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'This is not much of a road...go slow'

Feature for Creative Journeys, summer 2019, journal published by Immediate Media

In 1997 British artist Tacita Dean loaded a tank with fuel and, abandoning the Annual Screenwriter’s Lab at the Sundance Institute, drove out into the sun-bleached Utah desert in search of The Spiral Jetty. Built at Rozel Point off the north-eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake by American land artist Robert Smithson in 1970, this mythical work which rises and falls from sight, submerged with the whim of the changing water levels, has in recent years inspired countless journeys. 


Yet, unlike when Dean made the pilgrimage using a two-page fax of instructions supplied by the Utah Arts Council, today’s visitors can simply punch the ‘address’ into satnav. They may miss the “pink and white truck (mostly white) [and] an old army amphibious landing craft”, a pivotal marker in Smithson’s day, but they are at least ensured of finding the swirling mound of basalt rocks and glistening salt crystals, aided by signposts en route and greeted with designated parking – luxuries neither Smithson nor Dean enjoyed. 


Although at the time Dean was less than familiar with Smithson’s legend, today the proliferation of images online depicting ‘hard to reach’ destinations, means that if your one of many for whom art and travel go hand-in-hand, you can now plan your own pilgrimage out west, or indeed north, east and south, as fancy takes. And Smithson’s warning: “This is not much of a road! In fact at first glance it may not look like a road at all. Go slow!” is welcome advice for adventurers looking to slow down and step-off the beaten path.


Smithson’s fellow land artists understood the importance of the road less travelled, taking their art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Their work offers a welcome antidote to the timelessness of today’s ‘must see’ museums. Presented with such infinite choice it can often feel as if we’ve re-enacted the infamous scene in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Bande à Part were Franz, Arthur and Odile race through the hallowed halls of the Louvre in a record breaking 9 minutes and 43 seconds, consuming centuries of art in barely the blink of an eye. In contrast, lying amidst sand dunes, clinging to cliff-tops, or nestled at the forest edge, these hard to reach artworks offer a more immediate connection to both time and place. 


The dusty terrain of America’s western states provides an especially mouth-watering list of possible destinations to head out in search of, including Walter de Maria’s legendary Lightning Field, in western New Mexico, best seen as the sun rises or falls; James Turrell’s immersive sculpture Roden Crater,found within a volcanic cinder-dome in the Painted Desert of Northern Arizona; or Michael Heizer’s Double Negative; two great trenches cut into the rock, near Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Or shield your eyes from the midday sun and venture out into Utah’s Great Basin Desert to find Nancy Holt’s mythical Sun Tunnels. Taking three long years to fabricate and consisting of four hulking, concrete cylinders, the hollow tunnels perforated by holes that line up perfectly with the sun on the solstice resemble ancient monuments.  


Moving beyond the American West, examples of similar excursion-worthy works can be found dotted across the globe. Take for example, Australian-born Andrew Rogers’ Bunjil, a giant bird spreading its stony-wings across the landscape in You Yangs National Park, Victoria, Australia, reviving the mythology of the ancient Aboriginal tribe the Wathaurong. Or Pedro Martin Ureta’s giant Forest Guitar, designed to be seen from the air. Ureta’s labour of love involved cultivating two-thirds of a mile of forest on the edge of the Argentinian Pampas in memory of his wife Graciela.


Falling outside the confines of land art, are countless lesser-known works well worth the journey such as Roni Horn’s Library of Water,a long-term project based in the coastal town of Stykkishólmur in Iceland. More of the landscape than in the landscape, perched overlooking the ocean, the old library houses three related works by Horn, including Water, Selected, incorporating 24 glass columns of water collected from Icelandic glaciers, and a writer’s studio, sheltered beneath – the perfect spot to reflect on your journey. For every durational project like Horn’s, which provide an open window of time to make the journey, are those that demand we move a little quicker, such as American environmentalist Lita Albuquerque’s Stellar Axis; installed on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica for a mere handful of days in 2006 and now long since disappeared. Made up of a constellation of 99 bright blue balls dotted amidst the icy terrain, each object corresponded with the exact position of the stars above, forming an ephemeral, earthly constellation. 


Those in search of art that engages with the political rather than geographical landscape could go in search of Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman’s pit sculptures, of which there are over 50 examples, scattered as far afield as Finland, South Korea and Venezuela. Mexican artist Helen Escobedo, who died in 2010, had an equally peripatetic approach to location, siting her transparent mesh works which frame the surrounding landscape from multiple perspectives, in her native Mexico, Australia and the USA, as well as the hillside over Jerusalem in Ullman’s homeland. Similarly, British artist Rachel Whiteread’s series of Shy Sculptures can be experienced in as disparate locations as Norfolk and Norway, allowing journey-length to be tailored as required. 


As the dizzying array of places above suggests there is a never-ending list of art-locations to explore, allowing for journeys big or small. After all, travel (as philosopher Alain de Botton suggests) is often inspired by a desire for both pleasure and knowledge, and whether that’s found near or far is up to you. Yet, however far we travel, we can take our cue from less intrepid tourists, who in the late eighteenth century were only just beginning to venture outside the city and into the landscape, tentatively understanding the benefits to ‘both body and soul’. 


Dean never did find Smithson’s iconic work, but so enamoured was she with the journey, she recorded the sights and sounds along the way on her DAT recorder, resulting in a new artwork Trying to Find the Spiral Jetty. Perhaps then, it’s not just about the distance covered. The benefits to ‘body and soul’ are not only found upon arrival, waiting for us like an empty space in a parking lot at the desert’s edge. Maybe stepping outside also means enjoying the road; it’s the journey that counts, so even if it’s ‘not much of a road’, ‘go slow!’ 

Images: The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, photographer Jacob Rak (creative commons) and Brumadinho MG Brasil - Inhotim, photographer Josue Marinho (creative commons)

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