This is part II of an essay, the first part was published yesterday so I recommend reading that first.
LAND ART: reason, relationship, and racialization
The Utah Monolith stood approximately 9ft tall, was embedded into the environment it was found in, and most importantly was in conversation with the landscape around it. While much of what has been discussed and examined when discussing this object has been what the object resembles and how it was made, it’s the visual and formal relationship between the object and the land that comprises much of the conceptual heft of the work. The work as it sat fits quite comfortably in both a tradition of Minimalist sculpture and Land art practices. Following the Minimalist route, we can consider the physical relationships people had to the object, which is evocative of the relationships Robert Morris gave to viewers at his show bodyspacemotionthings that was comprised of “beams, weights, platforms, rollers, tunnels and ramps that people can clamber all over” which was closed after 4 days due to the enthusiastic response from the audience which resulted in safety concerns. The show in question was directly inspired by (and some would say ripped off of) the work of the dancer Simone Forti, specifically the objects Morris helped her build for Five Dance Constructions and Some Other Things. Taking these works into consideration, we can understand that people’s relationships to Minimalist sculpture is at its best going to be both bodily and proprioceptive. It is why my favorite image from the documentation of the monolith is the one with the two DPS employees standing on each other’s shoulders. The dance that the DPS workers did with the object is indicative of the dance that the object is doing with the cliffs that surround it. In this understanding of the dance the monolith is doing with the landscape we can find that it had a much more natural relationship to that land than any visitor or state employee did.
However, this relationship must be viewed critically. While we can stay critical of the legal frameworks that surround this event of the monolith, there is a point to what the UDHA brought up when they said the monolith was vandalism (although it’s only vandalism in their eyes because it didn’t go through the proper channels.) We know that in order to create the object in the space it required heavy machinery and the space itself was cleared out of all brush when the monolith was installed (according to satellite photos). This coupled with the reaction of eager explorers hoping to be the first to discover this object in the wilderness did do a fair amount of damage, even before we consider the worries from the wildlife department of DPS about the object’s possible impact on local fauna. These are considerations that must be grappled with in any contemporary engagement with Land art as both an established art genre and a way of making. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was most interesting when after being created it was absorbed back into the lake, and not now that it’s become a tourist attraction. As opposed to drawing a direct relationship between Land art and the Utah Monolith in order to justify its relationship to the land and argue why that relationship is an important one, I want to continue to consider the discourses that can be had around the monolith as a way to dredge up certain problems here embedded in Land art, same as we did with land ownership. Specifically, I’m following after a question posed by Emily Eliza Scott in her essay Decentering Land Art from the Borderlands: A Review of Through the Repellent Fence,
How do we, as art historians, critics, curators, and artists reconcile the canonical western Land art tradition with indigenous land-based practices? No, not that. How do we contend with their ultimate irreconcilability as well as instances where they rub up against each another? How do we begin to deal with the “problem” of Land art, for instance by teaching it in ways that trouble, rather than uphold, its claims to genius, autonomy, and (white male) mastery? What happens when earthworks lose their monopoly on the story of Land art? How do we simultaneously rise to the challenge of interpreting a piece like The Repellent Fence without flattening it, keeping in mind that it is not meant, first and foremost, for “us,” but for the people of Douglas and Agua Prieta? How do we become sensitized to the often unconscious, ongoing forms of colonization reflected in our own scholarship and teaching, including the frequent tendency to impose, encircle, simplify, lay claim, instrumentalize, and so on, as a means to consolidate power? [emphasis mine]
Throughout the essay Scott grapples with the relationships drawn between Land art and the work The Repellent Fence created by the group Postcommodity which consists of the artists Raven Chacon (Navajo), Cristóbal Martínez (Mestizo), and Kade L. Twist (Cherokee) in Sam Wainwright Douglas’s 2017 film Through the Repellent Fence. Through the intertwining of Postcommodity’s work and Land art there is the possibility of a reevaluation of how we consider Land art’s legacy and implications. Importantly Postcommodity has not allowed their work to be solidly contextualized in relation to Land art, as Scott puts it,
The collective has been clear that Land art is not a primary reference point or target for its piece, which takes aim, more generally, at the “Western scientific worldview” and its tendency to construct borders “behind it or in front of it” wherever it goes, often involving the violent erasure of indigenous peoples and perspectives along the way. When refracted through The Repellent Fence, however, Land art’s complicity with—or even its status as a distilled expression of—precisely such a worldview becomes more apparent than ever.
To consider the ways in which Land art has both operated as a movement which brought the land itself into the purview of art while also mimicking and acting within settler-colonial frameworks and a certain “Western scientific worldview” allows us to challenge even the seemingly benign and celebratory engagements with the land as unconscious repetitions of the very destructive relationships it questions as opposed to simply repudiations and critiques of them. That isn’t to say we can’t work through both at the same time. This is indicative of the kind of artistic read that I am proposing with the monolith, and its discourses as “distilled expressions” of the concerns contained herein.
For example, we can return to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, his interest in highlighting entropic processes within nature, and how this work becomes a surprisingly good barometer for the impacts on the environment by climate change. Since resurfacing in 2002 we have increasingly seen the water line recede leaving Spiral Jetty exposed more and more. Throughout Smithson’s essay detailing the impetus, execution, and conceptual frameworks of this piece he continuously discusses an oscillation between what he refers to at one point as alogos and logos and another in regard to the objective and the perceptive. And he continously jumps between the time scale of the essay and the geologic timescale, consistently referencing certain understandings of some kind of primordial origin just to undermine them. Typified in a quote from A.S. Eddington’s Number, The Language of Science that comes about halfway through the essay, “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in constructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! it is our own.” This primordial zone is both found in the redness of the Great Salt Lake and in our blood itself. A red that in Smithson’s descriptions of it notes that it makes “One [want] to retreat into the cool rooms of reason.” Much like with the Utah monolith there are certain otherworldly romanticisms that circle around built up mythos of the works in question. Smithson’s piece more intimately intermingles with the environment in which it engages, relying on the entropic processes of the lake to shift the work itself, as opposed to the more clearly man-made nature of the monolith. Yet, Spiral Jetty was a product of two dump trucks, a front loader, and a tractor, and much of the filming done in that location was from a helicopter. The often unattractive aspects of works of Land art are these behind the scenes realities of what was done to make the work happen. That which breaks the spell which tells us the work is somehow integrated with the environment and that the artist made manifest that which was present in the ecological realities of a place. This spell is much more tied to Spiral Jetty than to the Utah monolith, yet it is the feeling of having always been there that drew people into the mystique of the monolith even as we knew it wasn’t true.
This recognition of the industrial realities of more monumental Land art works allows for certain recognitions of the critiques and rethinkings of it that Scott was getting at. But that isn’t to say that Smithson himself didn’t acknowledge it in some ways, and that the work itself doesn’t begin to move us towards an uncovering of how this is happening in general. This double edge of evaluative critique which comes from an excited engagement with an object of interest (as opposed to a constant engagement with what we hate, what Harney and Moten would refer to as an academy of misery) brings us to this moment. To return to Smithson’s essay,
Sandy slopes turned into viscous masses of perception. Slowly, we drew near to the lake, which resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stoney matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediments were countless bits of wreckage. Old piers were left high and dry. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern prehistory. The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in these expansive deposits of sand and mud.
Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. A hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of “the missing link.” A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.
In his poetic archaeology and ruinous curiosities Smithson acknowledges entropy as one of his great laws. Similar to the conclusion he draws in his essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey about the illusory control provided by films and cities, cities just being future ruins, his acknowledgement of the human failure against entropy at the Great Salt Lake begins to paint a picture against simple progress as the great law of Western Civilization. In an interview with Alison Sky titled Entropy Made Visible, he gets at this idea of entry by pointing towards its presence and power information systems, economics, the energy crisis, and even. And again, Spiral Jetty as this monumental human intervention upon the landscape has really becomes perhaps a beacon, a canary in the coalmine, for what is the even more monumental human intervention of climate change’s effects on the Great Salt Lake. Smithson’s monument to entropy points to the greater entropy created by drought in the Western United States and human utilization of massive amounts of water for industry. In Angela Wang’s article for Hyperallergic titled As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, “Spiral Jetty” May Be Marooned she highlights through Google Earth images of the Spiral Jetty location the severity of the withdraw of the shoreline, which only 50 years earlier Smithson referred to as “one of few places on the lake where the water comes right up to the mainland.”
Coming from this receding shoreline then, exiting out of the cliffs that the Utah monolith points to, where do we go? Perhaps we take a moment to reorient where our worldview is coming from. The Repellent Fence points us towards where we must go, and away from where we were. Looking at the twenty-six balloons that comprise the “fence” that cuts across transnational borders and the “repatriated indigenous iconography” of the open eye (which in some indigenous cultures represents accountability) that looks back at us and challenges us to look again. So let’s “look” differently. It is to follow Denise Ferreira Da Silva in a recalibration of the senses that recognizes that “The racial question renders decolonization the horizon of justice.”
Taste the air, the nanoparticles, and you might sense the steps of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable and his wife, Kitihawa, as they walked on the farm at the mouth of the Chicago River, just before this black settler, his Potawatomi wife, and their descendants left, mostly likely anticipating that they would not fare well as the white (British, French, and American) settlers attempted to establish control of the Illiniwek, Miami, and Potawatomi, to name a few of the Indigenous peoples of these lands. Listen and hear the cries before the killing in 1919 of young and old African Americans who had moved to Chicago, fleeing Jim Crow and lynching in the south and hoping to take over the industrial and other jobs vacated by white workers fighting in the dreadful war. Touch the cries of those who revolted after the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and its threat to the promise of racial equality embodied in the civil rights gains of the previous years. If one breathes deeply, the sounds of each of the six bullets that hit Lacquan Mcdonald’s body in October 2014 can be heard. Listening, tasting, touching, smelling might make it possible to see justice in its failings.
There is an impossibility of spatiotemporality that comes before this recalibration that Da Silva is attempting to formulate in this essay as her preface and outline of this racial question. Justice becomes delimited spatiotemporally and—which is also as she reminds us—racially. Speaking of Chicago specifically, she goes on to say, “When considered from here, from where racial violence rules, it is impossible to ignore how the city’s ethico-juridical apparatus refigures both the polity (in its administrative policies) and the colony (in its law enforcement practices).” And importantly Da Silva articulates this question “beyond the modern political text” which is about the completion of the modern project, or even necessarily inclusion within the broken system, that delimited space of reform that we operate in every day. So then to follow what Da Silva is articulating within this essay is to attempt to walk into another world, which is a possibility presented by what Moten has referred to as “the common project”, and is built against Western notions of reason, it is to follow the alogos, the anoriginary, to live in a radical sociality, a friendship, with others and it is against the constant improvement of the usufructuary and businesses’ relationship to land and to recognize that, “In the end, improvement is war, which is why the public sphere is war, and why the private—in its anti- and ante-individual impurity, as refuge even under constant pressure—is a porch.” And within these recalibrations we operate within failures, productive failures that are failures because they do not operate within these ethico-juridical economic frameworks that profit off of death and exploitation. To quote Da Silva once more,
Such a presentation of the racial question does not meet the criteria of the modern political discourse; actually it fails altogether. Ethically and aesthetically, however, such a composition might just get us a bit closer to the goal. For only such a composition—as a kind of text that articulates but does not resolve everything into a political position—might accommodate the ethical mandate to call into question our own existence. For there is a double demand to colonial residents, to all of us settlers: do not reproduce the violence and violations that have rendered our existence in occupied lands possible, and support (and, if invited, join in) the struggle for returning the land (and all the wealth derived from hundreds of years of extraction and expropriation) to its ancestral guardians. In Vancouver, where I am writing, they are the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations.
To then begin to think beyond and between the world(s) that we find ourselves in to forge new relationships between our bodies and the land. It is found in this case at multiple points, as it always must be, with the consideration that “actually it fails altogether”. Noting that it is in an altogether that we fail. Harney and Moten’s essay discussed earlier thinks it “on the other hand” as exchange, “a practice that prevents accumulation at, and as the elimination of, its source—the self-improving individual. Instead, exchange, given in and as the differential and differentiating entanglement of social life, even under the most powerful forms of constraint and regulation, is about a social optimum.” To return to dance and friendship,
George Clinton teaches us this:
I’m always waiting to see what dance they’re gonna do, because dance is always changing. But I trust the fact that funk affects the booty. So when I see somebody doing some type of dance, I always try to figure out what groove does it take to make the booty move like that? I’m really a bootyologist. I don’t just look at it cause it looks good, but how can I make sure with my music, the booty is at its optimum?
And Jacques Derrida teaches us to ask:
When will we be ready for an experience of freedom and equality that is capable of respectfully experiencing that friendship, which would at last be just, just beyond the law, and measured up against its measurelessness?
It’s just that we could only learn these lessons from them in having learned first from Cedric Robinson that the social optimum derives from social wealth, stepping out only to step back in all good, optimally, even under absolute duress, as the preservation in friendship of the socio-ontological totality. Like him, we look forward to getting back to the optimum we never left.
The relationships between the body and land, in the social optimum, are not after some new form of self-improvement either. It is to think beyond the law, beyond capital solutions, into this dance of friendship (a dance found in Gordon Hall’s dancing in Party Friends), and also through a disjoint of time, to notice we are not at the end of history, but that a nonlinear, anoriginary view of history can give us the necessary tools to challenge where we’re at.
LIFE AND HEALTH: Indigenous perspectives and the body’s relationship to the land
In Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship, Enrique Salmón gives us one perspective to follow through on, a concept called iwígara, which he alternately refers to as the “kincentric ecology” that comes from his culture, the Rarámuri, also known as Tarahumara. The Rarámuri live in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world which they call Gawi Wachi (the Place of Nurturing). Salmón argues that it is their concept of iwígara that has led to them being able to in the face of colonization and imposition of agricultural ideologies to continue to maintain the land healthily. As he puts it, “Iwígara is the total interconnectedness and integration of all life in the Sierra Madres, physical and spiritual. To say iwígara to aRarámuricalls on that person to realize life in all its forms. The person recalls the beginning of Rarámuri life, origins, and relationships to animals, plants, the place of nurturing, and the entities to which the Rarámuri look for guidance.” This is not simply an alternative way of engaging with the land. It’s not just monoculture vs poly or permaculture, although that is a part of it. It’s a distinctly different linguistic approach to the concepts embedded in a human-nature relationship. To challenge Western knowledge is to recognize certain impossibilities of our linguistic relationship to the world. That impossibility being that assumption that our language somehow allows us to speak directly of an objective reality, as opposed to recognizing that our language and what it allows us to say has a direct impact on our perception of a reality. Take for example this exchange between Salmón and a Rarámuri elder that he accompanied on a plant-collecting foray in which the elder chooses to collect from a specific “rincón or corner of a large arroyo”,
Walking to his rincón, we passed by several plants of the same species that we were intending to harvest that day. When we reached his rincón, there was an abundance of the particular plants. About a bushel was collected, with little impact on the population. When questioned as to why we did not collect the plants that we passed on the trail, he asserted that "those plants are not right for harvest because they are in the wrong place." Later examination revealed that the populations of plants that were passed were sparse in number when compared to those that were eventually harvested.
There is an understanding that harvesting threatened populations is not ecologically sound. Yet, he would not explain the situation in this manner. He suggested that the iwígara in these low-population areas is "weak" and must, therefore, be allowed to be strengthened before the plants there are of any use. In further conversation, he explained that collecting the plants in the rincón was good, because thinning them out actually helps the iwígara in the other plants to strengthen. He mentioned that their roots become entangled, thus weakening their breath. In addition, he mentioned that the plants like to be near each other because they share their breaths. Experience told him which populations were harvestable.
This is a relationship to the land that is absolutely distinct not only in how it happens, but in how its articulated, from everything we’ve discussed up to now. Kincentric ecology pushes us towards this linguistically different form of relationship to the land, to nature, and to the non-human in general, but also to our very existence and our relationships to our bodies.
That is to say, in considering the health of the land we also consider the health of the body, that necessary intertwining which is so often overlooked. I will not say much except that considering this relationship comes from the interpretive modes we’ve been engaging, but find here two quotes. One is from Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory and the other is from Carolyn Lazard’s The World is Unknown. Not only do these two quotes bring into focus certain ways that totalizing discourses that frame the land also frame our bodies, but they also propose two other languages to come at this concern from.
I am antagonistic to the notion that the Western medical-insurance industrial complex understands me in my entirety, though they seem to think they do. They have attached many words to me over the years, and though some of these have provided articulation that was useful – after all, no matter how much we are working to change the world, we must still find ways of coping with the reality at hand – first I want to suggest some other ways of understanding my “illness.” …
It’s important that I also share the Western medical terminology that’s been attached to me – whether I like it or not, it can provide a common vocabulary: “This is the oppressor’s language,” Adrienne Rich wrote in 1971, “yet I need it to talk to you.” But let me offer another language, too. In the Native American Cree language, the possessive noun and verb of a sentence are structured differently than in English. In Cree, one does not say, “I am sick.” Instead, one says, “The sickness has come to me.” I love that and want to honor it.
While biomedicine reads the body like a text, there is something about possession that matches the illegibility of the body—its sensuousness, its reach beyond words and our own understanding. I don’t mean to suggest that the body is illegible so let it be poked and prodded until it releases some information. I am saying that we need a medicine that emerges from this sensuousness, a medicine that feels in a different language, maybe the language of dreams.
This essay was born out of a frustration with the current discourses surrounding the Utah Monolith. While there were acknowledgements of it as an art object these were mostly relegated to efforts to “discover” its origins. Who made it and why is of little importance here, even if it could be clarifying to the overall goals of the object. I am invested in an artistic read of this object as it existed before people started flocking to it, as well as the performative engagements that came after. This is not because it is the object par excellence to have this conversation around, but because of how quickly it drew people to it after being discovered because of its mystery. Similarly to the banana duct taped to a wall by Maurizio Cattelan at Art Basel Miami titled The Comedian, it was the invested conversations that came after that were more interesting than the object on its own. What I’m arguing here is for an earnest engagement with what is going on, meeting a situation where it is at and thinking beyond, which is what art teaches us to do, the ethics art can give us.
In Eduardo Kohn’s essay Forest for the Trees he asked us to ecologize ethics. For him this requires not only the absolute restructuring of our human-centric ethical frameworks, but what it means to be human in general in concert with a planet that we are a part.
If I could capture in one phrase this ambition to ecologize ethics by virtue of an immersion in form, that phrase would be “forest for the trees.” The old adage about being unable “to see the forest for the trees” alludes to the common enough failure of the human imagination to abstract from the particular. I invoke and tweak it here to point to a failure of a different order: namely our failure to recognize the ways in which a forest is actually greater than the sum of its individual parts. 
From this abstract point of departure Kohn articulates that to glean from this more holistic view of a living world is to consider the relation between aesthetics and ethics, or to put it another to consider the relation, “Between…form and some sort of consideration of intention that is directionally guided—‘informed’ as it were—by form.” This is a consideration that is not just something that he gleans from an “academic armchair. It is also a question that a diverse Ecuadorian network of Indigenous activisits, academics, scientists, lawyers, architects, and artists is exploring in the real world as a part of their own innovative experiment in philosophical speculation aimed at finding a better way of life for our times.”
Amazonians derive an ethical orientation from the forms that a forest generates by cultivating technologies of access—such as dreaming…
In our collective dreams perhaps we can learn to see the forest for the trees, to listen for what its thoughts—manifested as spirit—have to say and to act accordingly. If I, along with my Amazonian colleagues, were to venture a wild guess, it would be that this is what we need today.
To consider this language of dreams, as Lazard puts it, that dream of friendship and dance and ethical engagements with the land our friend, our family. It is this language that can allow us to begin to, through art, even the art that fails (especially the kind that fails) articulate, gesture, and grasp at some space between two worlds.