Bill Gilbert has been the Lannan Foundation Chair in the Land Arts of the American
West program at The University of New Mexico since 2000 and is the author of
Arts of the American West.
He took time to answer a few of PORT's questions
on the eve of his talk for The Museum of Contemporary Craft this
coming Wednesday at PNCA
Alex: Michael Heizer has indicated he'd like to fix Double Negative because
it has deteriorated, isn't that the Land art equivalent of George Lucas redoing
Star Wars? How do you feel about artists tinkering with their early earth art?
Bill: Heizer has gone back and forth on this one. I really appreciate his ability
to be inconsistent and answer depending on how hes feeling or who his
audience might be at any given time in the over the forty years it has been
since the piece was completed. We artists all have complicated relationships
with our work. So, I understand the impulse and the difficulty of attaining
detachment from your work once it enters the public sphere.
On the other side is the perspective expressed by John Link in his essay The
Hardness of Art. He argues that all that matters to society is the art
and artists are merely the necessary vehicle to deliver the work. So then the
question is separate from Heizer and his ego and it becomes what is the essence
of Double Negative as a sculpture in the public sphere. Is the work the actual
clean walled geometric cut in the ground that needs to be maintained in perpetuity.
Or is the work the sharp graphic image in the aerial photograph in Art Forum.
If so, is the photograph sufficient? Or is the work the imposition of Heizers
intentions on a landscape and the slow process of its erasure? What is the frame
of the work? My interest is in the work as a site piece across time. I find
the erosion taking place, the reclaiming of the site through natural forces
to be quite beautiful. I dont expect LA MOCA or Heizer to agree with me.
Spiral Jetty May 2009 (photo Jeff Jahn)
Spiral Jetty partially came about because the environmental standards around
the Great Salt Lake were relaxed, now the water levels are threatened and the
piece could become landlocked. What is your take on the preservation of Spiral
I guess as the director of an Art Ecology program I should be interested in
the environmental standards issue. But Im not. Its hard
for me to see Spiral Jetty as a big environmental issue. The oil jetty next
to it and the possibility of it being reactivated is of much more concern that
some rocks piled in the water. That said the work is a jetty. It reaches out
into the lake and interrupts the water flow across the lake shore, catches slit
and will slowly be subsumed. What a smart piece!.... a work whose form is a
symbol (The spiral) for the cyclical nature of existence that then acts out
its own image, appearing on the lake, disappearing for decades under water,
reemerging only to be covered by the silt its structure entraps. The piece is
poetry, they should let it continue to speak through its absence as well as
How does your training with Rudy Autio in Montana play into his current
work with land arts of the American West?
a great artist and teacher and a wonderful human being. His work came out of
the western movement in ceramics led by his buddy Pete Volkous. They endeavored
to bridge the gap between the craft history of ceramic vessels and contemporary
art issues of painting and sculpture. While thats where his interests
were located Rudi never tried to get us to make work like his. I learned a lot
from Rudi about artistic integrity, about the necessity of taking risks and
following your own vision and that certainly effected my path to the Land Arts
program, but we didnt really ever talk about Land Art except in the sense
that he understood that I was looking for my own way to build upon his generations
efforts to take ceramics into contemporary art.
There is a quote on page 85 of your book Land
Arts of the American West, Its about being conscious in everything
that you do as a way of learning how to be in the world. Could you speak
a little bit about your holistic mentality of art and lif
Okay, thats a big question. Let me take a deep breadth and dive in. Here
goes, I hope it is coherent.
I got into art because of the Vietnam War and my sense that our culture had
lost its bearings, its ethics, that it had become, on a certain level, unbalanced,
insane. I was at Swarthmore College at the time and the inability of the intellectual
left to stand up to the immorality of the war made me question everything about
my education. The sciences were totally compromised by their association with
the war effort, the Christian religious tradition in which I was raised seemed
corrupt, so I turned to art as a methodology to pursue the truth in a more holistic
way in the hopes that it might lead me to a more balanced life. I was searching
for a reintegration of mind, spirit and body.
I had the good fortune to fall into Paul Soldners studio in Claremont.
Paul very much operated on the basis of approaching everything in life as an
artist, not just your studio practice. His studio was a community in which we
lived, worked, ate and slept together. We made our own tools and kilns, cooked
communal meals and danced and it was all a seamless expression of an artists
That idea of an integrated life got taken forward in my work with Mary Lewis
Garica at Acoma
. I started teaching a course with Mary in which I took the students
out to Acoma to study pueblo pottery. We spent the first half of the course
gathering our materials. Wed go one Friday to a spot in Chaco Canyon to
dig clay, another Friday to a hill by the Rio Puerco to search for paint stones,
another Friday to an old sheep camp at Acoma to find pot shards. Each Friday
Mary would tell us the stories that were attached to the specific place. Before
long I came to understand that the pottery practice was a way for Mary to reinforce
her identity as an Acoma woman and not just through the forms and designs on
the pots but through her connection to place.
Each week we would share a communal meal. They would go on forever and I tended,
at first, to become impatient, to want to get back to work. Mary would give
me this stare and say Bill you white people are always in such a hurry,
slow down. After a while I got it. Mary put as much attention into cooking
the food for our meals, sewing leggings for her children to dance in the ceremonies,
etc. as she did into her pottery. In her view, she isnt a professional
potter, she is an Acoma woman who makes pots, cooks, sews, etc. They are all
an equal part of building a cohesive identity.
What are some of the connections between the ancient traditions of ceramics
and the contemporary practices in land art?
We tend to think of art practices in mutually exclusive boxes. Michael Heizer
and Mary Lewis Garcia belong to different traditions that are kept separate
in our culture. Well they both work in direct response to the earth. When I
got hired to teach Ceramics at UNM, I was operating in the zone of Environmental
Art in my own work. I started looking around for a living tradition in ceramics
of environmental artists and that lead me to the pueblo potters. Their work
is completely place based. Their materials are all extracted for the local environment.
They waste nothing. The earthworks artists superficially appear to be operating
in a similar zone. Heizers Double Negative and Smithsons Spiral
Jetty are both site based, silica and alumina sculptures. Their interests are
in fact quite different. Pueblo potters would never say that they work in Nevada
because the land is cheap (Michael Heizer). The entire concept of the landscape
as a blank canvas on which to inscribe your image is foreign to their thinking.
As Land Art has evolved from Earthworks to Environmental Art and Eco Art the
connection to place, the reverence for the earth on its own terms has grown
much stronger. Contemporary Artist such as Hamish Fulton, Basia Irland, Lynne
Hull and even the Harrisons share a fundamental understanding of their practice
in relationship to place with the pueblo potters though their work tends to
be less object oriented in its final expression.
Paraphrasing Ann Reynolds, "The problem of return: It can be lamented
as loss, or its limitations can be embraced to propose something new
a Smithsonian balancing act between loss and insight." How do you think
about this problem as paradox or pattern and why
Smithsons concept of the site non-site relationship is a central concern
to anyone working in response to place. It acknowledges that as soon as the
site is detached from the audience (as in all the early Earthworks which most
people know from their images in ArtForum not from actual haptic experience
on site) the artist becomes involved in the role of translation. What Smithson
postulated is that there is an inherent loss in this translation. The physical
reality of the non-site is never the same as the physical reality of the site.
What occurs in the non-site of the gallery is never a direct equivalent with
what occurs on the actual site. The key in Smithsons terms is to see this
loss as an opportunity, a freedom to create a parallel expression rather than
attempt a direct representation.
Acoma Pueblo, c1910 (source Charles Francis Saunders)
Land art is about experience yes? How would you describe the experience?
The Land Arts program experience centers around creating a mobile artist community
to investigate/to become intimate with place. We provide students with direct,
physical engagement with a full range of human interventions in the landscape,
from pre contact Native America architecture, pictographs and petrogylphs to
contemporary Earthworks, federal infrastructure, and the constructions of the
US Military. We are looking at how culture has interacted with the environment
of the desert through gestures both grand and small, directing our attention
from potsherd, cigarette butt, and track in the sand to human settlements, monumental
artworks, and military/industrial projects such as hydroelectric dams and decommissioned
We balance the investigation of cultural sites such as Chaco Canyon, Roden
Crater, Hoover Dam, Wendover Complex of the Center for Land Use Interpretation,
Juan Mata Ortiz, Spiral Jetty and the Very Large Array with time spent in the
variety of eco-niches that together make up the environment of the southwest.
Land Arts gives students seamless time to explore the environment for over fifty
plus days each fall. We have work sites in places such as the Grand Canyon,
AZ, Grand Gulch, UT, San Rafael Swell, UT, Gila Wilderness, NM, Bosque del Apache,
NM and Otero Mesa Grasslands, NM. Our current focus is on the issues of sustainability
with a particular interest in food production and water use in the southwest.
Perhaps most important, Land Arts is an experience in community. We live, work
and travel together as a mobile arts studio. Each year we complete two collaborative
projects bringing this communal aspect into our art practice, as well.
Is there a dialectic within ideas of local and international within land
art? How does the global community interact with the specific sites?
I dont see it as a dialectic. I see it as different layers. The local
version is much more involved in an intimacy with the specifics of a site. As
a result, this work has deeper vertical connections (roots) in community and
environment. The international tends to operate more from the idea of place
or site. The issues are broader, the connections to other communities and environments
more evident, more web like, less rooted.
I see this as similar to the small local vs large national organic food question.
My thought is that we need both.
I believe you started out with more of an intellectual approach to art
with more experience now in ceramic and land art where has the equilibrium fallen
for you when it comes to intellectuality and action?
The great thing about starting out in ceramics is that it is physical. Ceramists
are doers. It was a great way for me to begin with integrating body and mind.
I see Western Culture as valuing the mind over the body and I talked earlier
about the dysfunction that has resulted. That said, I happen to like ideas and
I have certainly followed a conceptual course in the progression of my work,
but the proof is still in the pudding for me. Dont tell me about, do it.
Bring the idea to life.
My path from ceramic pottery to ceramic sculpture to native material installation,
to mixed media installation to Land/Environmental/Eco Art for me has a clear
conceptual thread formed as I try to figure out my place as a human in this
world, as I attempt to weave the social and environmental back together. While
driven by intellect, the expression of that path has tended to require long
hours of physical work. I tend to think with my body as well as my brain, to
believe in body knowledge as a more grounded truth.
The Land Arts program
has certainly thrown me a curve. From the start I saw it as a means to bring
my role as teacher and artist together. It is imperative that I work alongside
my fellow LandArtians. Being in the field for fifty days each year has required
me to develop a new methodology in my work. I cant take a lot of tools.
I cant cart around a lot of materials. So I have turned from native material
installation to something that is more like performance. My body is now my tool.
I take ideas about place as expressed in the mental abstraction of maps and
attempt to act them out on the ground. In short, I walk, record what happens
and then transpose my physical experience back onto the maps. The irony is that
for every day spent walking the work requires ten days in front of the computer
Could you speak about your approach when it comes to the juxtaposition
of native or naturally available materials and architectural [man-made] materials?
Early on in my work as an Environmental Artist I would pit the presence of
native materials against architectural settings as a dialectic between man made
and natural definitions of spaces. I soon realized that was too easy. Now I
look for points of harmony or symbiosis. As Jerry Brown said there is no opposition
between environment and technology. use satellites to track whales.
I like to combine low and high tech, to dig up my backyard to make forms that
house digital videos. Culture and the environment are not involved in a dialectic.
Culture is merely a small part of nature. Lets start to see ourselves