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Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell, Uncommon Ground. Land Art in Britain, 1966-79

Hayward Publishing, London, 2013, 128 pages. 17,5 euros. ISBN : 978-1853323140
Laurence Belingard
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Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell, Uncommon Ground. Land Art in Britain, 1966-79, Hayward Publishing, London, 2013, 128 pages. 17,5 euros. ISBN : 978-1853323140

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1Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966–1979 is the catalogue of the eponymous travelling exhibition organised by the Arts Council Collection, originally held at Southampton City Art Gallery in May-August 2013 and curated by Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell. It is a relatively modest 128—page but extremely well—conceived and richly illustrated sourcebook. The exhibiting artists are Roger Ackling, Keith Arnatt, Boyle Family, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Tony Cragg, Jan Dibbets, Barry Flanagan, Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Susan Hiller, John Hilliard, Derek Jarman, David Lamelas, John Latham, Richard Long, Roelof Louw, Anthony McCall, Bruce McLean, Garry Fabian Miller, David Nash, Roger Palmer and David Tremlett.

2The volume is divided into several sections, starting with an A to Z index of artists including introductory texts and colour photographs of selected works. The second half of the book is devoted to short thematic studies that help grasp the specificities of Land art in Britain, focusing in turn on themes and contexts (Prehistory, Environment, Back to/Access to the Land, Moon Landings, Romanticism, Art Schools), on landscapes and environments (Park and Commons, Sculpture Parks, Gardens, Rivers, Uplands, Industrial Landscapes), on processes and materials used (Excavation, Colour, Walking, Mirrors, Filming, New Age Ideas, Cultivation, Music and Sound), and on the role of public and private institutions as well as the printed press in the promotion of site-specific art.

3Short and synthetic essays examine in turn Richard Long’s walking experiences and indoor sculptures or Hamish Fulton’s photographs and early American experience—testifying to the early connection between British and American land artists, but also Andy Goldsworthy’s fragile onsite sculptures using exclusively materials found on location, or Keith Arnatt’s ambiguous ‘situational sculptures’. The presence of Jan Dibbets in the book may seem more surprising—the Dutch artist hardly worked in Britain, but the authors explain that he spent 6 months at St Martin’s School of Art in London on a British Council grant, came into contact with Fulton and Long and spread the word about British artists, which led to Long being included in the major show ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969). Antony Gormley comes as another surprise. Even though there may be something appertaining to site specificity in some of his works, including the Angel of the North or Another Place, who knew that Gormley, at one point in his career, had turned to Land art? Two decades before Quantum Cloud, Gormley even traveled to Arizona to experiment with the American landscape. Rearranged Desert, 1979, involved the artist building a cairn from stones cleared from a circular area, and then dismantling it by throwing each stone as far as possible. Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Hiller are other unexpected contributors, and the authors have to be thanked for allowing us to discover the secret face of artists generally not identified with the Land art movement. The selection of works is outstanding and testifies to the variety of these artists’ responses to their environment, revealing the extent of their reconfiguration of such a classical subject as landscape in art, extensively explored in Britain from the 18th– century onward.

4Still, as Nicholas Alfrey, co-curator and Associate Professor in Art History at Nottingham University, underlines, ‘Land art’ is a tricky term and a number of British artists are unhappy with it. Undeniably, what comes to mind when talking about Land art are such works as Robert Smithson’s seminal Spiral Jetty (1970) or Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976), impressive structures set into the landscape and requiring large-scale earthmoving. In comparison, Uncommon Ground illustrates the widespread idea that British Land art is ‘lighter’ than its American equivalent, with artists producing ephemeral yet profound works instead of powerful monuments. This led Mark Hudson reviewing the exhibition for the Telegraph to claim that ‘The message of this survey of British land art—the most comprehensive to date—is that the British variant was not only more domestically scaled, but a lot quirkier than its American counterpart’ (Telegraph, 20 May 2013).

5Hudson’s view is no doubt partly biased. The problem raised by Uncommon Ground is that it is challenging, with such a movement as Land art, born concomitantly on both sides of the Atlantic, to define a typology based on its early years and relying on national criteria. First, is Uncommon Ground about Land art made in Britain, as suggested by the subtitle of the book, or about Land art made by British artists, as suggested in the introduction by the Head of the Arts Council Collection? The presence of Dibbets in the list seems to argue in favour of the first option. But then, Dibbets was not the only non-British artist present in Britain at the time to have worked on the British landscape. Alongside the exhibition in Southampton, another show was hosted by the nearby John Hansard Gallery, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson / England and Wales 1969. The show featured works made by the two American artists during a trip in the United Kingdom back in 1969. Interestingly, Holt then produced remarkably uninvasive works like her first Buried Poem #1 (For Robert Smithson), or Trail Markers, 1969, a series of photographs showing orange markers placed on lichen-covered stones along a path in Dartmoor, the whole sequence of photographs documenting her walk. Although Holt is best known for her monumental Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, she did create numerous ephemeral works, some of them exhibited at Haunch of Venison in August 2012 (‘Nancy Holt: Photoworks’, curated by Ben Tufnell).

  • 1 In Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 199 (...)

6As a matter of fact, a number of features that tend to be presented as typically British in the book are actually also present in the work of American land artists during the same decades. In that respect, Gormley’s confrontation between the man-sized aesthetics of British Land art and the immensity of the American land is symbolic of the interpenetration of the two natures of Land art, American and British, at the time. Dennis Oppenheim’s works in the 60s and early 70s (Annual Rings, 1968 or Cancelled Crop, 1969) display the same characteristics—conceptual, ephemeral—as those met in many works by British artists. During the same period, even Michael Heizer experimented with performance and temporary pieces (Primitive Dye Paintings, 1969). Roger Ackling (Night and Day (1 hour), 1977) developed his practice with solar light in Britain—focusing sunlight through a hand-held magnifying glass to burn dots and lines onto scraps of card and pieces of wood—at about the same time Charles Ross was making his own experiments with a lens in New York (Spring Burn: March 21 through June 20, 1971). Similarly, interest in industrial and working landscapes was hardly a distinctive feature of Land art in Britain, but a concern shared by all land artists in the Sixties in Seventies, including Americans (see Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, 1967, or Robert Morris ‘Notes on Art as/and Land Reclamation’, 19791). Strangely, the shale bings photographed by John Latham in West Lothian, Scotland, could even be mistaken for the Badlands in South Dakota.

  • 2 Charles Darwent, reviewing the exhibition in The Independent, 11 May 2013.

7Fortunately though, some sections in the second half of the book acknowledge a certain community of thought. The essay entitled ‘Mirrors’, when discussing Keith Arnatt’s Mirror-lined Pit, 1969, does not fail to evoke Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements or Ithaca Mirror Trail, both made in 1969. And the section on ‘Excavation’ underlines that American Land art was a lot more varied than what is usually acknowledged. But there is a feeling that the overall conclusion keeps to certain stereotypes concerning British and American variants, when back in the Sixties and Seventies the gap was narrower. For all that, Uncommon Ground, Land Art in Britain 1966–1979 is probably the most comprehensive contribution to the subject so far, and a proof that, as expressed by Charles Darwent2, Land art in Britain is certainly not, compared to its American counterpart, a symphony played on spoons.

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Notes

1 In Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1993.

2 Charles Darwent, reviewing the exhibition in The Independent, 11 May 2013.

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Référence électronique

Laurence Belingard, « Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell, Uncommon Ground. Land Art in Britain, 1966-79 », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2014, consulté le 21 octobre 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/2011

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Laurence Belingard

ICTT, Université d’Avignon et des Pays du Vaucluse

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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