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A new generation of earth artists are bringing the earth to galleries and museums

Art

Ayanna Dozier

Daniel Lie, installation view by Entity without a name, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities”, 2022 at the New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum.

Although land art is commonly associated with the movement of site-specific earthworks that flourished in the 1970s, today, spurred on by the reality of climate collapse, a new generation is adopting that term and bringing land into the tunnel.

For example, at the main exhibition of the 59th Venice Biennale, “The Milk of Dreams”, artists such as Precious Okoyomon and Delcy Morelos transformed the sacred exhibition halls with earth, rocks and vegetation. Both artists activated not only the space but also the senses of the audience: With Heaven on earth (2022), Morelos covered a wide swathe of the Arsenale with cinnamon and spice-infused earth, arranged in massive minimal blocks that infused the gallery space with its visual weight and lush aroma. And Okoyomon dazzled the audience with To see the earth before the end of the world (2022), which transformed an entire room into a lush setting with life-sized butterflies and sculptural figures of earth and blood. Works like these present the earth as a material that is buried and mixed within the institution, not outside it.

This contemporary land art also disrupts the idea that the human body is separated from its environment. Often, this is achieved through sensory experiences. For example, that of Daniel Lie Entity without a name (2022), which was shown at the New Museum earlier this year, overwhelmed the senses with jute hemp fabric, flowers, hay bales of straw and mud with spores and seeds slowly rotting over the course of the exhibit. . Artists working in this modality are dismissing Earth’s history as uncultivated and instead elevating it to a living, breathing entity that exists alongside us and transforms powerfully over time.

Delcy Morelos, installation view by Heaven on earth , 2022, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams”, 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of the Venice Biennale.

However, the dirt in the gallery space isn’t new. The infamous Walter De Maria Earth Room in New York (1977) at 141 Wooster Street in SoHo has captivated audiences for 45 years. The permanent installation, commissioned and maintained by the Dia Art Foundation, still contains the same grime as its birth in New York and has taken on the mythical status of being a seemingly unchanged work (the installation was recently closed for conservation and will reopen early 2023). The Earth room is notoriously blocked from public interaction, becoming more of a commentary on the real estate industry and the passage of time and less of our involvement with the environment.

For artists like Lie, Okoyomon and Morelos, land art offers an encounter with the Earth that sees it as an ever-changing collaborator rather than something to be controlled or conquered. “In a sense, what Lie’s work proposes is the opposite of what most local artists or minimal artists proposed here in the United States with their large-scale works,” wrote curator Bernardo Mosqueira. to Artsy. “While those [1970s land artists] were demonstrating their personal power (and by extension the power of humanity) to transform materials, dominate nature and mark the landscape (aware of this or not), Daniel Lie’s work focuses on the decentralization of the human, showing how we cannot control the cycles we are part of ”.

Daniel Lie, installation view by Entity without a name, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities”, 2022 at the New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum.

Daniel Lie, installation view by Entity without a name, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities”, 2022 at the New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum.

For Lie, the inclusion of dirt as a material substance is a way to re-establish the public’s perspective on Earth, from one of use to one of mutual exchange. The Brazilian artist works through complicated stories of nationalism and belonging to the land, drawing inspiration from Brazil’s 338-year history of slavery and the genocide of its natives. “In my practice, I consider how to abolish these separations between body and environment,” they said in an interview with the Museum of Modern Art. “Perhaps the first step is to recognize that human beings are not and cannot engage in hierarchical relationships with others. beings “.

Earth’s transformation, as measured by decay, and its ability to influence audiences are central to the work of Lie, Okoyomon and Morelos. Morelos, for example, imbues his earthworks with Andean mythology to give free rein to the environment. He treats his installations as altars to intensify the aromas present to symbolize both sweetness and fermentation. By doing so, the work becomes something sacred that overwhelms the body rather than a static object.

I couldn’t help but compare my experiences on the works of the three artists, from Lie’s decaying installation, which smelled of expired fertilizer, to the pleasant cinnamon puffs that filled the air of Morelos Heaven on earthto the scent of fresh spring water flowing through Okoyomon’s To see the earth before the end of the world. I shudder at the thought of how the weather and the Venetian heat can modify the works of the last two artists, probably transforming the fragrant smells that were seen during the humid spring opening of the Biennale.

Precious Okoyomon, installation view by To see the earth before the end of the world , 2022, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams”, 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of the Venice Biennale.

These earthworks not only trigger a bodily response among visitors, but allude to a spiritual plane that the Earth represents. “In [Lie’s] they work, they ‘invite’ beings who call beings other than humans live in a certain place, coexist, live part of their cycles in this environment, guiding the transformation of space ”, writes Mosqueira. “These beings are, of course, bacteria, fungi, plants, animals and minerals, but also spirits, ancestors, beings that have not yet been given a name … forces that form a space even if they are ‘invisible’.” Likewise, Okoyomon uses their earth molds as avatars for mythological deities and ancestors in their installation.

This new earth art opposes Earth as an inert material to remind us that we cannot escape the environment and that we all live and die as earthly beings like any other organic material. “We have lost all sensitivity about our environment,” Morelos told the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires. “We no longer know what the Earth is and what its essence, its power and its magic are. This ignorance leads us to destroy and degrade it without realizing that we are also destroying and degrading ourselves ”. Ultimately, by filling these critical and institutional environments with dirt, Morelos and his fellow artists transform not only those spaces, but us as well.

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s staff writer.

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