Land Art, is a genre which focuses on the land and Earth as a fragile ecology, and is aimed at raising our conscience in our nature and surroundings. It is mainly a genre of the United States but there are also European exponents. Perhaps the most well known of the installations are Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty of 1970 at the edge of Lake Utah, or Joseph Bueys 7000 Oaks of 1982 in Germany. Spiral Jetty has a number of characteristics which mark its genre. It is large and difficult to see close up (being best observed by air or drone), it is made of natural materials and its form changes with the level of the lake. Indeed if the lake surface is high the piece is completely submerged. Similarly 7000 Oaks is constantly changing with the seasons and the trees natural growth and decay.
Land Art or Earth Art is a modern or post-modern idea, but forming images from the natural landscape have very ancient origins and very different meanings. They invariably commemorate people or events and the great examples are the pyramids and burial chambers of the ancients. There are also installations that have no contemporary meaning such as Stonehenge or the very ancient land lines in Nazca in Peru.
It is near Stonehenge in Wiltshire that we find some of the well known British land art. Chalk carvings or excavations to reveal the underlying white rock are common in Southern England. Most well known are those of white horses and giant men. There is the ancient White Horse of Uffington, together with more recent ones at Westbury and Osmington. The Westbury White Horse commemorates the victory of King Alfred at Ethandun in 878 while the Osmington Horse commemorates the visit of King George III to Weymouth. Giant men also appear such as the Cerne Abbas, with its famous phallic image and the Long Man of Wilmington.
The Fovant Badges. We were driving along the A30 between Shaftesbury and Salisbury last week and noticed a number of carvings on the hill outside Fovant. These turned out to be crests of army regiments and others who had trained at Fovant and were billeted waiting for ships to transport them to Flanders in the Great War. The commemoration here is at first obvious, being a memorial to those who had fallen in that muddy conflict and recognition of the contribution of the village of Fovant.
There maybe a somewhat more subtle commemoration. The original carvings and scrapings were constructed by conscripted and volunteer soldiers to keep them busy and relieve the boredom of waiting for the transport. The same was true of the Bulford Kiwi, a commemoration of the New Zealander’s trained there. I remember reading the pencil diaries of my Grandad, who was deployed in France from 1915 to the peace of 1919 in the 6th (City of London) Batallion. The overriding impression I got was the numbing boredom, waiting for the ever expected “push”. Day after day of ‘nothing’. And when there was action, it was so intense and traumatic that little was written, until the waiting started over again.
So while you admire these immense pieces of Land Art, as you drive through Wiltshire and Dorset, spare a thought for the horrors and the excruciating waiting game these soldiers played out.