About Land art

Interview with Javier Riera

All ways of living have their spatial consequences. In fact every human activity has spatial aspects, because it entails movements and relations with places (—) Since childhood an onwards, man builds a spatial image of his environment, to which we can call his “existential space”.  NORBERG-SCHULZ, 1972

Your work of light intervention on landscape, projecting light directly on nature, shows up in a time when many artists have opted for image manipulation- Your work process, that entails the direct experience on landscape, has an evident connection to the process of Land Art. How would you place your work in relation to that art movement?

Land Art is one of my most clear references, but in order to talk about it it’d be good to try to delineate a bit the term as well as to ask ourselves what sense it makes to use it nowadays. Land Art is a movement that starts in a historical period within some fundamental constrains that, in my opinion, carry the experience of space towards an existential field. The airview image has been striking deep in the collective imagination, pushed by the popularity of flight experiences. The airplanes that existed back at the end of II WW couldn’t compare to those of commercial airlines during the 60’s. In hardly 20 years flying has become common and, although a big deal of population still can’t do it, there’s also a wide spread of world images seen from the air, that still astonish and are a way to discover the world.

Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier Riera

The conscience of space has always bordered, deep psyche, the imaginary. The mind cannot embrace further than the intentional and affective space that concerns an individual life. The vast space lacking shape and meaning remains out of attention but during the period of which we are talking about new variables open up in the general diagram. To the images of places that are recognized or discovered for the first time from an air view point of view there’s a qualitative jump added in addition to the whole spatial imagination, to which have referred talking about LandArt, Tonia Requejo and other authors: the so called “space run”. The images and stories that the space travels generate have a special role in the gestation of Land Art, they involve a widening without precedents of the mind field about space, that repeatedly places the view on the borderline of the darkness of the unlimited. For the first time in history there are real images of planet Earth seen from outside that are massively spread and followed through TV.

I think we cannot forget that this spatial widening of the view that shows a world without borders grows parallel to the conscience of the destructive threat of atomic arsenals, a possibility of global self-destruction never known before that seems very likely to happen after two big world wars with very little time in between them. 1962 marks a point of inflexion with the crisis of the missiles in Cuba, that gives place to the famous red phone, symbol of humanity hanging from the string of telecommunications. The possibility of a massive destruction will remain present in every-day life for many years. All of this conforms a way of inhabiting the planet that acquires unique existential hues, because they’re global circumstances that never before had existed and the artists that gave birth to Land Art were educated in that environment.

If the circumstances in which Land Art was born were so decisive, does that mean that it remains delimited by the historical moment in which it appeared, as one could say about the avant-gardes or cubism?

The difference between cubism or other movements is that, what was presented in them had an evolution, an influence that ran into further developments in accordance to the new social, cultural and technological circumstances, so in the end, nowadays to consider one-self as a cubist painter is kind of obsolete. I think this doesn’t happen in Land Art since it can still make full sense nowadays. The reason is that many of the things that happened back in the 60’s and 70’s is the wrecking of a wall in the conscience. What opens behind this old construction that has been tore down is vast empty space, a massive field of possible experiences that are not easily exhausted, and I think the language of words with which we have referred to them is still quite far to cover them all. The isms were programmatic, they opened very rigid paths. Land Art is something very different, it responds to a deep existential change in relation to the experience of man concerning space, even in relation to the possibility of its complete absence in space. Some of the most emblematic pieces of Land Art are in empty places, the percentage of people who have seen them compared to those who have known them through photographs is very small. We know that they are in deserts or below water, we imagine them easily in total absence of subjects staring at them, the reference of photography takes us to imagine space as from outside. I think the texts of Robert Smithson assume that what they have in hands goes further from his very solid elaboration of ideas and his control over the work because his approximation through writing is an exploration in itself that is far from being programmatic. Smithson is fascinated by the field he is opening and often points in diverse directions to make reference to his work. Of course, he has clear and specific concepts and intentions, but there’s something very open about all of his writings, which are mostly inquiries in the sense works of art are.

Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier Riera

In that way, Land Art is not a pragmatic movement. The texts of Robert Smithson show that what he has in hands goes way beyond his ideas and his control over his work because his approximation through writing is a research in itself that’s far away from being something programmatical. Smithson is fascinated by the field he is opening up and oftentimes points in diverse directions to refer to his own work. Of course, he has clear and concrete concepts and intentions, but there’s something very open about all of his writings, which mostly inquiries in the sense that works of art are.

Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier RieraDoes it make sense to talk about Land Art nowadays? Can a current artist define his work as Land Art?

From what I’ve said, I think Land Art doesn’t limit itself to its moment in history, as important as it may be to understand it in its origins. As in other creations that burst in the 60’s in music, literature or theatre, Land Art is a rough mineral, an extraordinary departure point that is not in the scope of intellectual constructions as in those of wrecked walls opening new views of reality and unexplored dimensions of our experience. In that sense, as a matter of historical respect I’d rather be cautious with the term, but for me Land Art is an open path, not a movement and it makes sense that many artists use the term.

Your interventions on landscape use photography as a means of to communicate, but at the same time your images are more than a simple record of the intervention, how do you understand this relation between intervention and photography? Is it similar to that of the artists of the historical Land Art?

The images of the works of Walter di Maria or Robert Smithson have been some of my influences, and I should say I have not physically seen the works, I haven’t experienced them in space so all the knowledge I have of them is through photographs. In my view Land Art, with its dependence on photographic cameras to communicate its work, gave place to some sort of a photographic genre, one of landscape intervention. A lot of what has been done in photography is a continuation of the role of painting as a means of image creation: portrait, still lie, landscape… reinvented, widened and taken to another dimension from the photographic field, instead intervened landscape images didn’t exist as concepts, thus these photographs turn out to be something tremendously new in the field of images. I started to make these projections on landscape and photographing them was the most natural medium to tell them but at the same time I try to make them have an entity of their own. I believe it’s quite difficult to tell something new about landscape in photography and for me the key is in the experience it talks about. Photographs are the means of communicating something that has happened, the light that has been in that place, has lived along with the light of the environment and has been registered in an image, this is the departure point without which there’s nothing.

Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier Riera

Your interventions in public spaces also give place to photographs?

I’ve never shown a photograph of an intervention in a public space because in that case, since the viewer sees it live, it makes no sense for me to create a picture. I take pictures in order to record and communicate what I’ve done in public spaces but they’re not art show material. If there are spectators, the exhibition is the real time intervention itself

Do you think current Land Art, if it can be called such, should have an ecologic/organic component?

I think our whole current way of life should drastically turn towards the preservation of the environment since the situation we’re living is absolutely extreme. In that way, any current action on landscape should necessarily consider its level of aggressiveness on it. In my case when I turn off the lights I like to feel that the landscape remains the same after my work, even if obviously with my presence I do insert a few hours of disturbance.

Another connotation that brings you closer to Land Art is the use of geometry in relation to landscape, present in many of your most representative works, is here in all of it an intention of organizing the chaotic and irregular aspect of landscape? 

Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier RieraNot at all, I do not feel the least desire to order landscape nor I believe that should be the intention of Spiral Jetti, for instance. In any case, intervening physically on landscape is not the same as temporarily projecting light. The desire to arrange landscape is as ancient as men and has a defense component facing the overwhelming nature that wouldn’t make sense now. For a long time the survival of man depended on the grade of dominion on nature, and today the opposite could be said, the future possibilities of men will have to rely on the survival, already threatened, of the planet. The traditional idea of garden has to do with limiting a space in which nature is subdued to the mind, ordered and trained, the Beauty facing the Sublime.

Earlier I talked about the widening of conscience over the space associated to Land Art and I want to mention the baroque gardens and the context in which they were created. The baroque period was characterized by a dramatic widening of the ideas concerning the space based on astronomic discoveries of great importance such as those by Kepler and Galileo that force to assume for the first time that the Earth is not the center of the universe, breaking the whole geonarcissist diagram accepted since Aristotle. It turns from thinking that the Earth is the center of the universe to the certainty that the telescopes show that there’s actually no perceptible center whatsoever but an order of gravitational relations and on top of this the space of the universe is revealing in a few years as immensely wider than though, it becomes unlimited and incomprehensible to the mind. Authors such as Hauser defend that this astronomic factor is the essential element of cohesion to the baroque.

How do you interpret the sense of geometry in historic Land Art and on your own work?

Geometry is the visual language of mathematic and physical order with which we understand matter and energy. Since the space run during the 60s until he airships reach Mars currently everything is made from geometry, physics and mathematics. There’s also an obvious relation of geometry with construction, the structural and architecture. The relations of geometry with landscape was a main topic in architecture by the beginning of last century. The aspect of geometry that interests me is its ability to shape the intangible in nature, I think that when I find the right geometry for a landscape it’s like a key that opens an experience of visibility that is intimately fitted to that place. I feel that the right geometry channels something that is latent in a determined space, as if showing a dimension of the place that used to be hidden. I’m fascinated by artists such as Emma Kunz, who works with a pendulum, generating healing geometric drawings. I think geometry used with knowledge and intention has that property, it generates a resonance between the depths of ourselves and the nature that could be transformative.

 Land Art, Land artist, Arte y naturaleza, About Land Art, Javier Riera

At the beginning I said that Land Art has to do with the wrecking of a wall in the conscience that conveys a great opening from an existential strain that would be linked, on one hand, to the new consciousness of space, derivative of the space run, and on the other the possibility of atomic global self-destruction of the human being. The trust relation on rational ways of knowledge is broken and the new generation bets on other options that go from drugs to more spiritual paths such as Zen Buddhism. In my opinion the geometry shows up in Land Art as a result of formal processes that are in art history and previous architecture, but also breaks in in a more intuitive way in the conscience of artists, they are perceptions of visual diagrams that irradiate energy. The text of Robert Smithson about Spiral Jetti makes it clear enough, it’s the text of a visionary poet who is also in a way a rationalist builder. The Lighting field of Walter di Maria is a precise and semi-transparent geometric structure because of the thin sticks in the distance, placed in a vast empty space and thought as a series of vertical axis that connect physically and drastically the energy of the sky and the earth.

I think sometimes it’s not well understood to which extent the way of rational thinking of these artists, their mindset about their work stood totally permeable to the intuitive and irrational, had it not been that way these works would have never been created

Sometimes in my work I’ve felt as if behind all that geometry with which we can work there are other, more subtle, of which these are only a vague material representation. Contact with the other goes trough a personal and inner process, there’s no other way to feel them, that is nature.