Margaret Dreikausen, in her book Aerial Perception: The Earth as Seen from Aircraft and Spacecraft and Its Influence on Contemporary Art, notes the difference between two different views of the ground from the air. There is the vertical angle, or directly above, as we perceive the ground from a high-altitude aircraft or see the earth from the satellite perspective of Google Maps. And then there is the oblique angle, seen from lower altitude aircraft, looking outward over the landscape. According to Dreikausen, “the oblique angle gives a sense of wide-open space and is perceived in terms of aerial perspective involving the gradients of color and texture.” The oblique angle accentuates perspective, the three-dimensional shape of buildings, and the topography of the earth. Dreikausen traces how the oblique was first theorized in art as far back as Leonardo Da Vinci, who wrote about the way the views through the atmosphere change color and light, and the way perspective is shaped by far-off distance. She also notes the use of similar techniques in the paintings of Yvonne Jacquette and Susan Crile in more contemporary times.
Aerial Perception was published in 1985, but recently, new forms of aerial perspective are changing art yet again. First, the ubiquity of Google Maps and other satellite maps have changed our ability to perceive the earth. Then, small quadrotor drones gave individuals the ability to pursue oblique aerial angles of nearly any landscape.
Dreikausen mentions the Blythe Intaglios— large figures drawn on the landscape near the Colorado River by unknown native inhabitants of the region— which were only discovered only in 1932 when a pilot overflying the drawings scraped in the gravel saw them from the air. Today, intrepid drone operators are re-discovering land art from the same vantage point.
Drone images of land art changes our perception of the art in two ways— first, it presents the art from the oblique angle, as described by Dreikausen. In Static Art Studios’ video of Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, this is visible immediately. The shadows from the colorful heaps of stone are long, mimicking the access road that stretches out into the horizon, where one sees desert mountains rising up to intercept the setting sun. The stones are still large, but graspable, able to be centered in the frame in a way they could not be in a video from the ground, except at extreme wide angle. And the three dimensions of the sculpture are maintained, whereas from a vertical angle they would be no more than colored dots.
Secondly, the drone video, as a digital media, makes perception of land art accessible in ways it never was before. TWIG Media Lab re-discovers Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in only a 30-second long clip, but it simultaneously brings the inaccessible location to the internet, as well as making the sculpture look alien, capturing it at a moment of low-water level under an obscured setting sun, not often seen in still photos. As well, the tilt-shift soft-focus and slow-motion effects add to the mutating of the work, making it appear differently than perhaps anyone has seen Smithson’s work before.
These effects of drone video can apply to any landscape, as in Reuben Wu’s Planetary Observers promotional video for drone company 3DR, which captures no less dramatic images of Western United States landscape like badlands, salt flats, and sandstone rock pillars. Distant sites are brought up the screen in sharp apprehension, as oblique angles show both the incredible detail of the geology as well as the gaping mouth of the endless open space. And in the center of the shot, often a single human being walks, captured within the middle of nature as a single focus point of contrast.
As drone video technology becomes even more accessible, it remains to be seen how these sorts of shots will fundamentally alter the way we perceive land art, and whether land artists themselves begin to change their work with these sorts of easily shareable aerial perspectives in mind.