Dirt can’t be art, can it?

Art is the stuff we see in museums, guarded by plexiglass and motion detection cameras. Or maybe you know some high-end folks who collect the stuff. Paintings, snuff boxes, whatever. That art may be valuable or not. You might like it or not. You have to study art in order to get it.

As children, we make art out of whatever is at hand. With a little glue and water, newspapers become monsters or lanterns. We create castles in the sand or out of mud. Golem comes from the mud of the river Vlitava. Dirt is good for making all kinds of things.

Land art is made out of dirt.

directly in the landscape, sculpting the land itself into earthworks or making structures in the landscape using natural materials such as rocks or twigs.

Tate Museum

Arte Sella

In the summer of 2015, my husband and I spent our summer holiday in Trentino – Alto Adige, a northern province of Italy. I decided that, since we were there, we should take in some of the sights.

Off we go down a four lane highway that soon becomes a two lane B road that even sooner becomes little more than a dirt path. Our rental car isn’t used to this sort of abuse. My husband looks like he’s ready to abort the day’s outing. If memory serves, we parked the car in a spot that looked better suited for camping than the sort of outdoor sculpture museum I had led my husband to expect.

Arte Sella consists of three parts. Villa Strobele is the museum and its grounds the sort of sculpture garden we’ve all seen before. Then there is the 4 kilometer long Montura hiking path that leads you through the woods of the Sella Valley. At the end of the path, you’ll find the pièce de resistance: Malga Costa where the monumental land art works are on display.

Land art by Alois Steger
Me and the Spiral. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

What do I mean? Think of the Spiral by Alois Steger made out of square wooden frames ⏤ large and sturdy enough to house a weary visitor ⏤that slithers down the mountainside. Imagine the Cattedrale Vegetale first planted by Giulani Mori in 2001. Some of the works integrate with their surroundings. Others are in conversation with the nearby trees, rocks, and water. All of the works are site-specific. Their selection and placement is a language of their own

where silence is preferred to noise, possibility to evidence, attempt to actual fact.

Giacomo Bianchi, Arte Sella: The Contemporary Mountain (SilvanaEditoriale 2013)

Dirt Artists

After that first encounter with dirt and all its possibilities, I was determined to find more land art. I saw Andy Goldsworthy‘s work in San Francisco’s Presidio Park. For my birthday one year, we took a tour of land art in the Dutch province of Flevoland.

The artists who make land art come from diverse backgrounds. They are sculptors and weavers, architects and woodcutters. Maya Lin is a land artist and so is Richard Serra. A work of land art can require land moving machines or the simple action of your feet working a pattern into the dirt.

In art world circles, land art is part of the conceptual art movement and thus dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. But in truth, land art has been around from the first moment that a cave person set charcoal to stone. We make art to beautify our surroundings, to offer praise to the gods, to build a shelter that is pleasing in the eyes of god and man.

Māori pa
Māori pa. Photo credit: Karen Kao

On our round-the-world journey, my husband and I visit the South Island of New Zealand. There, on the Kaikoura shore, we find a Māori pa or fortified settlement, thought to have been first built in 1600.

It is a thing of beauty out there on the limestone. It may not have a plaque identifying the name of the long-dead designer or the generations that came after to shore up the defenses. But to me, this is art.

Seeing with new eyes

Steven Siegel is a land artist. For Arte Sella, he made a bridge constructed solely out of newspapers. Bridges I, II and III have all dissolved and eroded, one once more with the dirt and the water and the leaves. I saw Bridge IV in the summer of 2015, a low winding bridge perfect for three little billy goats gruff and a troll. This is part of the design for Arte Sella. The natural materials are meant to evolve.

Cambodian land art
Water god at Kbal Spean.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

Kbal Spean is a riverbed outside the grand temples of Angkor Wat. The guidebooks call it the River of a Thousand Lingas. Craftsmen in the 11th and 12th century carved gods, apsara, and phallic-shaped linga into the riverbed stone. The divine noses may not be as sharp as they were when chisel first hit stone. But this is land art made for the ages.

All this talk of land art makes me long to hit the dirt. I want to be back on the road to see the world with the childlike enchantment Arte Sella strives to induce. Alas, for COVID!

I must content myself instead with long walks from home and making lists of places to visit when travel becomes possible again. I’ve been saving forever an article on superparks, yet another iteration of my dream of dirt. But perhaps I don’t need to dream at all. There is dirt right here in my garden, on the street, in the park.

I’ve been feeling apologetic to certain trees, near my home, for my past indifference to their beauty ⏤ and a lesson in joys we used to take for granted.

Peter Schjeldahl, “The Great Outdoors” in The New Yorker, 31 Aug 2020