Monday, March 22, 2010

You call it back-breaking labor, I call it Art

Harvey Fite spent 37 years of his life turning a former bluestone quarry beside his home in the Catskills into a 6.5-acre stone sculpture. Fite used all natural materials--considering himself in tune with the "land art" movement of the 60s-70s--and Egyptian engineering methods to move the huge pieces of stone. I realize this was the life's work that he chose for himself, but it's hard not to think of Sisyphus pushing that stupid stone up the mountain forever and ever.

He named the piece Opus 40, since he estimated it would take him 40 years to complete it. In 1976 he was working on part of the sculpture and fell to his death. His stepson inherited the property with the sculpture, running it as a curiosity and an event venue--weddings from $750--but he's now looking to sell. He hopes to find a buyer that will maintain the site and keep it open to the public.

The intriguing thing about the sculpture is really the sustained effort that Fite invested in it, not the manipulation of natural forms to reveal something invisible or unconsidered about the natural landscape. I mean, come on, there's a 15-foot monolith at the center of the piece that's lit at night by a floodlight. I wouldn't think of Opus 40 as land art any more than the pyramids at Giza, which is not to say that it is not cool. Also the $3.5 million asking price doesn't really seem to flout the commercial excesses of the art world, the way the land art movement purported to do.

I think real land art is something that doesn't refurbish a natural space to express mastery of nature or a human ideal (like say, Mt. Rushmore), but rather it is uses materials already in play to reveal something about nature to the viewer (like say, a Zen garden).

The most famous piece of land art is called "Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson, and it's located in Utah's Great Salt Lake. I think this piece draws the viewer into thinking about the interplay of wind, rock and water along the coastline. The "sculpture" changes over time with the rising and falling of the water level and the erosive effects of the forces acting on it. Here are two different views of it:

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