Interesting texts about art-formerly-known-as-land-art are popping up. Here is an interview of Alan Michelson (2018) by Christopher Green from last December! I wrote earlier about his video-work “Wolf Nation” (2018) which is discussed in the interview.

MICHELSON: […] I am interested in Robert Smithson’s idea of site and nonsite. But applied to an Indigenous framework, you could say that the Indigenous site is almost always a nonsite, an abstraction or documentary representation of a site that may no longer exist, like the pond in Earth’s Eye or our villages in what is now Upstate New York. So the dialectic between the absence and the presence of whatever is there now has a critical edge to it. […]

How Michelson speaks of the nonsite reminds me a lot about the performance “All Visible Directions Between Sky and Water” by artist Maria Hupfield and poet Natalie Diaz at The Vera List Center for Art and Politics. Diaz made a strong argument that as the Indigenous peoples of America were forced out of their land, their bodies became a site trough which their culture was manifested. Their bodies became equivalent to land! The performance felt like a group consultation session which aimed to problematize categories trough which we experience land. First they drew an endless spatial horizon by reciting questions that referred to the differences between water and air: “Is this water?” “Is this air” they asked and performed a pair-dance, in which they experimented with the distances and arrangements of their hands. The audience was also invited to join. Then Diaz gave a shot lecture that experimented with written language structures as visual, faux-logical patterns. After this Hupfield asked people for stories about water. Many of the speakers were Indigenous and their stories referred to mythologies and believes. Hupfield asked me for a story too.. At the spot I only had a silly personal story to share, which showed how superficial my relation to land is. I felt unconformable. The event did not offer any answers (for me). Which is very good… If we would knew all the answers what would be the point in gathering?

After the event I remember a good story about water (which I send to Hupfield over email):

My friends Topi and Nestori bought a sailboat on a whim. It was very cheep and they spend two summers fixing it up. Neither of them were experienced sailors, so at first they took courses and made small trips in the archipelago. Eventually they developed courage and went on a long trip from Helsinki to Stockholm. There are a lot of boats on the lane and it’s a well documented route – It goes from a small island to the next. They reached Stockholm safely, felt very confident about themselves, had a night out at the town and started their trip home the next morning.

Midway their return trip a pea-soup fog appeared. They only had the visibility of the length of the boat, which meant that they had to rely on sparse boat lane beacons blinking lights, a nautical chart and sounds for navigation. They took turns at the bow of their small boat and tried to listen for other boats and the movements of the water. When there is no wind one can quite very far, but you can hear echoes reflected from the islands shores too. You even might hear your own boat reflected from the distance. They were not moving fast but a collision with a bigger boat or a ship would have been bad. To keep focus they kept completely silent for the day and took turns at the bow, while the other steered the boat.

Topi told me that during that trip, they developed an appetite for the truth. If they would have altered their course on a false assumptions, they would have gotten lost, possibly wondered to the wrong lane and got into a collision with an other boat or an islet. He also told me the most paranoid part of the experience was that, it’s possible all of the other people sailing on their boats were trying to navigate based on sounds too. Which meant that everyone kept silent and collisions were even more possible! When he told me about it we started laughing: If everybody is silently looking for the truth, nobody is safe!

Maintaining Good Relations: Starting From Zero (2017) is a live radio show by Native Art Department International (Maria Hupfield & Jason Lujan). In this episode they discuss the recent trend of cultural organizations starting their public events by acknowledging, that the land the organization stands has been forcefully claimed from the indigenous people. Land acknowledgements are often followed with a moment of silence. Lujan asks what would happen if audiences would respond to the acknowledgements with cheers and applauds (I think I heard applauds after an acknowledgement at an event at the New School). I think cheers are very good response, they indicate that the issue is still vibrant and that every acknowledgement is a step forwards (not backwards).

Without Us There Is No You: A Conversation at Artists Space (2017). Brian Droitcour interview Hupfield, Lujan & Jessica L. Horton about a screening they put together as a response to the protests against the Dakota Access Pipelines near the Standing Rock Reservation.

How Whiteness Works: The Racial Imaginary Institute at the Kitchen (2018) Lou Cornum. A review of an exhibition.

On a huge screen in the main gallery plays “There Is No Then and Now; Only Is and Is Not” (2018) by Native Art Department International, a video that enigmatically evokes the slips between colonial time and being. Dennis Redmoon Darkeem, an artist and member of the Yamassee Yat’siminoli tribe, dances in his powwow regalia and, in large blocks of text that interrupt the footage, comments on his frustrations with being obscured as a black Indigenous man under the current racial and visual regime. The video’s central position in the exhibition was fitting: here in the entanglements of black and Indigenous identities lies the narrative of modernity in the Americas, the creation of categories by a supposedly transparent and self-determining group of European subjects.


Visited Aruna D’Souza’s talk Writing in the Reparative Mode (video link) at the 8th floor. The event was organized by the The New School. She offered a road-map on how she developed from an academician into an art-writer and art critic. D’Souza became disillusioned by the academia after witnessing numerous race related scandals which the organizations failed to respond to. After leaving university, she felt that Facebook helped her to develop as a writer. Posting on her wall felt like brainstorming and gave her the opportunity to pose questions instead of re-affirming what is already known (I really dislike her emphasis on Facebook and Instagram as “real venues for art writing”, because the technology is based on exclusion).

She invited the audience to think about “reparative criticism” which is an attempt to compensate for the injustices which effect the decedents of the enslaved. In the beginning she started to “write as a student”, which means she wants to understand an artwork on the artworks own terms (I’m weirdly reminded by the self-reflectionism of minimal art). Her writing is “drawing attention” to works which teach her how to be “an ethical and political citizen of this fraud moment in history” (D’Souza acknowledges this as signal-boosting). She is also constantly learning to talk about her own failures. “Our culture is weakened by peoples inability to apologize”. She refers to her writing concerning a Jimmie Durham exhibition, in which she downplayed the critique stirred up by Durham’s claims of Native Ancestry (More on the topic by Sheila Regan). After she re-freshened her opinion on Durham (after learning about the topic trough the debate), her act was seen of as opportunism (changing sides) instead of rethinking and apologizing.

In D’Souzas view art writing is primarily made for the white gaze. Art writing excludes the subjectivity of the artist (and the critic). When writing for the black-gaze, she is more sensitive when talking about race and politics. There are benefits too: Some key concepts such as “the existence of structural violence, “the consent of white fragility” and “the weaponized use of white tears” do not need explaining. She invites writers to “punch up” in their critiques and not to be afraid “name names” of people who are responsible for oppressive acts. She wants to name people so that we will not talk “around the problems of institutional racism” (I find this troubling. Naming people feels like vain punishment and I find it hard to imagine how it will help in changing structures). This process has made her friends, peers and audiences feel uneasy.

She wants to center on the voice of the protesters, instead on the “voice of analysis”. This approach has helped her to understand “the protest as a site” which gives some artists (who are excluded by institutions) the only opportunity to engage with the art world. Her starting point is that freedom of speech is not a universal value but a relationship. In her own words she is “not writing good art history” but “writing good something-else”. She points out that all art criticism is “advocacy” and the majority of contemporary art criticism is “advocacy of the supremacy of white male artists”. D’Souza is currently working on a book which is called “Against Empathy”. A critique of the individual affect, at the center of political transformation (in a manner which de-centers collective action). Her argument that “There is no aesthetic understanding, unless there is structural understanding” feels heroic but coming from a new-materialistic, Marxist point of view it feels old.

Our proposal (with Ilari) to have the publication on land- and environmental art conservation co-published by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Fine Art Academy of Helsinki was excepted and the book will be out this spring! I’ve been busy editing my text for it. Currently re-reading Entropy Made Visible (1973) and Entropy And The New Monuments (1966) by Robert Smithson. Revisited Dia: Beacon to make photocopies of Moira Roth’s interview of the artist found in Eugenie Tsai’s book Robert Smithson (2004). Feeling like a ghetto scholar (I’m literally stealing knowledge to make ends meet).

I got into the interview phase for the Doctoral Studies Programme in Artistic Research in Performing Arts at the Theater Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. I felt that I couldn’t reply adequately to the questions: Why I want to conduct my research in the framework of the Theater Academy and what its my relationship to performance studies. I mumbled something about, public craft fairs being transparent process of the production of commodity value. I wanted to say that I see performance a material deposit of located behavior, squeezed into acts by the design and affordances which places offer.


Learning about the problematic relationship that land-art has with the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America.

The Face of the Earth (2015) by Stefany Anne Goldberg. The text states that Robert Smithson was directly inspired by the Serpent Mound and that he used it as a model for Spiral Jetty. Goldberg points to Entropy And The New Monuments (1966) to argue that Smithson wanted to produce “anti-monuments” that merged with their environment over time – Goldberg states he wanted to criticize the idea of an everlasting modernism (best exemplified in American architecture). I don’t buy this. Authors like Naomi Stead have shown that architects such as Albert Speer were particularly interested in imagining their designs as ruins. (Here are notes from an article by Stead).

Architects, Smithson once said in an interview, tend to be idealists. They look at their structures and think about how they will cover over the earth. They try not to picture their buildings fallen into ruin, sucked back into the landscape they once sat upon. American builders are especially idealistic because the land they were given to build on since the beginning has been thought of as empty space. […] “America,” said Smithson, “doesn’t have that kind of historical background of debris,” and so Americans don’t often think of monuments the way Europeans do, as potential ruins, subject to entropy, subject to change, involved in the story of Time. Time, for Americans, goes mostly in a straight line, from Point A to Point B, with all things getting bigger and better, even when they collapse. For Smithson, time was like a spiral dissolving in salt, neither static nor cyclical but just moving, just going, disappearing and coming back again.

The last quote from Smitson is from the Entropy Made Visible (1973) interview with Alison Sky. It shows a blatant disregard of the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America. Nancy Holt’s Up and Under (1998) looks like it has been inspired by the Great Serpent Mound and the Mound City in Chillicothe.

Rising Into Ruin (2017) Kate Morris. The article investigates the “Post-modern landscape” by comparing Smithson notes on ruins, to artworks by American artist Alan Michelson. Morris argues that Smithson saw ruins as static “end states” and points out that many indigenous cultures of Americas have an opposing cyclic view of time. The text offers a good overview on what Smitson was after with The Monuments of Passaic (1967) text/actions.

[…] I argue that the works of Smithson and Michelson differ in important ways that are reflective of their cultural perspectives: namely, Smithson regarded ruin as an end state, while Michelson posits it as a condition that portends other states to follow. The argument hinges on the distinction of ruin as a stage in a cycle rather than as a point in a purely linear progression.

A postmodern condition that [Craig] Owens failed to locate in Smithson’s work is an attack on the idea of progress itself, though it seems clear in retrospect that Smithson’s careful documentation of the decline of industrial infrastructures was exactly that. Moreover, it is this aspect of Smithson’s practice that resonates strongly in Michelson’s work, where the notion of progress is conflated with settler colonialism, and thus its dissolution can be regarded as not only a postmodern but distinctly postcolonial condition.

Entropy tells us that nothing can stay in suspension forever; dissolution is inevitable. In “The Monuments of Passaic” Smithson’s entropic vision may come across as temporally muddled, but phrases like “rising into ruin,” “limited eternity,” and “a lower stage of futurity” obfuscate what is actually a rather linear progression.

Sympathetic as he is to Smithson’s dystopic vision, Michelson has also been drawn, paradoxically, to the latent hopefulness of “entropy made visible.” In both Mespat and Shattemuc he focuses on the crumbling infrastructure of industrialization, and by association, of colonialism itself.

The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones (1992) Robert Houle. A text from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power exhibition organized at The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (almost 30 years ago!). Here is a very detailed review of the exhibition by Scott Watson. I was encouraged to study this exhibition by Richard William Hill and Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), whom I was kindly introduced to at the Vera List Center Forum 2018: If Art Is Politics event. The text attempts to build a framework for reading the art of the indigenous peoples of Americas, in a way which would not rely on a colonial gaze for making forcing sense a particular-western-defined-sense.

Houle’s text is critical towards post-structuralism and postmodernity because it disregards non-western modes of existence. In short: Not all origin stories are bad, not all narratives should be deconstructed and the critique that post-structuralism engages in does not challenge the infrastructure that enables it. It is a smokescreen! Modernity is in dept to indigenous cultures – Artist such as Pollock and Picasso formulated their encounters with indigenous artworks into techniques.

The text also has a detailed history of how the indigenous peoples of Americas have been portrayed in Euro-Western art. It provides a critique of Monument for the Native People of Ontario (1984–85) artwork by Lothar Baumgarten. More on that particular artwork and Houle’s commentary on it in Naming and Reclaiming (2018) Shirley Madill.

The article is filled with interesting details. For example: “There is no word for ‘landscape’ in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken” and ” [I]ndividuality operates in the language of paradox, irony, and ambivalence”. The text ends in a beautiful invite: “[T]he spiritual legacy of art from any one culture offers reassurance that the human species has some commonalities which are important to knowing who we are, where we are, and where we are going”. Quotes from Houle’s text below.

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