It’s true that lots of Earthworks are, more or less, monumental holes in the ground, macho and grandiloquent gestures of men passing through. This show wisely skips the low-hanging fruit of such simplistic critiques. Instead, “New Earthworks” highlights how the eight featured artists and collectives merge the strategies of those older efforts with a contemporary understanding of ecology, territory, and performativity. At times, the exhibition at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe takes on a sense of care, of “working on” or “for” the planet’s health—and our survival, now that the environmentalism nascent in the 1970s has a much more desperate inflection.
Several projects give “earthwork” the connotation of “bodywork.” Sam Van Aken practices a measured form of husbandry by grafting several heirloom stone fruit varieties together into single trees, one of which he has planted on the university grounds. Similarly, Swirling (2019), a four-channel “immersive” video installation by Hope Ginsburg (with Matt Flowers and Joshua Quarles), documents a (nonart) project to reseed coral reefs with the support of manufactured scaffolds. On the preachier side, the collaborative desertArtLAB presents a cactus gardeners’ cart called Mobile ECO-STUDIO (2013), which they use to distribute native succulents to beautify vacant lots, replenish drought-scaped yards, and stock community gardens. These three projects achieve different kinds of environmental efficacy.
The show’s weakest work is its most flagellating: Arkansas Traveler (2020), by Scott Hocking, involves a salvaged steel windmill bent into a shape resembling a drunken cowboy, and given wings cut from a fiberglass boat hull. The whole thing is tinted with “bone black,” one of the artist’s favorite materials, a carbon pigment once manufactured in bulk from the bones of slaughtered buffalo. The work casts the system of westward colonization and homesteading as a kind of sloppy, soot-stained bender; since this is obvious, the sculpture reads mostly as a gag about Manifest Destiny. In contrast, a 2018 video by Carolina Caycedo, Apariciones/Apparitions, portrays a ritualistically choreographed scene in the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, the lush bio-spoils of railroad baron Henry Edwards Huntington. Caycedo’s team of Black and brown dancers inhabit this collector-colonial space as if haunting it, going through motions derived from Afro-Brazilian spiritual traditions. The symbolic nature of their gestures is emphatic—the house and gardens remain ornamental, their hands stay empty, and their haunting is confined to video. But the piece is remarkable as an exorcism of a certain kind of stolen “worked” earth, and a functional land acknowledgment.
David Brooks’s Death Mask for Landscape (2022) is another elegy for pillaged lands. The artist created 3D scans from drone footage of Amazonian rainforest parcels that were at risk of being overtaken for clearcutting, farming, or aluminum mining, then made them into small, pooling aluminum casts. The high tech of drones and lidar (a remote scanning technique) has made these elemental memorials possible; the forests that spread in miniature around the gallery floor are now gone. Further, the use of aluminum that might have been extracted from these very sites is more than a cute concept: it exemplifies a key principle of early Earthworks, Robert Smithson’s site/nonsite dialectic, by which an artwork in a gallery—the nonsite—might draw a huge metaphorical arrow to some external time or place, i.e., the site.
The show features a few “action items,” like the cactus cart—works that use the site/nonsite relationship as an exhortation to go forth and do good. One of the most practicable is Steven Yazzie’s Yuméweuš (2022), a consumer hydroponic farming tower planted with amaranth, an ancient grain, and ringed with traditional sand paintings patterned with the hexagonal diagrams of organic chemistry. The implication is that, again, earthwork is bodywork: we should tend what we have, restore what we’ve lost. This optimistic take is complicated by pale fragments of land acknowledgments projected on the nearby wall in a cheesy animated font. Can we ever meaningfully, let alone materially, repair the damage our arrogance has done to the land? Does it matter if the building occupying this piece of unceded territory is a museum—or, as Smithson put it, a void?