Published in SPACED booklet, in association with a solo exhibition at the High Street Project Christchurch
The documentation of art can be illusive process. For a long time we have known to be sceptical of the photograph as a record of truth, but for the land artists of the 1960s and 70s documentation was a vital procedure before nature reclaimed its course. In rendering land art in two dimensions, these reproductions remain a mere echo of the spaces that are no longer accessible, and the surviving images (far removed from the actual sites) have come to stand for the works themselves.
To some extent documentation has become the art, and by nature of the viewer’s passive acceptance we believe these records without question. Growing up in a country which brands itself based on its landscape, we are so bombarded with images that it can be difficult to distinguish between the memory of physically visiting a place and the removed viewing of it. Though we may not have skied down the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, we come to identify it based on our exposure to paintings and tourism material. Therefore, whether we have actually visited is irrelevant when measuring our familiarity with its image.
In contrast to gallery based art, land art sought to make an impact on the environment, whether via community-based restorative actions or individual artist-as-pioneer (often ecologically detrimental) efforts. Carl Andre’s Rock Rile (1968), Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), Robert Morris’s Observatory (1971) and Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) are just some of such works referenced in Kate Woods practice.
During the 1960s and 70s documentation of land art was very selective with heavy restrictions on who was allowed to photograph such experiential works. Often only one photographer was permitted to document the works and as a result only one perspective was recorded. Due to their nature some works have long since deteriorated with many no longer existing other than through documentation. Only a small audience were able to physically experience the works, while the rest of us were destined to experience the works hypothetically in the depths of our imagination.
Robert Smithson’s work is of particular significance to Woods’ practice. Smithson exhibited his non-sites (1968) as self-contained installations of earth samples and records in modernist gallery environments.(2) His interest in the crystalline as a symbol of the ‘ultramoderne’(3) incorporated the use of mirrors, like Woods’ floating multifaceted and refracted forms. Woods’ amalgamated works are a continuation of Smithson’s non-sites. By recontextualising the site specificity of land art, both Woods’ and Smithson’s works consider the integrity of documentation.
In 1919 a group of artists and architects lead by Bruno Taut established themselves as the Crystal Chain Gang. A utopian avant-guard art movement interested in the scientific and spiritual aspects of crystal forms, the CCG envisaged all that was crystalline as a marker of truth. Eighty years later Allan Smith curated The Crystal Chain Gang: prismatic geometry in recent art for the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Woods’ works not only pay homage the land artists of the 1960s and 70s, but also references recent Crystal Chain Gang member Gavin Hipkins, whose 1999-2000 series was titled The Model (Action).
For this work Hipkins documented the cardboard construction of a ‘ninety-two non-uniform convex polyhedra with regular faces’ (4) as originally demonstrated during the 1960s by mathematician David Patterson. Extending this artistic exploration of geometric space Woods’ combination of sculpture, photography and the look of cubist painting is essentially about real and constructed space. Working with a two dimensional reproduction of an originally three-dimensional work, Woods produces a three- dimensional object (painted cardboard sculptures) that (photographed) are in turn reduced back to two dimensions. By repeatedly re-working the spatial characteristics of these objects, Woods can be understood as testing the identity of these works across their successive reproductive mediums. Such investigations are as much about representation itself as they are about the identity of the original art works.
Nesting artificial sculptures within ‘natural’ scenery, Woods draws attention to the way particular landscapes are constructed. Be they Romantic- Sublime, aerial survey shots of New Zealand farmland, Blair Witch style forests or chocolate box landscapes; each identifies a different relationship to and production of the land. Through re-presenting these images within the gallery setting and juxtaposing them against cubist forms, Woods focuses on these processes. By subjecting them to the critical artistic gaze Woods encourages us to question our production and consumption of the land. Through her use of local backgrounds, Woods’ re-staging of land art investigates the credibility of documentation. By reproducing and re- presenting land art forms in a New Zealand environment, (often using imagery that pre-date the American originals such as in Beams and Rockrile) Woods’ crystalline sublime educes confusion as to when and where (and whether or not) they once existed.
Drawing on the ideas of French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, Woods considers her Spaced series as a ‘kind of’ simulacra (5) Baudrillard defines simulacra as the copy without an original (6) and argues that we now live in a hyperreal world, made up of simulacra, or representations that do not have any model in the ‘real world.’ Her finished works are like simulacra, as copies assembled with many ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ locations and materials that together never existed originally.
The two elements that make up Woods’ works (landscapes and crystalline forms) are questionable in terms of their ‘real-ness.’ Woods’ recycled landscapes are sourced from popular culture rather than actual places seen. As simulacra these images exist as archetypes of our collective social memory rather than ‘real’ places. Likewise her photographed cardboard sculptures are based on black and white reproductions of land art from art texts. Though the representation of land art still exists the ‘real’ work has long since deteriorated. Thus Woods’ forms have no real world equivalent from which to claim their status as true representations, they are simulacra. Baudrillard writes that ‘reality itself founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium, such as photography, from medium to medium the real is volatised” .(7) In a similar way Woods meticulous reduplication and re- presentation of 1960’s and 70’s land art through medium after medium volatises how we understand space, form and representation.
Andrea Bell has a Masters degree in Art Curatorship through the University of Melbourne. She would like to thank Steven Kruskopf for his editorial support.
1. Alan Smith, The Crystal Chain Gang, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2000, p 21.
2. Mark Linder, “Towards ‘A New Type of Building’: Robert Smithson’s Architectural Criticism”, in Eugenie Tsai and Cornelia Butler (eds) Robert Smithson, The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and University of California Press, 2005
3. Robert Smithson, ‘Ultramoderne’ essay in Jack Flam (ed.) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings University of California Press, 1996, pp 62-65.
4. Alan Smith, The Crystal Chain Gang, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, 2000, p18.
5. Personal correspondence with Kate Woods.
6. Jean Baudrilliard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 2006
7. Jean Baudrillard, ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’ in Mark Poster (ed.) Selected Writings, Second Edition, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001, pp.147-148.