The art of learning to love the land.
After ascending the rock-strewn switchbacks of the Moki Dugway to the sky-washed heights of Cedar Mesa, Utah, we assembled our basecamp not far from Muley Point—threading together metal poles and stretching tarps to cover our cooking area and mobile computer archive—before securing our tents along the cliffs that rise over a thousand feet above the sinuous San Juan River.
That first evening, a mass of storm clouds swept toward us from the distant Monument Valley, softly coiling virga backlit by the lowering sun, tendrils brushing over us like the hair of some great spirit bending a curious face down from the blue heights to where we sat scattered among the rocks.
I kept my own face tilted up, eyes closed to feel the sparse drops of rain, until the warm light filtering through the flesh and blood of my eyelids overwhelmed my red receptors. When I finally opened my eyes, there seemed to be no division between earth and sky: The rocks, junipers and people wore the glowing white and ink-blue shades of the clouds.
They say that no one ever really knows what goes on in a relationship except for the two people inside of it. But this proved to be our challenge: to not only build a relationship with the land of the American Southwest, but to find a language that could encompass experiences that felt intimate and indescribable.
- • •
Last autumn I was one of a group of students who traveled to southern Utah and other destinations with Land Arts of the American West. Land Arts (or LAAW) is a single-semester studio art program, offered by Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico. LAAW provides a small cohort of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate students the chance to investigate various sites around the Southwest, and to make art that responds to the people, creatures, plants and landforms encountered at these sites, culminating in an exhibition at the end of the semester. (Ours will be Earth Day, a Sunday, April 22, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.)
The Fall 2017 program brought students face-to-face with the diverse stories of care-taking, use and abuse that make up our region: At Ron Boyd’s Mergirl Gardens, a farm growing heritage crops along the banks of the Rio Grande, we threshed rye under perhaps the oldest agricultural tool, our own dancing feet; in the Four Corners, between sacred mountains, in a place where the air burned and thrummed with the activity of extraction, we bore witness as Diné storyteller Sunny Dooley and elder Daniel Tso wove threads of allegory and history to suture and stabilize, as best they could, a landscape ravaged by fracking; we shivered out of our tents, pitched in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, into the 4am darkness to mark the flight of a test missile as it burned a path through the pale stars above Whites Sands National Monument, while below, in the evacuated park, soft winds gently obliterated the tracks made by children sledding on the dunes.
Finding a way to craft these experiences into something shareable, to transcend the limitations of written and visual languages, sometimes required experiments that stretched the definitions of “art.” For, if the idea of “land arts” conjures up the broad sweep of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, many of the investigations and experiments we engaged in were more intimate, less about conscripting the landscape into executing a vision, and more about forming a partnership where the human could come into contact with non-human ways of being. This became especially important in Bears Ears National Monument, as we tried to forge personal relationships to a place serving as a case study for issues of protection and exploitation.
Alex Kinney, an undergraduate art student who grew up in Salt Lake City, went down to the Dugway with the intention of interviewing tourists about Bears Ears National Monument. “But my interviews weren’t very successful,” he says. “They’d drive up, take a photo, and then would ask me about their next destination.” Instead, Kinney spent time observing frogs in a seasonally drying pond, where he notes that it became more about a connection or communication with something ‘else.’ ”It’s hard to tell if you are just talking to yourself, but you still put it out there,” he says.
For my part, I felt a connection to the storm we had witnessed the evening of our arrival, which I had refused to document in any way at the time, neither taking pictures nor attempting to draw it in my sketchbook. Instead, I had tried to remain fully present as it passed by. That sense of embodiment became important to my artistic experiments. Mimicking the actions of the storm, I used my hair to soak up water from rain-filled rock pools and dripped it on to desert plants, bending down close to also bathe them in attention. In a further experiment, I used my mouth to carry water to the plants, nourishing them like baby birds as I sought to find a place of caring intersection between animal action and plant needs.
Around the campfire one night, we described our experiments and investigations to Jonah Yellowman, an elder and spiritual advisor to the Utah Diné Bikéyah who has been heavily involved in the battle to preserve Bears Ears National Monument. He said it sounded like we were struggling to build the kind of relationships to this place that his people knew from the time they were children.
Indeed, while some of the actions we took may have stretched the definition of art, and may have felt emotionally messy, physically gross, or maybe even a little embarrassing (at least—full disclosure—mine did) if we want to look at a way of art-making that is not just about using a place, but is made with a place, fully embracing a relationship with others (whether those others are plant, animal, human), then I think we have to be willing to enter into a space where communication becomes possible.
“Muley Point was the first place where my experimentation with different communication platforms actually started to make sense,” says art history PhD candidate Amy Catherine Hulshoff. One of her experiments involved using a flashlight, umbrella, and a knowledge of Morse code to beam signals into the dark places of the night, being open to a response to whoever or whatever might be listening. “I was trying to have a conversation outside the boundaries of language—especially between species. Jonah reminded us how to talk to plants and rocks, and I started using Morse code and light to send sound bites out into the atmosphere. The work itself was a dead end but my mindset was totally altered by the attempt,” she says.
These intimate engagements with the community of landscape are just what LAAW Director Jeanette Hart-Mann is hoping to spark in her students. Even in the time since the LAAW program was founded in 2000, there have been storms and seismic shifts in the social landscape to match the more literal shifts brought about by global warming.
Many Land Arts program participants are interested in shaping a conceptual practice that makes room for activist engagement in these emergent issues.
“The pressure points have changed for artists, and in many cases the pressure points are dire,” Hart-Mann says. “It’s no longer about conforming to the art market or the academy—art is being created by people concerned with daily survival, or concerned that the world as we know it is ending. It is important for students who want to tackle these issues to develop a skillset that is not tied to traditional concepts of production, but is extremely experimental.” As an assistant professor of art & ecology, she is particularly interested in the possibilities of grassroots activism and experimental art as sites for meaningful change. The cofounder of the SeedBroadcast Collective, which celebrates the idea of “agri-Culture” with fellow artists Chrissie Orr and Ruben Olguin, she is also interested in the possibilities of re-igniting the vital connections to place that a mechanized way of life has overshadowed. “There is an urgency that demands a move into the rooted and the local,” she notes.
But putting down roots is a slow, intentional, messy process that involves a willingness to get down on hands and knees in the dirt. For me, as for many of my classmates, creating an artistic practice that allows for a responsive relationship with the larger world will be an ongoing process of growth and cultivation.
Land Arts of the American West program accepts undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree students, including students on exchange from other colleges. For more information:
Adele Ardent is an artist and writer living in Albuquerque, where she is currently pursuing a degree in Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico. She is a former CATALYST staff writer and illustrator. Her art appeared on our February 2017 cover.