What is called Earth art (or "land art," "environmental art," or "earthworks") blends into the kind of large-scale work that Christo is noted for (Page 1 is about that). But here let's look at two different approaches to small-scale earth art: one focuses on rock and soil and land—earth in its ancient elemental sense—the other on stones themselves.
Elemental Earth Art
The first approach is like that of the giant earthworks in Page 1, though at the small scale it's less common and less clear cut. If an artist, like Laura Dalton at Cincinnati University, goes to an outcrop in the woods and festoons it with string as in her 1994 work "Slip," can we call it elemental art, or even sculpture? Or if someone like Andy Goldsworthy, noted for his work with sticks, leaves and ice, digs a hole in the earth and frames it with stones, is he then an earth artist, or an elemental artist who happens to be working in earth? He is probably so popular because he studiously avoids these fussy questions. So do the fun-loving sculptors at Sandworld.com.
Another approach to earth art is picking up stones and using them ready-made. Andy Goldsworthy has done striking pieces with cut and uncut stones. Celeste Roberge's "Rising Cairn," one of my favorite sculptures, makes a powerful statement with only a little more work. (See it in the illustrations to Part 1.) For them the stones are generic, interchangeable elements.
Richard Long is a maker of Six Stone Circles and similar works. The reference there, though, is clearly to ancient British culture rather than geology. And John Maine has explored the same ground in his Chiswell Earthworks, although the statement seems to reflect the land's form rather than its geologic history.
The late Ian Hamilton Finlay had possibilities: His noted Little Sparta sculpture farm indicates a deep connection with land and soil. And the notorious episode of 1978, in which he withdrew from an exhibition in Scotland declaring that the absence of the exhibition would be the exhibition, suggests that the great mute gesture like "Spiral Jetty" or "Opus 40," featured in Part 1, was not beyond him.
But among these culturalists, surficialists and conceptualists, the insight of the artist, as usual, appears to be cordoned off from that of the scientist.
Perhaps wry, postmodern attitude is better. Take the virtual photography made by Wim Delvoye, featuring casual scraps of text manipulated so they appear to be carved in colossal stone letters on mountainsides. Is a work like "Time to go. catch you later, A." about pathos, bathos, or the punchline to a trilobite joke, pasted on a geological marquee?
While we're here, let me single out computer artist Fred Casselman for his unpretentious "Sacred Stones," worth hanging on any desktop. Casselman also has on his site a moving study of landscape, "Heaven and Earth," based on an image blending sea and land. Every field geologist cherishes special times outdoors, and to me there is a true essence of these moments in this purely digital work.
The Art of the Stone
But what of the stone itself, in its unique individuality? Anyone who ever pocketed a favored rock knows that stones can be very special. "Earth artists" seem to have a more nuanced outlook that is leery of this simplistic insight.
The Japanese, for their part, have taken that insight and cultivated it. So it is that they are masters of the traditional art of suiseki, the practice of finding and presenting natural unworked stones that induce tranquility, repose, balance—Zen rockhounding.
Where the geologist sees a stone as a riddle—a set of mineral and morphological clues to the history of the area—the devotee of suiseki sees a stone as a pure aesthetic experience, a mystery rather than a puzzle. Suiseki (from the Japanese words "water stone") are natural, unworked stones that suggest the forms of mountains, islands, crags, abstract concepts, or maybe just plates of food. The art of suiseki appreciation has existed for centuries in Japan. Recently Westerners have taken up the art, and many American stones meet the highest standards. California, home of so many other Japanese cultural transplants, has its own suiseki master, Felix Rivera.
The neighboring nations of Asia have similar traditions. In China, miniature landscapes are created, including tiny buildings and forests, in the practice of penjing. And gongshi or "scholar's stones" are prized for their abstract, even grotesque shapes. In Vietnam, the Chinese traditions have mutated into hòn non bô, in which the aesthetic favors vertically extended landscape shapes that verge on hoodoos.
The geologist beholding these artworks feels his mind gently twisted. The stones, of course, may owe their shapes to erosion and their textures to schistosity, brecciation or foliation. But these geologic facts are irrelevant, probably a distraction, to the collector/artist. All we can do is keep our big words to ourselves and enjoy the pleasant shock of seeing the familiar—perhaps even rocks from our own field areas—in a different context.