Reading the Rocks: Earthworks, Deep Time, and Implied Beholders

Laura Bieger

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperAcademic


    “Earth artists” were at the forefront of what came to be known as the anti-humanist turn in U.S. arts. Using the earth as material, site and subject of their work, they engaged the deep time of geology to liberate artistic practices and cast them against humanist notions of progress, rationality and technological control. And if earth artists used their work to expose the fundamental limitation of human knowledge at a time when a scientific worldview was thriving, in the 1960s and 70s the bedrock of this worldview was nuclear science. My paper revisits two of the artists closely associated with this movement—Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer—to propose that some of their best-known works are marked by a residual humanism, albeit for different reasons.
    In Smithson’s case humanism slipped in through the backdoor. I argue that his signature work, Spiral Jetty, did not fully dispense itself from the pastoralism that Smithson rejected so vehemently in his writings. Rather, Spiral Jetty operates by reversal—with the effect of putting on its head the idea of cultivation that art, to my mind, cannot do without. As an “entropic garden” in which inorganic matter is to deposit until it has reached a point of perfect stillness, it is invested in an ethics that seeks to cultivate better human beings by exposing them to the deep time of geology in order to make them grasp the insignificance of their existence.
    While Heizer’s anti-humanism was never as pronounced as Smithson’s, some of his recent and long-term projects—Levitated Mass, The City—overtly embrace a humanist agenda. Again, the interplay between artwork and commentary is instrumental in extrapolating this dimension of his work. In an press release Heizer states that Levitated Mass was built to last for 3.500 years, a timespan too short to evoke geology’s glacial powers, yet long enough to evoke ancient civilizations perished in the past—and by implication, new one’s bound to come once ours is dead and gone. It insists, in other words, on reading this rock in a human rather than a non-human frame. One way of making sense of the shift that becomes tangible here (and in other recent earth works such as Doug Aitkin’s Altered Earth) is that concerns with nuclear destruction, brought about in one obscure and random moment with the power to make the earth uninhabitable for ages, have been replaced by concerns with environmental destruction, brought about by the slow and reckless exploitation of our planet in which all of us participate.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2017
    EventHumanism and Anti-Humanism in the Arts of the United States - Residence of the Terra Foundation for American Art, Giverny, France
    Duration: 19-Sept-201722-Sept-2017


    ConferenceHumanism and Anti-Humanism in the Arts of the United States

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