"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974," a historical re-examination of the land art movement that closes Sunday, comes at a perfect time. It provides some thoughtful background information as we indulge in the large-scale public spectacle that is the unveiling of Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass at LACMA. It also acts as a sobering swan song for the "old culture" of MOCA, reminding us what they used to do best, pre-Deitch/Broad takeover: ambitious, in-depth examinations of contemporary art that change the discourse and provide an important point of reference for years to come.
A comprehensive, scholarly exhibition on land art has never been done before, and curators Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon envision "Ends of the Earth" as a sort of starter set, looking at the various artistic impulses that eventually gave rise to what we know as land art. In the process, they parse out a more nuanced definition of the genre than what is currently taught in art history classes. The stereotypical image of monumental works sited in remote American locations by macho artists gives way to a subtler, more wide-ranging spectrum of work that includes international artists, urban environments, the use of photography and video, and collusions with the gallery system.
One of my favorite discoveries was Hreinn Fridfinnsson's House Project (1974), which was based on an Icelandic novel in which the main character builds an inside-out house that has a corrugated iron interior and a delicate, wallpapered exterior. Fridfinnsson built this sweet little house, documented in photographs, in a barren lava field outside of Reykjavik, stating "This house harbors the whole world except for itself."
I was also moved by the efforts of Artur Barrio, who in 1970 placed bloody bundles of organic matter in open city sewers as a protest against atrocities in Brazil. Who knew that land art could be literary/poetic, politically driven, and small scale?
Going through "Ends of the Earth" is a process of discovery that invites deeper levels of engagement and opens the door to a more complex understanding of the movement. Unlike recent projects undertaken by the "new culture" of MOCA, it doesn't hit you over the head with the obvious and then evaporate back into the abyss of vacuity from which it came. "Ends of the Earth" invites multiple visits and its catalog, a substantial volume that includes several essays, an interview with the curators, and an annotated checklist, will be referred to by students, scholars and art fans for years to come.