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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Compare: Why Do We Create Earthworks?

Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty
Artist / Origin: Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)
Region: North America
Date: 1970
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water
Medium: Video, Installation, and Performance
Dimensions: L: 1500 ft. (457.2 m.), W: 15 ft. (4.57 m.)
Location: Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
Credit: © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York/CORBIS

The Serpent Mound

The Serpent Mound
Artist / Origin: Possibly Adena culture (500 BCE–200 CE) or Fort Ancient culture (1000 CE–1550 CE)
Region: North America
Date: ca. 1000–1200 CE
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Clay, rock, and soil
Medium: Other
Dimensions: L: 1,330 ft. (405.38 m.), H: 4–5 ft. (1.21–1.52 m.) (average); W: 20–25 ft. (6.09–7.62 m.) (average)
Location: Adams County, Ohio
Credit: © Richard A. Cooke/CORBIS

Why do we create Earthworks?

In the twentieth century, creators of Land Art turned their backs on the industrial sensibilities that dominated art in the postwar era, returning to nature for inspiration. But these artists were not interested in traditional forms of sculpture or painting on canvas. They chose instead to use the earth as their canvas, their material, and their content all in one. In doing so, they continued a tradition, albeit with very different interests and intentions, that reached back into the ancient past, when cultures from England to Peru to America turned earth into art.

Questions to Consider

  • Both of these are large scale works that can only be seen in their entirety from above. How does an aerial view of the work differ from a ground-level view? Why do you think the creators would have chosen to represent forms that visitors might not be able to comprehend visually in full?
  • Each of these works was created in nature using natural substances as its material. How would you describe the relationship between art and nature in each case? What does this relationship suggest about the intentions of the work’s maker(s)?
  • Earthworks are site-specific, that is, they are created with their specific locations in mind. Why do you think these respective sites were chosen? How does each work respond to its location?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2