Meaningful Earthworks

Lucy Lippard Sculpture

Lucy Lippard – Undermining

Lucy Lippard’s recent book, Undermining, draws the artistic into direct comparison with the industrial in many ways, but particularly through meditation on the concept of earthworks and environmental art. From a dissection of the myriad environmental problems confronting land in the Western US, from groundwater issues to gravel mining, Lippard goes directly to Robert Smithson, quoting him on the process of selecting the site for his famous Spiral Jetty by the (ever moving) shores of the Great Salt Lake:

“We followed roads that glided away into dead ends. Sandy slopes turned into viscous masses of perception… an expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediments were countless bits of wreckage. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern pre-history. […] My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other.”

Dalles Dam Sculpture

The Dalles Dam in June 1973.
photo by David Falconer. Image in the public domain

Because of the vicissitudes of the environmental conditions of the site, the earthwork was underwater for three decades, and is now occasionally subsumed by the lake, depending upon factors such as local drought, snowpack, and other environmental factors that affect the lake’s shoreline.

Lippard remarks that most earth artists are white men, “as it is rare for woman artists (Holt is the exception) to raise the thousands of dollars it takes to create such monumental works.” Indeed, even the industrial works she mentions in her book have their own larger, tidal forces. Various earth minerals become more or less valuable, causing the funding for massive extraction processes to alternatively abandon their workers and their environmental messes, or start new projects. Even something as seemingly valueless as gravel is dependent upon the gravitational pull of government funded roadworks projects. In California, drought is causing massive land subsidence, as farmers pump unprecedented quantities of groundwater out of aquifers.

Dalles Dam Sculpture

The Dalles Dam. Photo by US Department of the Interior. Image in the public domain

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we typically have a surplus of water, but our own forces pulling on it. The Columbia River is the fourth largest in the United States by quantity of flow, but because of its rapid elevation decline from its source in the Canadian Rockies, was deemed “perfect” for damming. The massive hydroelectric projects of the 30s, 40s, and 50s mean that 50% of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity comes from hydropower, and even more importantly, the catastrophic floods of the past are now purely history, and the reservoirs of water feed irrigation projects across the high basins between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains.

But this “clean” energy doesn’t come without a cost. What is buried is not toxic tailings, but hundreds of miles of former river. The entire Columbia River, from the Canadian border to the last dam at Bonneville, is now actually lake, perfectly level from the top of one dam to the bottom of the next upriver (save for some 80 miles). Underneath the reservoir are the famous Columbia Rapids, as well as countless other geological features, and numerous Native villages, such as the most famous, submerged Celilo Falls. Like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, forces larger than the residents of Celilo Falls submerged their life’s work–rather than it simply being drought and snowpack, it was the 20th Century tide of industrialization, that is now finding its second echo in the large hydroprojects of China, South America, and Africa, the so-called still “developing” parts of the world.

Spiral Jetty Sculpture

Robert Smithson – Spiral Jetty. Photo by Soren Harward. Image in public domain

When looking at Spiral Jetty, half-submerged and stained pink by the salts of Northern Utah, it is possible to visualize the vast systems represented by the work. One feels the same when staring at the Grand Coulee Dam, the most massive pour of concrete in the United States, which re-flooded the dry gorge from which it earns its name, for the first time since the glacial floods of the Pleistecene which originally carved it into the earth. However, what is under the surface of the Columbia will never periodically re-emerge, as the conversion from a natural watershed to a piece of hydro-engineered quasi-natural machinery does not allow it. There is a lament for this loss in the dams that goes unseen, the lost cultural value of a former, pre-engineered ecosystem. But perhaps it is still more visible than other forms of art work. How often can you see the shadow of a forest lingering below woodworking, or the bank of a stream in ceramics? It always takes particular eyes to see the depth of a particular physical work, but certain works are easier to see than others.

By Adam Rothstein

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