Willow Fox

Art with Nature           

An essay for Heaven and Earth 2012, an outdoor exhibition produced by the Center on Contemporary Art.

By Willow Fox

The impulse to create is one that brings us closer to the power of the universe.  As we exist in a world that is in motion, left to its own devices to continually recreate itself in its own image, so we too perpetuate the act of making.  This is a necessity of human existence, evidenced by the fact of shelters, tools, and cave paintings from our earliest known ancestors.  We have also been making land art on a giant scale for millennia, and are confronted with these mysteries in the form of earth mounds that sometimes look like giant serpents, chalk glyphs too large to compose in the moment, or the petroglyphs which continue their lineage in the streets.

When we turn our contemporary creative impulse to the natural world, we walk a fine line between commentary, hubris, and conceptual illustration.  What could be added that would say more than already found in the infinity of a tree?  The paradox of a finite object containing infinite space, what conceptual creation could human hands contribute equal to this mystical understanding?  Already our creations carry us forward into an abyss, how can we even hope to balance this with an homage?

Yet still we try; we must continue dancing the two step of evolution past the point of thundering beasts hell bent on the destruction of all we survey, including our own sovereignty.  Creating in nature, for nature, with nature, we can again encounter the wildness in our spirit.  In an age where we are living at a pinnacle of disconnect from our natural environs, land art can become a political act - a healing ritual, an exploration of the intersection between creation and destruction.

Some pieces are an offering to Nature by virtue of their materials; made of local media, they will quickly degrade with the elements, secretly releasing intentions of the artist over the course of the changes.  This kind of art also exists in numerous spiritual practices throughout the world.  Where does art end and ritual begin?  If the energetic imprint of an intention begins the process of casting a spell, or a prayer, or releasing thought-forms into the mirror of physical manifestation, then artwork finds a natural home here.

Artists also can invoke the regenerative powers of the Earth through works that metaphorically enhance the orderly chaos of growth.   Scientists, who’s labors restore balance to the land, augment their success when seeing through artists’ eyes into the wonder of how deeply humans can influence our world and each other.  We can create mandalas of native species when replanting a clearcut, we can use living plants to form a conceptually interesting artwork.  At what point does a freshly planted grove of trees become a sculpture?  At what point on this spectrum of hard labor and conceptual strength do these creations pass into the realm of art?

The same question can be asked of architecture.  At what point on the spectrum of shelter and sculpture does an object pass into the realm of art?  Outdoor spaces allowed time to develop undisturbed over years have the capacity to support manifestations of living spaces.  These structures can be built of trees and other large plants, and provide interiors that change continually over the seasons.  These spaces breathe in a way exactly compatible with humans and other creatures, and allow for the experience of ‘in-between’ that can be so transformative.

Land art also encompasses works intentionally created of substances that are attractive to the non-human residents of the site, whether as building materials, sustenance, or a place to take shelter.  In this way, art becomes more than a human’s reflection of human experience.   These artists engage other creatures as equals, in developed and undeveloped areas.  The creatures themselves join in the process of creation/destruction of the work as they interact with it, and so become like generative collaborators.

Some artists enjoy playing with the invisible forces at work in the environment.  Wind, lightning, tidal motion, energetic lines of the electro-magnetic field all become media in the hands of land artists.  The works are beautiful unto themselves, but when a temporal force of nature moves through the work it is completed and transformed. 

Human interactions, whether performance, free form additive offerings, or vandalism also complete these temporary pieces in nature.  CoCA’s attitude of embracing all types of community involvement is critical to the success of this series of outdoor exhibits.  Placing sculpture in a public environment is inviting curiosity and exploration, but also less friendly attention.  By allowing the exhibit’s temporary pieces to be authentic offerings freely given to the plant divas and elementals, CoCA stands true to that elusive quality we seek in the less-traveled path.