky. It’s the difference between a meditative labyrinth path, and an actual FPS-style labyrinth.
Also, if De Maria’s piece was really eight feet deep, it would relate more directly to Heizer’s nearby Double Negative–and it would still almost certainly be visible, or at least findable.
And now the fact that as august a scholar as Miwon Kwon relied on as ambiguous a guide as CLUI tells me that no one actually knows what the deal is with Las Vegas Piece. Except, perhaps Virginia Dwan. UPDATE: Indeed. Virginia Dwan donated her gallery’s archives to the Smithsonian, but they are currently closed for processing. According to Margaret Iversen’s 2007 book on post-Freudianism, Dwan told Charles Stuckey in an 1984 interview that De Maria forbade any photographs or documentation of Las Vegas Piece, partly to abjure the work’s commodification.
Yet an unsourced, undated aerial photo reproduced on this French webpage seems to depict Las Vegas Piece. The scale is about right. And when I flipped it 180-degrees, the geographic features look like they match the area just to the right/east of the map marker above. But what are we actually seeing? Isn’t that top line a road? And there’s a diagonal line. Yet if they’re not Las Vegas Piece, who would take this picture here, and why? If it’s really credible, I’d guess that the photo was the source of CLUI’s coordinates, identified by the same method I just did: by eyeballing.
When Dwan accompanied Calvin Tomkins on a visit to Las Vegas Piece in 1976, they followed a map De Maria made, but never located the work itself. This despite Dwan’s having visited the site before. Lawrence Alloway made it, though, for his October 1976 Artforum article, “Site Inspection.” [Both accounts are only online as excerpts in Iriz Amizlev’s 1999 dissertation, “Land Art: Layers of Memory,” from the Universite de Montreal. (pdf). Amizlev also ID’s Carlos Huber of Kunsthalle Basel and John Weber in the back seat of Heizer’s pickup.]
The question is not whether you can visit Walter De Maria’s Leaving Las Vegas; the question is, does it still exist?
Already in 1972 when discussing the land art project with Paul Cummings, Walter de Maria seemed to emphasize the difficulty of actually experiencing Las Vegas Piece as part of the actual experience of Las Vegas Piece. He’d graded a mile-long square onto a barren desert valley north of the city, and you’d have little chance of even finding it, much less seeing it, much less seeing it all:
it takes you about 2 or 3 hours to drive out to the valley and there is nothing in this valley except a cattle corral somewhere in the back of the valley. Then it takes you 20 minutes to walk off the road to get to the sculpture, so some people have missed it, have lost it. Then, when you hit this sculpture which is a mile long line cut with a bulldozer, at that point you have a choice of walking either east or west. If you walk east you hit a dead end; if you walk west you hit another road, at another point, you hit another line and you actually have a choice.
And on and on for several hours, until your choices and backtracking end in some combination of experiencing the entire sculpture on the ground; declaring victory or defeat partway through; and dying of exposure in the desert because you can’t find your car.
In a 2003 NYT interview, Virginia Dwan and Michael Kimmelman got a little myst-y eyed about being alone. They made Las Vegas Piece sound like an emotion machine that manipulates art world people into contemplating their solitude by losing themselves in the desert landscape. [It was also, De Maria acknowledged, a way to grab a viewer’s attention for hours, a whole day, not just the minutes or seconds it took to circle a sculpture in a gallery.]
In both those ways, Las Vegas Piece is still functioning perfectly, whether it actually exists or not. In 2008, the Center for Land Use Interpretation had listed Las Vegas Piece as “apparently, no longer visible.” And their map was uselessly vague.
But today, CLUI’s entry for the work has more information, if not more answers:
The piece is visible on online satellite maps, and there apparently are some discernable fragments of the lines on the ground.
Yes, well. here is their latlong marker for Las Vegas Piece on Google Maps, [above] and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t see a thing. So I plugged the coordinates into the USGS’ database of historical satellite photographs and still came up empty. Maybe a better mapsearcher than I will find it.
And in early 2012, in the run-up to “Ends of The Earth,” her landmark land art show at MoCA, UCLA art historian Miwon Kwon engaged CLUI to lead her and her grad students on a road trip to visit Las Vegas Piece. UCLA Today reports that Kwon’s SUV had a blowout on the way:
Instead of giving up, they stuck it out. Eventually the first car did return, the expedition guide helped replace the tire, and Kwon was able to give her students an experience that, she hoped, would transform the way they thought about art and art history.
What was that experience, exactly? Was it just like the MOCA show itself, that of not seeing a De Maria? We who weren’t there will never know.
But check out CLUI’s own account from their Winter 2013 report, and I think we can read between the lines:
Some would argue that it isn’t there at all, that the piece is gone. Certainly, as originally intended by De Maria, the piece no longer exists, just as “none” of Heizer’s dry lake pieces exist, even if traces can be found. Of course these are ruins of land art, not land art. But for a group of art historians, the interest in going there was not to experience the piece, but to experience the place where the piece was. To understand it better forensically, and archeologically. And to ground truth the land art that usually exists to us only in photographs-to verify its historic existence heuristically.
Only the faintest sense of the lines of Las Vegas Piece is discernable, and barely so enough to leave some unconvinced that they saw it at all-its existence is a matter of interpretation. It’s on the limits of perception, conjured up in the mind’s eye and space by lining up mountain ranges in the background of photographs in art history books with those in the distance of the actual site. In a paralaxed overlay, when the alignment lines up, the viewer descends into the photo at the same time the piece in the photo emerges into the viewer’s live view. You are there, even if it is not.
Yes, well. To the extent archeological interpretation and three SUVs full of grad students excitedly pacing off every bald spot in the desert has supplanted the evocation of existential solitude and man’s lonely movement through time, then yes, Las Vegas Piece no longer exists. This is an important takeaway for land art pilgrims whether they’re in Kwon’s seminar or not.
But it still makes me wonder what De Maria was actually intending for his work. He rejected the gallery rendition, the groundlevel photodocumentation, and the all-seeing satellite/aerial photograph. But how did the people who went to see it actually find it? Did he tell them? Did he give them elaborate directions? Did he draw them a map? Did he plot it on a map? Did he give people bad directions just for fun? Does it matter if he actually ever bulldozed it in the first place? Why would we be inclined to want to walk exactly along De Maria’s paths, but not, say, Richard Long’s?
And if we’re going to be in an archaeological mode, why not just use lidar to pinpoint the exact location? But the more interesting question, I think, is what’s stopping someone from just driving a bulldozer out across the desert one morning and redrawing it? Just do it, stick it out there somewhere in the general area, and let someone MFA stumble across it after the next Google Earth update?
It also answered the question I’d never asked until that moment: what if Walter de Maria’s Earth Room and Lightning Field ever hooked up and had a kid?
“Rain Room,” according to MoMAPS1, “consists of a field of falling water that visitors may walk through and experience how it might feel to control the rain.” Which is amazing, because on Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in my car in Chelsea as this intense downpour passed by and pummeled everyone on the street.
Gallery walkers would huddle under the High Line until it proved too tall and useless against the windswept rain, and they’d have to evacuate to a nearby street scaffold. People also ducked into the nearest gallery, even if it was one you never go into.
The storm warning announcement just a few minutes earlier on the radio had warned of “quarter-sized hail”, so I parked under the High Line to protect my windshield and paint job.
But the WNYC storm warning also included something I’d never heard before: a warning to get inside because you could be struck by lightning. Which, honestly. What are the odds? Except that when you are in the middle of a weather event like that, it does feel like your odds get immediately, exponentially better. Or worse, I guess, depending. And for people standing on a railroad in the sky, they get worse still. Statistics and logic are overwhelmed, or at least put to the test, by physical experience and emotion.
And so The Lightning Room. It is an empty gallery where lightning bolts are occasionally generated. And none of this van Graaf generator, hair-stand-on-end science fair lightning, either: it has to be real, kill-you-dead-or-at-least-fry-your-eyebrows-and-your-sense-of-smell lightning.
To enter it, you have to sit through a briefing or a safety film, some kind of orientation about the deadly risks posed by possible lightning strike, and then you sign a thick waiver absolving the institution of any liability or responsibility. Maybe they sell you life insurance policies on the spot, with part of the proceeds supporting the museum. Contingent planned giving.
If you had certificates for the people who went in, or even stickers, it could be too much incentive for idiots to try it, so you really can’t offer anything. And of course, most people who do go into The Lightning Room are not going to get hit. Nothing’ll happen at all. The point has to be, though, that something could. As Maggie Millner said in that otherwise unrelated blog post mentioned up top, “An empty space is a space full of potential.”
If art can be a giddy dance room offering the technologically mediated illusion that we can control the weather, it can also be a room with a potentially deadly menace where the only control we have is over whether we engage it.
Related: John Perreault’s review of Voids: A Retrospective, an exhibition at the Pompidou and Kunsthalle Bern [above] in 2009 [artopia]
Seriously, people, maybe I should just start documenting the artists and avant garde music folks in the 1960s who didn’t roam around in a VW Bus. Here is composer Terry Riley, published in William Duckworth’s 1999 interview collection, Talking Music:
DUCKWORTH: When did you move to New York?
RILEY: I came to New York in 1965. After the In C performances, I went to Mexico on a bus for three months. I was actually looking for something, but I didn’t know what. I guess after In C, I was a little bit wondering what the next step was to be, you know. And I guess what I really wanted to do was go back and live in Morocco, because I was interested in Eastern music, and at that time, Moroccan music attracted me the most. I had lived there in the early sixties. In 1961, I went to Morocco and was really impressed with Arabic music. So we went to Mexico. My point was to get to Vera Cruz, put our Volkswagen bus on a boat and have it shipped to Tangier, and live in Morocco on the bus. We drove all the way down to Vera Cruz, but couldn’t get a boat; nobody would put our bus on the boat. So we drove all the way up to New York. We were going to try to do the same thing from New York, right? But I started hanging out with La Monte [Young] again and renewing old acquaintances. And Walter De Maria, who was a sculptor, had a friend who was leaving his apartment. THis guy had a fantastic loft on Grand Street. And he said, “Do you want to trade the loft for the bus?” So I did, and that began my four-year stay in New York.
The short answer is yes, Dave Hickey’s writing was even more off-the-wall in the Seventies, and you really might just as well scroll straight down to the song.
Otherwise, I just brought home a stack of old Art In Americas, including the Sep/Oct 1971 issue with Hickey’s long, lyrical essay, “Earthscapes, landworks and Oz.” [As in Wizard of, not Australia, though I did check before I bought it.]
Hickey makes some interesting points about visiting earthworks, including hearing his art-shunning, contractor father-in-law go on about
his most Roman topic (the favorite of all adult males west of Fort Worth): the ravages of nature upon the works of man. He would like driving out to the site in his white jeep, wearing his narrow-brimmed Stetson, his khaki slacks and jacket and his Gokey boots The more difficult the trip, the more completely it would reinforce his serene pessimism. would be his idea of going to see some art; mine, too in proper company.
And how “In big country you do not see in the ordinary way. There is no ‘middle distance,’ only ‘near’ and ‘far,’ the dust at your feet and the haze on the horizon.”
Of earthworks in the nothing-space in between, Hickey declared
I do know that privative pieces–those which involve cutting away, digging out or marking–have much more authority and intimacy with the country itself than the additive pieces like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Heizer’s Black Dye and Powder Dispersal, which are dwarfed in a way that even smaller privative pieces are not. Smithson’s Jetty, particularly, has a beaux-arts look about it, more related to other sculpture than to the lake.
At least, that’s the concept. Because it’s not that Hickey had actually been to any of these works himself; in 1971, it seems like it was enough to drive in and out of Austin a lot. Hickey namechecks some art world folk who actually “have been out to see Double Negative, and have returned with (literally and figuratively) breathless accounts. If this keeps up, he pretend-complains, “we shall soon need a kind of National Geographic for Esthetes.
It’s actually Hickey’s incisive identification of the media-mediated Land Art experience that I found most interesting:
The question is: Why have the national art magazines both overrepresented and misrepresented the earthworks movement and its related disciplines, choosing to portray them as a kind of agrarian Children’s Crusade against the art market and the museum system, when this is obviously not the case? First: the work is marketable–anything is marketable, as St. Paul so aptly demonstrated. Second: the museum have proved a god source of commissions for these artists. And third: even if the work weren’t marketable and the museums were rejecting it, an esthetic trench in Utah is going to have about as much effect on the object market and museum endowments as admission figures at the Grand Canyon.
The answer might be: It is not the Earth artists who are challenging the market and the museums, but the magazines themselves. Earth art and its unpackageable peers cannot hurt the market, but extensive magazine coverage can, since not as much object art will get exposure. The magazines have found in this unpackageable art a vehicle through which they can declare their independence from the art dealers who invented the critical press, nurtured it, and have tended to treat it like a wholly owned subsidiary. Now there is an art form ideally suited to presentation via magazine. Work consisting of photographs and documentation is not presented by journalism, but as journalism–a higher form, needless to say.
The people on the magazines must believe (and I think rightly) that these indefinite art forms might do for the magazines what Pop Art did for the dealers–lend a certain institutional luster, and with it a modicum of arbitrary power.
An artist who makes documents needs an editor, not a dealer.
I had some lucid commentary of my own about Hickey’s glib comparison of Earth Art & Pop–and his silence on Conceptual Art, which goes unmentioned, or at least uncapitalized, even though I think Hickey’s making specific, unspoken reference to Walter de Maria’s project in the May 1972 issues of Avalanche and AiA rival Arts Magazine, which zeroed in on the difference between art experience, concept, and media, oh wait, never mind. 1972? I forgot I’m still talking about 1971 here. Actually, I think my brain was just involuntarily ctrl-alt-del rebooted.
Because I just found out that the Terry Allen lyrics Hickey ends his essay with are from an actual song, and listening to it just now has wiped all unsaved art information from my head. And that’s just fine with me.
So stop whatever you’re doing and listen to Terry singing his masterpiece, “A Truckload of Art.” Y’all come back now, y’hear?
Walter de Maria is generally conceded to have been the first artist to have used the desert for his canvas, and in so doing, to have reversed the usual art process: the work itself is ephemeral–or inaccessible–and the photograph becomes the art.
There’s like five kinds of quaint here, including the immediate invocation of the traditional metaphor of the artist and his canvas. There’s the conflation of ephemerality and inaccessibility, even as notions of remoteness and inaccessibility disappear. Site becomes as irrelevant as experiencing the work in person. Knowledge of the work is derived from seeing a photo, or from hearing or reading a description. The apparent novelty of a site-specific artwork in the remote desert is surpassed only by the idea that a photograph could be a work of art.
But what really gets me is the discussion of Smithson.
Robert Smithson is known as an earthworker (Heizer prefers the terms “landforms” or “exteriorization,” and Oppenheim prefers “terrestrial art”), but other earthworkers would exclude him. Smithson is currently showing his latest collection of rocks at the Dwan Gallery, and it is precisely because he brings them into a gallery ambiance, rather than leaving htem where he found them, that they disown him.
This seems like a pretty hefty oversimplification of the emergence of Land Art. In the battle for linguistic dominance, “earthworks” was Smithson’s coinage; other artists could reject the term, but it seems unlikely they’d claim Smithson wasn’t an “earthworker.” It also ignores the broader critical round-up by folks like Willoughby Sharp, who’d curated a foundational “Land Art” show the year before. And the “Earthworks” group show at Dwan that preceded the Smithson non-sites that were the subject of Constable’s sources’ scorn.
Still, it feels directionally accurate, in that from almost the beginning, the art world discourse of earthworks has generally privileged the convenient and collectible–including mere photographs–over the physical realities of the works.
Though this has changed in the last 15 or so years, with the emergence of a contemporary Grand Tour, the lingering critical effects of this devaluation of site can still be felt.
The curators of NIST’s collection of historical and scientific artifacts have thrown open the racks in hopes of crowdsourcing the origins of some unknown pieces.
On top of the list: this brass one foot scale, in a handy, fitted, velvet-lined travel case, which is obviously the inspiration for Walter de Maria’s High Energy Unit [also here]. Love that thing.