A New Generation of Land Artists Are Bringing Earth into Galleries and Museums

Daniel Lie, installation view of Unnamed Entities, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities,” 2022 at New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of New Museum.

Although land art is commonly associated with the movement of site-specific earthworks that flourished in the 1970s, today, spurred by the reality of climate collapse, a new generation is adopting that term—and bringing land into the gallery.

For example, at the 59th Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, “The Milk of Dreams,” artists like Precious Okoyomon and Delcy Morelos transformed the hallowed exhibition halls with soil, rocks, and vegetation. Both artists activated not just the space but the audience’s senses: With Earthly Paradise (2022), Morelos covered a large swathe of the Arsenale with cinnamon- and spice-infused dirt, arranged in massive minimal blocks that infused the gallery space with its visual weight and lush aroma. And Okoyomon dazzled audiences with To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2022), which turned an entire room into a lush environment with butterflies and life-size dirt-and-blood sculptural figures. Works like these present land as a material that is buried and mingled within the institution, not outside of it.

This contemporary land art also disrupts the idea that the human body is separate from its environment. Often, this is achieved through sensory experiences. For instance, Daniel Lie’s Unnamed Entities (2022), which was shown at the New Museum earlier this year, overwhelmed the senses with jute hemp fabric, flowers, straw hay bales, and mud with spores and seeds that slowly rotted away over the course of the exhibition. Artists working in this mode are pushing back against the history of Earth as something uncultivated, and instead elevate it as a living, breathing entity that exists alongside us and powerfully transforms over time.

Delcy Morelos, installation view of Earthly Paradise , 2022, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams,” 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

Dirt in the gallery space is not new, however. Walter De Maria’s infamous New York Earth Room (1977) at 141 Wooster Street in SoHo has captivated audiences for 45 years. The permanent installation, commissioned and maintained by the Dia Art Foundation, still contains the same dirt from its New York inception and has taken on a mythic status of being a seemingly unchanged work (the installation recently closed for conservation and will reopen in early 2023). The Earth Room is infamously walled off from audience interaction, becoming more of a commentary on real estate and the passing of time and less about our entanglement with the environment.

For artists like Lie, Okoyomon, and Morelos, land art provides an encounter with Earth that treats it as an ever-changing collaborator rather than something to control or conquer. “In a way, what Lie’s work is proposing is the opposite of what most of the land artists or minimal artists were proposing here in the U.S. with their large-scale works,” curator Bernardo Mosqueira wrote to Artsy. “While those [1970s land artists] were demonstrating their personal power (and by extension the power of humanity) of transforming materials, dominating nature, and marking the landscape (conscious of that or not), Daniel Lie’s work is all about decentering the human, showing how we can not control the cycles we’re part of.”

Daniel Lie, installation view of Unnamed Entities, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities,” 2022 at New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of New Museum.

Daniel Lie, installation view of Unnamed Entities, in “Daniel Lie: Unnamed Entities,” 2022 at New Museum, New York. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of New Museum.

For Lie, the inclusion of dirt as a material substance is a way to reestablish the audience’s perspective on Earth, from one of use to one of mutual exchange. The Brazilian artist works through complicated histories of nationalism and belonging to the land, drawing inspiration from Brazil’s 338-year history of slavery and the genocide of its Indgenous people. “In my practice, I consider how these separations between body and environment can be abolished,” they stated in an interview with the Museum of Modern Art. “Perhaps the first step is acknowledging that humans are not and cannot engage in hierarchical relationships with other beings.”

The transformation of Earth, as measured by decay, and its ability to affect audiences, are central to Lie’s, Okoyomon’s, and Morelos’s work. Morelos, for example, imbues her earthworks with Andean mythology to give agency to the environment. She treats her installations as altars for intensifying the aromas present to symbolize both sweetness and fermentation. In doing so, the work becomes something sacred that overwhelms the body rather than a static object.

I could not help but compare my experiences of the three artists’ works, from Lie’s decaying installation, which smelled similar to expired fertilizer, to the pleasurable whiffs of cinnamon that filled the air of Morelos’s Earthly Paradise, to the scent of the fresh spring water streaming through Okoyomon’s To See the Earth Before the End of the World. I shudder to think how time and the Venetian heat may change the latter two artists’ works, likely transforming the fragrant smells witnessed during the Biennale’s damp spring opening.

Precious Okoyomon, installation view of To See The Earth Before the End of the World , 2022, at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “The Milk of Dreams,” 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

These earthworks trigger not only a corporeal response among visitors, but allude to a spiritual plane that the Earth represents. “In [Lie’s] work, they ‘invite’ beings they term other-than-human beings to inhabit a certain place, coexisting, living part of their cycles in this environment, leading the transformation of the space,” wrote Mosqueira. “These beings are, of course, bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and minerals, but also spirits, ancestors, beings that have not yet been named…forces that form a space even if they are ‘unseen.’” Similarly, Okoyomon uses their dirt molds as avatars for mythological deities and ancestors in their installation.

This new earth art opposes Earth as an inert material to remind us that we cannot escape the environment and that we all live and die as earthly beings like every other organic material. “We have lost all sensitivity regarding our environment,” Morelos said to the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires. “We no longer know what the Earth is and what its essence is, its power and its magic. This ignorance leads us to destroy and degrade it without realizing that we are also destroying and degrading ourselves.” Ultimately, by filling these critical, institutional environments with dirt, Morelos and her artist peers transform not just those spaces, but us as well.

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