NATURE AND FREEDOM: ARTISTS AMONG THE ELEMENTS

We Wealth | March 2021

After many months in lockdown, the imagination wanders towards open spaces, where the art of people dialogues with the living forces and forms of nature. Their meeting, frequently celebrated by ancient peoples, has known moments of prosperity. The term “third nature” was coined in the 16th century to describe the marriage of creativity and water, fire or earth, embodied for example by Bernardo Buontalenti’s amphibious creations or by Bernard Palissy’s fiery works.

For several decades, the art world has been feeling the urge to escape from the airtight walls of museums and galleries to explore less domesticated spaces, better suited for welcoming and expressing the drive that compels some artists to face aesthetically the challenges of the matter, the origins, the cosmos. Sometimes, artists attain something more than land art, at least a more radical version of it – the American sculptor Walter De Maria (1935-2013) chose the desert of the New Mexico for his rather unattainable Lightning Field (commissioned by DIA and completed in 1977): the rectangular ‘field’ made of 400 steel poles – six meters high and set 77 meters apart from one another – follows the undulations of the land. Visitors are invited to observe it from a distance and to explore it far and wide. 

In this way, the artwork becomes experience and act, while spectators become actors in the ‘field’: they follow trajectories that vary with the direction of the path, the hour of the day, the climate. The dialogue with the weather conditions is at the heart of Lighning Field: the visit includes one night in the adjacent hut which conveys the perception of the desert and silence and, in case of thunderstorm, the electrifying vision of lightnings hitting the iron tips. It is hard to put into words the extreme poetry of an artwork that becomes the ‘architectural and sensory support’ of natural phenomena (Germano Celant, Domus, June 2011). It is hard to explain verbally a piece of art that demands physical presence, participation, interaction and intimacy with its landscape. It is a unique, unexportable artwork incorporated to the landscape

The thrill of the encounter between natural elements and the creator’s hand returns, although less potently, in De Maria’s ‘earth room’: installed in Soho, the four walls of The New York Earth Room (1977) contain two hundred cubic meters of brown and odorous earth; for more than forty years, the artwork has welcomed and shocked its visitors as they come out of a narrow, urban stair. The thick call of matter to rough rurality in the midst of the most frivolous neighborhood of New York tells of a complex relationship between nature and art, of attraction and discontinuity. 

The many modulations of the close encounters between art, technè, cosmos and nature lead, for example, to Richard Long’s lines and circles, to Robert Smithson‘s Spiral Jetty in the waters of the great salt lake of Utah, to Christo‘s recent Floating Piers on the Lake Iseo, with the water lapping under each step, the yellow and orange geometry of the path. Or the rather demiurgic landscapes dug, sculpted, shaped by Michael HeizerNancy Holt and James Turrell in the deserts of the American West. On the other hand, the curious idiom ‘astronomic’ used by Melissa McGill for her Constellation (2015-2017) with its perimeter made of 17 thin aluminum poles of various heights (12-24 meters) topped by sun powered led lights.

McGill’s constellation was installed on the ruins of an old neo-gothic castle on Pollepel Island, along a rather rural section of the Hudson river. When night comes, the constellation lights up, suspended on the ruins and on the water, mysterious, poetic, perhaps mindful of the cosmogony of the Lenape tribe, once the only inhabitant of the region. 

In McGill’s more recent Red Regatta, painting and memory play with the wind and water of the Venetian laguna. The protagonists of the regatta are fifty traditional boats (lug sail) embellished by hand-painted sails in fifty shades of intense and deep red, under the ruling chromatic sign of the Serenissima. In four different occasions and following four different paths, from May to October 2019, these rather peculiar and choral actors silently and elegantly slid on the waves of the laguna and the Giudecca Canal, all too often crossed by careless ships oblivious to the harm caused to the city and the laguna. With its colorful invasion of the water, the red fleet recalls the fragility of Venice and invites the audience to explore forms of aesthetic fruition unconnected to consumption, but rather linked to interaction and knowledge. With the wind, water, the memory of the sea and painting, Red Regatta has written its page on the dialogue between artist, elements and environment. 

In the eyes of those who live in the city at the time of the pandemic, the encounter between elemental forces and human intelligence seems far away. However, a walk in Milan and a keen eye allow to find its traces in many public sculptures and more. Doesn’t Grande Disco by Arnaldo Pomodoro (1972, Piazza Meda) look like a star fallen on the earth from another world? Near the Cimitero Monumentale, La vita infinita by Kengiro Azuma (MU141, 2015) invites to dwell on the relationship between full and empty, between what is matter and what is not.At the Hangar Bicocca, visitors are welcomed by Fausto Melotti’s La sequenza (1981). Its columns and music reveal a dialogue between ‘immaterial’ elements and the powerful Corten steel of the artwork. Two sculptures by Gio’ Pomodoro have recently been installed in a private garden in Milan. The artist often engages in a dialogue with the outer space as suggested by the titles of his sculptures, from Soli to his homages to Kepler and Galileo. The two sculptures, Guardiano lunare and Lamo (1996), evoke the stars and the water in a sort of hand-to-hand with the coarse granite and the artisanal iron of the stonecutter: another lively example of the fatal attraction between artists and elements, another warning to not lose sight of the demands and needs of nature. 

Caroline Patey

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