Artists throughout history have found inspiration through natural materials: Rembrandt painted with twigs and charred bone. Cave painters decorated walls with blood and vegetables. Stonehenge was erected from large boulders.
Now, earth artists - some like to be called land artists - take this idea to its natural extreme: using the materials found in situ to make art installations. Nothing is brought in or is man-made, or designed using the more “traditional” items of formal art.
The first contemporary practitioner of land art is American Robert Smithson, who created The Spiral Jetty in 1970. Built exclusively of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, it forms a 460-meter coil extending from the shore of the lake. The jetty is only visible when the level of the Great Salt Lake falls below 1,279 meters. At the time of its construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. Due to a drought, the jetty re-emerged in 2002and was completely exposed for almost a year. The lake level rose again during the spring of 2005 due to heavy snowpack in the mountains and partially submerged the jetty again. Lake levels receded and, in the spring of 2010, the Jetty was again walk-able and visible. As of this writing, runoff from record snows has all but completely submerged the jetty.
Recently, sculptor and earth artist Andrew Rogers built a Maasai shield near the Chyulu Hills of Kenya. “The Shield” is part of his Rhythms of life series. In this work, which he calls a geoglyph, Rogers uses local stone to form the sculpture and leaves it in place, where it will eventually erode and disintegrate. The Maasai community chose two projects to do: the Maasai Shield, which represents the heritage of the people of that region, and the Lion’s Paw, to symbolize an on-going effort for land conservation. Rhythms of Life is the largest contemporary land art undertaking in the world. The project started in 1998 and at present comprises 49 massive stone structures (geoglyphs) across 13 countries on seven continents. The project has involved over 7,000 people. These geoglyphs range in size up to 40,000 square meters and areas far-flung as Israel, Chile, Sri Lanka, Australia, Iceland, and the Chyulu Hills. From 2004-2008 the Kuona Trust promoted a landscape art workshop in Ngong Forest, and notable Nairobi artists participated and built grass sculptures and other images that challenge more conventional art approaches. While no Kenyan artist has embraced earth art as her primary medium to date, it is likely that in Nairobi’s emerging art scene, and with the popularity of earth art growing, we will see something monumental soon.