Sometimes art involves a little more than just painting on canvas and hoping to get displayed in a gallery.
For the Bulgarian-born artist Christo, art means stretching 5.9 miles of fabric in suspended panels over 42 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Recently approved by United States federal regulators and slated for completion in 2014, Christo’s latest project, “Over the River,” has stirred up controversy from environmental groups and neighboring communities.
Though the project might have been approved, more permits are still required, and not all residents are convinced Christo’s work of art deserves federal approval. Other organizations, such as Rags Over the Arkansas River, have complained regulators were swayed by ideas such as “artistic vision” and are not taking other factors into consideration. Some organizations, such as the Colorado Wildlife Commission, are concerned about the well-being of animal populations in the area, especially bighorn sheep.
Such controversy is the nature of environmental art, a genre in which artists either shape nature or use its resources for their pieces — often with divisive results.
Environmental art has transformed throughout the years, becoming more complex as artists got more creative with their visual interpretations. The genre came to fruition in the ’60s when artists were looking to push audiences to pay more attention to their surroundings and to view them in a different light.
Artist Walter de Maria, for instance, took it upon himself in 1977 to fill up a New York room with dirt. “The New York Earth Room,” which was 22 inches and 250 cubic yards of earth, stressed the viewer’s need to be in tune with nature.
More recently, there has been much buzz about LACMA’s upcoming exhibition “Levitated Mass,” a monumental Michael Heizer piece, which consists of a 340-ton boulder placed in a gap in the ground at LACMA. Heizer’s is obviously no ordinary-sized rock. With this piece, as with De Maria’s, it’s not so much about invading nature as it is about nature invading the traditional art space.
Yet Heizer and De Maria’s pieces, which incorporate elements of nature, are philosophically separate from Christo’s, which looks to use the outdoors as a canvas. The wide range of interpretation raises an interesting fact about nature art: It’s still mostly undefined. Each artist will continue to bring his or her own vision to the genre.
Still, though the ’60s environmental art movement might seem outdated today, there’s something about it that’s lacking from Christo’s controversial piece. Works like “Spiral Jetty,” a seminal example of environmental art created by Robert Smithson, evokes something that “Over the River” perhaps cannot.
Smithson’s work is a stunning, glittering 1,500 foot spiral, formed using rocks over the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson’s piece caused a bit of an uproar because it involved using bulldozers, which many felt were too invasive toward the landscape’s tranquility. But today, Smithson’s work is intact and integrated into its environment, disappearing when the water level rises.
Here is where Christo’s work is different: The segmented pieces of fabric will no doubt look beautiful against the landscape, but the piece far from smoothly meshes with its surroundings.
If “Over the River” is like other Christo pieces, it will stay at the site for a limited time, while “Spiral Jetty” still remains on the lake and is open for the public to visit. “Spiral Jetty” has become a part of nature, showcasing its beauty for others to appreciate. “Over the River,” on the other hand, creates an aesthetically pleasing piece but doesn’t showcase nature’s beauty to its fullest.
Similarly, “Levitated Mass,” which will likely only stay at LACMA for a limited amount of time, exists as an exhibition within a museum with works from a variety of time periods and cultures. “Spiral Jetty,” on the other hand, exists in its own space. While “Levitated Mass” and “Over the River” are impressive in their magnanimity, “Spiral Jetty” manages to become one with nature in a way those pieces cannot.
Environmental artists will have to continue to grapple with the question of whether they should manipulate nature, as Christo does, or mesh with it, a la Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” There will always be something particularly magical about a piece that uses nature practically as its medium to become a permanent fixture.
The controversy caused by “Over the River” is far from over, and with it the questions and challenges of environmental art will keep growing. But “Spiral Jetty” and similar examples of environmental art prove something magical can occur within the genre of natural art.
Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in creative writing. Her column “Art Box” runs Thursdays.