The Lonesome, Crowded West
January 27, 2006
When I take my roadtrip one day through the American Southwest to see its many site-specific earth artworks, the last stop will be the furthest frontier in American earth art: Joshua Tree, California. While Michael Heizer plows his City, and James Turrell burrows Roden Crater*—two monumental earth sites that have been in the hopper for decades now—Andrea Zittel is turning Joshua Tree into a new category of earthwork altogether.
Zittel, the winner of the Smithsonian American Art Museum 2005 Lucelia Artist Award, worked from 1994 to 1998 in a storefront space in Brooklyn called A–Z East. Here she gradually replaced the commercial objects that could conceivably enter into a residence or workspace with her own meticulously manufactured art objects—from clothing to climate-controlled chambers. The artist relocated the headquarters for her “designs for living” to her home state of California several years ago; A–Z West in Joshua Tree might be considered the outlet for her “outdoors” line.
If you’ve seen “Critical Designs” solo exhibition of her work (either recently at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston or currently at the New Museum in New York), you may well object to a characterization of her work as site-specific “earth art.” Fair enough: the scope of her designs encompasses roles and obligations in Western societies, the psychology behind commercial production, and the economy.
Yet Zittel’s High Desert Test Sites sees her totalistic approach to an individual’s surroundings applied to the environment. The project’s mission is to “challenge traditional conventions of ownership, property and patronage,” which are merely other aspects of personal economy—but writ to the land. In that sense the project falls under that site-specific earthwork column, if perhaps loosely; her micro-economy focus deviates from the macro-scale works of the 1960s, and Zittel’s are not nearly as permanent.
Nevertheless, for Zittel, the sublime is a significant draw. The artist describes her relationship to the site of A–Z West:
This desert region originally appealed to us because it seemed that one could “do anything here”—which we are finding out isn’t exactly true! It is also the historical site of the five-acre Homestead Act. In the 1940s and 50s legislation gave people 5 acres of land for free if they could improve it by building a minimal structure. The result is a seemingly infinite grid system of dirt roads that cuts up a very beautiful desert region. In the middle of each perfect square of land is a tiny shack—most of them long since abandoned. The area and its history represent a very poignant clash of human idealism, the harshness of the desert climate and the vast distances that it places in between people.
As nature reclaims the relics of civilization, those artifacts become part and parcel to nature (I’m thinking here of Edward Burtynsky’s landscape photography). By acknowledging those relics and their history as being massive and beyond reach—on the scale of a desert or sea—Zittel’s Joshua Tree matches the tenor of other works tied to the Southwest.
* The unfinished Web page about the unfinished earthwork delivers the clever pun: "Site under construction."
When I think of earth artworks in the Southwest, I can’t help but think of the Indians' visual contributions to the landscape. Given that Zittel says that “The HDTS mission is to challenge traditional conventions of ownership, property and patronage,” I don’t think that this parallel is much of a stretch. Native peoples have been leaving rock art, creating earthen dwellings artfully lodged in hillsides, and using their bodies as sites for painted art for generations in ways that are certainly outside the constructs of western art that Zittel seeks to challenge.
Posted by: Cassie | Jan 27, 2006
I'm usually willing to overlook most modern art - especially the kind that usually graces (to use a euphemism) the walls of the Tate Gallery - but I really have to wonder in what sense Ms Zittel's "A-Z Management and Maintenance Unit" qualifies as Art (other than, of course, having thrown in the kitchen sink).
It's hard to tell just from the photos online, but it looks as if the craftsmanship is skilled, the sense of proportion good, and the use of materials excellent.
But how is this different from a handmade piece of exquisite Swediah furniture? I would argue that either both are Art or neither. Since I can't really support the case for "neither", I have to ask why Ms Zittel is the artist, and Mr Swenson is only a "cabinet-maker". (And I'm not saying it might not be art because it might be utilitarian.)
I'm tempted to offer this as a definition of what makes someone an artist: "one who has established good working relationships with owners of art galleries" - a definition that purposely leaves out any reference to the work.
Posted by: Mike Z | Jan 27, 2006
That's a cynical (and not uncommon) view, Mike Z. But I'll disagree and say that Zittel's project is easily distinguished from that of the tradesmen you mention. She's tried to accomplish all the goals of all tradesmen by making everything. Instead of processing the things in her environment through her art, she's manufacturing her environment with art objects. Do you see the distinction in strategy?
Posted by: Kriston | Jan 30, 2006
I admit to turning up the cynicism control.
If indeed she makes everything (and I'll take your word for it), she's a leap ahead of most artists - who don't make their own paint, brushes, or canvas.
You mention strategy - one of the things I've thought is that art is intention. If I intend it to be art, then it is, no matter how well or poorly I execute it. The result is just good art or bad.
I also used the phrase "only a cabinet-maker" in a bit of a sarcastic vein. Mr Swenson is an artist, I believe, because he takes his materials (selecting wood from newly-fallen trees, selecting, curing, shaping it), and hardware from like minded artisans (there's another distintion), and shapes the lot into a whole that matches his vision. (Which almost certainly takes the environment it's going into in to account.)
Would you at least agree that there's a continuum (of some sort) with "artist" at one end, "artisan" somehere along the line, and "tinkerer" quite some distance away?
Posted by: Mike Z | Jan 30, 2006
How fitting that Zittel's and her HDTS are in one of the last 'rural' outside LA. Looking at her work has given me new perspective on Mike Davis' remarkable book "City of Quartz- Excavating the Future of Los Angeles." One major theme is the expansion of LA into the desert. Now I keep thinking here is new art, which along with the old is to be both celebrated and endangered.
Posted by: Joanna | Jan 31, 2006
Sorry, I didn't mean to give the impression that she makes everything by hand. That would certainly be impressive.
Your third paragraph, about Swenson, drives at an important point: that art is largely about its reception. Your continuum is probably an accurate description in most cases, but as models tend to do, it frays at the edges: I can think of "outsider" artists, for example, who might be aptly described as tinkerers, who might even describe themselves in those terms, whose work comes to be seen as having greater vision than the artist strictly intended.
Posted by: Kriston | Jan 31, 2006
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