Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April 2005.
Geography is the study of people, places, things, and the environment. Geographers, the practitioners of geography, scrutinize the relationship between natural and synthetic environments. Geography is akin to art because both disciplines seek to communicate humanity’s reciprocal relationship with the world. While geography uses data and research methods to study people, places, things, and natural phenomena, artists use symbolic expression to humanize these aforementioned relationships. Because the environment and its impact on both perception and culture has enormous effects on the way we communicate, environmental geography has inspired artistic movements of the past such as the Hudson River School, as well as the contemporary Land Art zeitgeist.
The Hudson River School painters were so taken with the pristine landscape of the mid-19th century Hudson Valley (in New York state) that they captured its glory and essence within their large oil paintings. These paintings visualize a unique moment in time as observed and experienced by the artists themselves. The motive of the artists from the Hudson River School was to symbolically depict their discovery and exploration of the natural scenery surrounding the cities and towns that had been settled in the relatively young United States of America. They also wanted to show the possibilities for humans and nature to coexist in an era that was experiencing rapid industrialization and development (of course, this was somewhat of a false modesty since the indigenous Native Americans were already achieving this prior to the arrival of European colonists).
Thomas Cole, A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, 1844, oil on canvas
Photograph of North South Lake by Brian Paul, 2018.
While there were stylistic elements in the paintings by Hudson River School artists (such as color, line, scale, and texture) that they enhanced for dramatic effect (after all, the movement was inspired by the highly idealized and subjective style of 18th and 19th Century Romanticism), a glimpse of Thomas Cole’s painting A View of Two Lakes, And Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844), and a photograph of North South Lake from 2018 by avid Hudson Valley and Catskills hiker Brian Paul, shows that the scenery featured in Cole’s painting is largely intact to this day. This is one example of how geographically themed art from the past can inform us about the similarities and differences between the civilizations of the past and present. In some cases, the environment has changed so drastically that renderings from the past are nearly unrecognizable today. For example, the way that historical artists such as William Merritt Chase and Henry Gritten depicted the Gowanus Bay (namesake to the contemporary Gowanus Canal) in New York City compared with contemporary works of art by Steven Hirsch and Sto Len, reflect the alarming effects of human made pollution (due to unregulated industry that began shortly after Chase and Gritten painted their depictions of the bay), which resulted in the Gowanus Canal becoming a designated Superfund site. While landscapes depict natural geography, cityscapes portray the communities that humans have designed constructed. The social emotional role that cityscapes play in our relationship and experience with the world around us has been described in a previous post, citing examples of artwork by Romare Bearden and Martin Wong.
Land art is a conceptual public art movement that started in the 1960’s and 70’s with an aim to direct art’s focus back to the natural environment. Just like the Hudson River School painters, land artists wanted to create bold forms of visual expression that would inspire awe and interest in nature and present a stark contrast to the urban and industrial scenes prevalent throughout the modern world. While there are no strict stylistic guideline’s for defining the movement, the common theme has been the use of natural materials found in situ to create large scale works of art that transform the landscape of remote geographical locations. Artists like Robert Smithson, whose landmark land artwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), exists on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. The massive sculpture was constructed entirely from mud, basalt rock, salt crystals, and water. In other words, Smithson created the entire 15 foot wide work of art from the natural materials on site. Because the sculpture protrudes out into Great Salt Lake, it is periodically covered by water (although recent droughts have made its visibility more prominent) and subjected to natural elements, which can potentially cause its physical deterioration (or destruction). The work of art is currently maintained by Dia Foundation whose ongoing mission is to preserve the sculpture, which is threatened due to both natural and human made reasons. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has become a major tourist destination for art lovers and interested travelers alike. It has even been added to geographical maps of the region and declared by the state of Utah to be its official artwork.
Although self declared as not being land artists, Husband and wife artist duo, Christo and Jean-Claude, have artfully raised awareness for the natural environment by encircling and covering natural and physical objects in brightly hued fabric or other materials. For example, their project Surrounded Islands, emphasized the geographical location of eleven islands within Biscayne Bay in Greater Miami, Florida by forming a bright pink outline around each island. The floating pink fabric surrounding each land mass highlighted the islands’ tropical flora, the array of colors noticeable in the water of Biscayne Bay, and visual effects of the Floridian sky. As a result of Christo and Jean-Claude’s creative endeavor, forty tons of garbage was removed from within the eleven islands.
While Christo and Jean-Claude’s Land Art installations have all been ephemeral, the impactful qualities of each project have culminated in a longstanding dialogue regarding environmental conservation and cultural identity. While some critics applauded the couple for their contributions to environmental and cultural awareness (See: Fineberg, 2004; Galloway, 1995), others have highlighted the controversy their projects have caused among some groups living in the region where Christo and Jean-Claude’s work was proposed and/or displayed. The conversation regarding the merit of Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is a fine example of how geographical regions are made up of a diverse range of individuals with a variety of opinions on culture, aesthetics, and the environment. Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is crucial to the conversation regarding what outcomes public art should account for in relationship to the people and the physical spaces where the work is installed. In other words, is the project beneficial to the people and the environment that encompass the geographic location where a public artist(s) chooses to work?
This brings us to the concept of placemaking and the public artist’s responsibility for addressing cultural geography in an empathetic and mindful way. A good example of a successful public art project that brought the public together in a positive way, is Wrapped Reichstag by Christo and Jean-Claude. In addition to working with the natural environment, Christo and Jean-Claude have employed their signature style of aesthetic wrapping over human-made geographical landmarks such as Germany’s Reichstag. After planning Wrapped Reichstag for over twenty years, the duo finally put their plan to action on June 24, 1995. The wrapping of this historic building was a cathartic expression in light of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The building’s geographical location, just meters from the wall that divided Germany in two, provided a poignant symbolic metaphor of a country that suffered from political, cultural, and social emotional schizophrenia during and in the immediate wake of the Cold War. By wrapping the building in a manner that resembled the way we wrap presents, the artists re-presented the Reichstag to the German people signifying a celebratory moment in their history. The response to the public artwork was overwhelmingly positive with large crowds of German citizens (former citizens of East and West Germany) gleefully gathering around the site during the project’s construction and throughout its display.
Artists such as Paula Scher and Justin Blinder have also creatively utilized geography to address social, economic, and political concerns. Paula Scher’s painted maps of the United States employ elements of art and principals of design such as color, line, and typography to communicate a wide degree of information such as local population, real estate costs, demographics, voting trends, political affiliations, transportation systems, and weather patterns. Scher’s maps are replete with information, but there is a very personal element to each large scale painting. This is evident in the blatant gestural marks and painterly like textures, which emphasize Scher’s personal emotional response to the data being presented. There is provocative political commentary within many of the social, economic, and environmentally themed maps, where it is clear through the expressionistic painting style that Scher feels a sense of urgency to address and raise our awareness to these issues. Overall, these maps, which also include the durations of driving from city to city, time zones and area codes, afford us a wealth of different perspectives for understanding our vastly diverse Nation.
Justin Blinder’s Vacated series (2013) addresses the rapid and turbulent changes to neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan by documenting the process of gentrification using a cache of images collected through Google Street View. About his process, which is a combination of data mining, computer programing, and geographic mapping, Blinder stated:
“Vacated reverse engineers Google Street View to highlight the changing landscape of various neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The project finds cached, historic images of New York City hiding in plain sight on Google Street View. These images are algorithmically extracted by merging the Department of City Planning’s PLUTO dataset with Google Street View, and searching for all properties that have been altered or constructed since Google Street View began (2007.)”
In the GIF image above, Blinder depicts a vacant lot and adjacent family homes turn into a massive luxury condo on the corner of McGuinness Blvd. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The drastic transformation from small multifamily homes and mom and pop storefronts into impersonal looking condos with chain retailers is both visually and emotionally stirring. One of the negative effects of gentrification is that it negates a neighborhood’s architectural character by favoring bland and uniform residential towers over historic architecture. Additionally, gentrification displaces many longtime residents who contributed to the fabric of their neighborhood for generations, which greatly shifts a neighborhood’s demographics and culture.
Guadalupe Maravilla, Requiem for my border crossing and Tripa Chuca on view at The Whitney Museum. Photograph by Adam Zucker
In addition to documenting and expressing their relationship to world around them, artists, being creative and visionary people, might also choose create imagined geography. For example, Guadalupe Maravilla’s series of collaborative drawings called Requiem for my border crossing were realized through a collaboration between the El Salvador born artist and undocumented U.S. immigrants engaging in the popular Salvadoran game called Tripa Chuca (translation: dirty guts),where players each take turns drawing lines paper. The rule of the game is that these lines can not intersect. The fantastical drawings in Requiem for my border crossing were inspired by maps from a 16th Century Aztec codice that documents the indigenous peoples called the Toltec and Chichimec, who lived in areas that make up modern day Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Using the maps in the codice as a starting point, Maravilla and his collaborators embarked in a symbolic dialogue between historical and contemporary experiences of cultural identity and immigration. Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme (1996) is a scale model of an idealized cityscape featuring references to a variety of the world’s civilizations, which the artist describes as “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all the races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven.” With global civilization in a constant state of flux and turmoil, envisioning a better and more unified world has been a key component of many artists’ practice.
Because geography and art are both disciplines that contextualize human experience within the world, it is beneficial they are presented in a way that has profound consequences for lifelong learning. An art-centered geography curriculum should promote understanding, communication, and connectivity across borders and state lines (also discussed in a previous post called Transcending Boundaries, which cites the work of Tanya Aguiñiga and AMBOS). It should seek to express and depict unique visions that celebrate local and global communities and preserve our shared natural resources.
Through a variety of independent and collaborative projects, students can harness the power of art to become emerging geographers and community development planners. An example of a project would be to have students design their own unique neighborhood maps, based on their experiences, prior knowledge, and research on their own communities (an overarching theme within this unit is think locally act globally). For inspiration, students can be shown Romare Bearden’s The Block, Martin Wong’s La Vida, and Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme. Students should describe what they see, identify the types of people and buildings that make up the compositions, and judge whether the depiction is realistic, imagined, or a mix of the two. Next, they can discuss the information saturated maps of Paula Scher and Justin Blinder’s Vacated project. Students should be prompted to describe their neighborhood in terms of its resources (or lack thereof) and elaborate on whether they’ve noticed any social, economic, or environmental changes.
Students will then be asked to discuss what community means to them, brainstorm several ideas about what makes a good community, and be given a homework assignment to interview people within their own communities in order to find out what others think the epitome of a good community should encompass. During studio time, Students will re-imagine their neighborhood in a highly personalized manner, which reflects what they believe represents a good community. Taking the role of a community development planner, students will create 2D paper collage maps of their neighborhoods that incorporates their needs and interests and the interests and needs of their neighbors. They can include whatever else they think would make their neighborhood collectively better, such as parks, public plazas, restaurants, better infrastructure (such as public transportation and bike paths), or quality affordable housing. This project can also be extended to incorporate 3D paper attachments in order to make scale models of the maps they have designed. Students will present upon why they believe they have improved their neighborhood for themselves and the other people who live there.
In order to maintain and repair the natural environment, and make communities more equitable and sustainable, it will take a great deal of pragmatic knowledge along with outside the box thinking. The practical knowledge acquired from learning geography in tandem with the innovative processes and empathy learned from the arts, might just inspire generations of students to become stewards of their world.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Davis, Ben. 2018. “Congolese Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Most Ambitious Work Is an Intricate Dream City. Here’s How to Understand It.” Artnet. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/bodys-isek-kingelez-1308167
Fineberg, Jonathan. 2004. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to The Gates: Central Park, New York City. Yale University Press: New York.
Galloway, David. 1995) “Packaging the Past.” Art in America. 83. 86-89, 133.
Marshall, Julia & David M. Donahue. 2014. Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom. Teacher’s College Press: New York.