Season 3: Landfall
JESSICA PLACZEK: Got blown out of the labyrinth!
MADDIE GOBBO: We’ve come to the windiest place in California.
PLACZEK: Is it guaranteed that we get to the center?
GOBBO: Yes. Labyrinths are not the same thing as mazes. The idea of a labyrinth is that you’re kind of like moving through a thought or a meditation or a prayer.
PLACZEK: I will meditate on how to make this a good podcast.
PLACZEK: Tell them where we are.
GOBBO: We’re in the middle of the labyrinth at Lands End in San Francisco.
PLACZEK: From here we can see the Golden Gate Bridge, out across the bay, the Marin Headlands. We were just passed by a bunch of pelicans.
GOBBO: And the labyrinth itself is made of what looks like hundreds of rocks, they’re medium size, and they’re all different colors. There’s greens, and blues, and purples, and reds. But if you look around you can find the same colors in the landscape. The cliffs, the boulders behind us.
PLACZEK: Yeah, and the thing is, if we built this labyrinth anywhere else, it would be a completely different experience.
PLACZEK: Like, what if it was in the desert? Instead of walking on gravel, maybe we’d be on sand. And instead of tourists, maybe the labyrinth would be surrounded by cowboys.
GOBBO: Or what if it was in the middle of a city? You could build it out of garbage and the people who would walk it might be rats or mole people. It’d be surrounded by skyscrapers.
PLACZEK: Or what if it was on the moon? Then it’d be space rocks and aliens and they’d probably read the art in their own way.
GOBBO: Context matters. Through art installations like this one, we can explore our relationship to the land.
GOBBO: For this season of Raw Material, we’ll be driving across California looking at art and the landscape.
PLACZEK: My name is Jessica Placzek and I’m a reporter.
GOBBO: My name is Maddie Gobbo and I’m a fiction writer.
PLACZEK: Together we’ll be looking at what art can teach us about life in the West — its past, present…
GOBBO: …and possible future.
PLACZEK: Welcome to season 3: Landfall.
GOBBO: A production of SFMOMA.
PLACZEK: Today we’ll take a crash course in American land art, then go on an unexpected bumpy ride with some desert denizens, and we’ll end with…apocalypse.
GOBBO: First, we’re headed to Los Angeles, where we meet Aurora Tang. She’s a researcher and curator of the American land art movement.
AURORA TANG: My name is Aurora Tang, and I’m a program manager here at the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
PLACZEK: It’s a research organization that’s dedicated to better understanding our relationship with the land.
GOBBO: To get us started, we asked Aurora: what is the American land art movement?
TANG: In the 1960s and 70s artists including Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, were working outside the gallery space often in more remote landscapes and actually treating those sites as their medium.
PLACZEK: The landscape became their raw material. They would carve into the earth, dig trenches, cut into mountains, and build mounds, jetties and trails.
GOBBO: Many others have made art with the landscape, but today we’ll be focusing on this particular movement.
PLACZEK: What was the first piece of land art you saw that really hit you?
TANG: This is kind of the obvious answer, I feel like I wish it was more obscure… but it was Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
PLACZEK: If you know any land art piece it’s probably Spiral Jetty, located on the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
GOBBO: Even if you don’t know its title, you’ve probably seen an aerial photograph of the piece, just like Aurora did when she was a student.
TANG: When I saw it I just knew I had to go there. And I remember actually telling my father because I was so excited about this artwork.
AMBI: MUSIC AND WAVES
PLACZEK: From the air, the jetty is striking: a stark black spiral covered in salt crystals, surrounded by
GOBBO: The remote location and shifting lake tides mean the jetty isn’t always easy to find.
TANG: The directions itself could be seen as perhaps part of the artwork. You had to follow these precise directions. Look for certain landmarks, like the burned out car, the oil jetty!
PLACZEK: This is a cool thing about land art: the journey to get to the art might be part of the art itself.
TANG: At the Center we talk about why land art is interesting and important to us, and it often is its power as a perspectival tool. And we have this thing we sometimes call the “Land Art Sensory Spillover Effect.”
GOBBO: It’s where everything around the piece becomes significant.
TANG: You can use that as an access point to take in, and maybe understand, things around it.
PLACZEK: Things around it like agriculture, and water use, the history of native peoples, or climate change.
GOBBO: These ideas are big. We can’t always reach them right away. Sometimes, it helps to get lost first.
TANG: They can be really disorienting and put you in this state that we are maybe not always in these days when we’re totally inundated by GPS coordinates and reminders of where we are. It’s nice to be in places that you can be a little vulnerable.
PLACZEK: And when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can be transformed....
TANG: I ended up spending about forty-eight hours there. Camping out there, going in the water, which I always recommend, even though apparently there’s mercury content in the water. But when you submerge your limbs underwater, and you lift them out of the water, they’re encrusted with salt crystals.
AMBI: MUSIC OUT
GOBBO: Land art has its roots in the minimalist movement, which declared “More is less. Less is more.”
PLACZEK: Think all-black paintings, mysterious metal cubes, and panels of fluorescent light bulbs.
GOBBO: The land artists took these ideas and applied them to natural materials: dirt, water, wood, and rocks.
PLACZEK: Aurora points out that the land art movement emerged around the same time as the American environmental movement.
GOBBO: The Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day were both founded in 1970.
PLACZEK: The same year Spiral Jetty was built.
GOBBO: To be clear, most land artists did not consider themselves environmentalists. But the photographs of their work tap into a sense of a global scale.
PLACZEK: In these photographs, you can often spot the artist in the photograph, dwarfed by their work, beneath an endless sky.
TANG: It set a precedent for how big you could work. And that anything could be possible.
GOBBO: There are other reasons this work sticks in your head.
PLACZEK: It’s eye candy in the age of Instagram…but also because it deals with topics familiar to all of us.
GOBBO: [echo] The future. The end of the world.
PLACZEK: That’s a little dramatic. But really…Robert Smithson, the creator of Spiral Jetty, thought a lot about disintegration.
GOBBO: Smithson loved rocks and crystals. For him, geology was the story of entropy. It's a concept that everything in the universe will eventually decay.
PLACZEK: You can see this at work in Smithson's work. The rocks that make up Spiral Jetty are slowly washing away in the lake’s tides. Someday it will all be totally submerged.
GOBBO: Smithson wrote: “One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion.”
AMBI: WATER OUT
PLACZEK: There were other artists who designed their work to disintegrate. Dennis Oppenheim made cloud drawings that disappeared a few moments after they were made. Judy Chicago did a series of performances with smoke bombs that exist now only as photographs and videos.
GOBBO: On the other end of the spectrum there was Michael Heizer. Heizer’s a Bay Area native. He’s the son of an influential archaeologist, and his work references ruins. It also poses the question of a violent apocalyptic end to everything.
PLACZEK: Heizer’s magnum opus is a work called City. He began working on it in 1972. It’s located deep in the Nevada desert. It’s one of the biggest sculptures ever made — and it’s still growing.
TANG: Michael Heizer’s City, that’s still in the works, is this work that is meant to withstand our lifetime.
GOBBO: City is a compound of giant concrete sculptures, with titles like Complex I. Some look like Mayan temples, but brutal and industrial. There are huge standing triangles and excavations that look like they could hold uranium.
PLACZEK: In most photos, it’s totally deserted. A city for nobody. Which is sort of how he planned it. Heizer claimed that if the H-bomb hit, his art would survive it. He said, “Complex I is designed to deflect enormous heat and enormous shock. It’s very much about the atomic age. It won’t burn up."
GOBBO: Heizer’s macho attitude is legendary. He wore a lot of cowboy hats. And he liked to talk big. He said: “My idea was to make American art. As long as you’re going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?” The crazy thing is this isn’t always how he thought. Heizer was one of the first land artists to think about entropy in his work, and a lot of his ideas influenced Smithson. Actually, some of his early temporary works were Smithson’s favorites, and he wrote glowing reviews about them.
PLACZEK: But as time passed, Heizer felt that Smithson was stealing his ideas, and maybe even his identity. Some say this caused Heizer to abandon entropy and turn instead towards apocalypse.
GOBBO: Even though these artists hated each other, they had the same patron: The gallerist Virginia Dwan. Without her, the land art movement wouldn’t have happened.
PLACZEK: But, let’s go back to Heizer’s earliest works in the landscape. The one’s that influenced Smithson. In 1968 Heizer made a trip into the Mojave Desert, to a dry lakebed called El Mirage.
GOBBO: El Mirage is six miles wide, and bordered by two mountain ranges: the Adobe and the Shadow Mountains. Its surface is bare, cracked, and bleached by the sun.
TANG: It can be seen as kind of this, almost like a white gallery wall but tipped over.
PLACZEK: And artists loved it because it was a place without rules.
TANG: It’s a place where it seems like you really can push the boundaries a little bit.
GOBBO: Back in the day, El Mirage was the place to push the boundaries.
PLACZEK: The boundaries of art, speed, and sanity. People raced cars…
GOBBO: Flew homemade aircraft…
PLACZEK: Hosted cockfights…
GOBBO: Hosted raves…
PLACZEK: Shot guns…
GOBBO: Shot pornos.
PLACZEK: A Bureau of Land Management ranger at El Mirage once said they had a vehicle hit a porta potty at two hundred miles an hour.
GOBBO: We went to see what it’s like now.
GOBBO: We’re going to be going over some bumps?
ZACK PRATT: Yeah so strap yourself in.
PLACZEK: Did you take your Dramamine?
GOBBO: I did not take my Dramamine.
PRATT: If you have to throw up let me know and I’ll stop and let you out for sure.
PLACZEK: To learn more about El Mirage, we met up with Vicki Salazar and Zack Pratt. They’re Bureau of Land Management rangers, BLM for short. And we ended up on a tour of their off road vehicle training course.
VICTORIA SALAZAR: [fades in] … to do the right thing.
PLACZEK: Oh oh oh! We’re on a crazy slope now. Okay. Okay.
GOBBO: This truck is a beast.
PLACZEK: Yeah, this is very powerful.
PRATT: Oh no we’re gonna fall off!
PLACZEK: Don’t say that!
PLACZEK: They also took us down to the lakebed, and that ride was much more pleasant.
PRATT: There’s water at the other end. I know we just drove through there, right?
GOBBO: I’m loving how the water is like following us.
PLACZEK: A great mirage. Solid mirage.
SALAZAR: It’s like chasing a rainbow. And all of a sudden you get like almost there and then it hops away. I did that. I was like, “Oh my goodness!” There’s like, just like, right there, I could see the hills behind it.
GOBBO: While the land around surrounding the lake is still used for off road vehicles, the BLM rangers stress that it’s nothing like the lawless 60s. Back then Michael Heizer drove his motorcycle in circles on the lakebed, leaving strange, crop circle impressions in the crust. He also dug trenches and etched crazy lines in the surface.
PLACZEK: Later, he brought his friend Walter De Maria to El Mirage. De Maria made giant chalk drawings on the lakebed: a huge cross, and two parallel lines.
SALAZAR: We just worked really hard to change it and make it more family-orientated.
PLACZEK: They emphasize safety first and environmentalism, which has resulted in a lot of changes on the lakebed.
SALAZAR: Since BLM started managing this area in the late 80s, we’re trying to keep the surface of the lakebed its natural surface, so we no longer allow donuts, because it breaks the surface of the crust, which takes many years to heal. But there’s a lot of things that still happen on the lakebed. You’re still allowed to go out there as long as you’re going straight, you know, you’re not breaking the surface.
PLACZEK: These days, Heizer's motorcycle drawings and De Maria's chalk lines would be forbidden. Those pieces could damage the lakebed's delicate ecosystem, an ecosystem we're still learning about.
GOBBO: Are there fossils?
SALAZAR: I haven’t heard of fossils, but there’s fairy shrimp.
PLACZEK: What’s a fairy shrimp?
SALAZAR: It looks like a little shrimp but it’s very small, about like that.
GOBBO: Vicki pinches her fingers so that maybe a hair of light shines through.
SALAZAR: They can live for like ten years dormant.
PLACZEK: In today’s world, if someone wanted to make ethical land art, they might start by working with the local ecosystem. For example, cultivating ferry shrimp in the lake, or tracking minute changes in the lakebed’s crust.
GOBBO: Contemporary artists who work with the land approach their sites with a conservationist’s eye. It can be hard to tell the difference between this new land art and the science that informs it.
PLACZEK: The original land artists didn’t really have an understanding of ecology. But they did recognize the potential of this barren space. After their first visit, Heizer and De Maria were so excited by what they had made that they telegraphed their art dealer.
GOBBO: “LAND PROJECT POSITIVE. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE DIRT.”
GOBBO: I think a lot about this telegraph that they sent, the “don’t underestimate dirt.” This dirt has all kinds of things hidden in it that we’re learning about: the fairy shrimp, you know, the way that the crust heals like skin. There’s so much contained in these seemingly empty spaces that we wouldn’t know about if the artist didn’t bring us out there. What did you think when you visited the lake bed? What was cool about it to you?
PLACZEK: It was cool to go there and know that these pieces had been made there. But, you know, that was also through the lens of how unbelievably and painfully hot it was.
GOBBO: Yeah. It must have been 104 out on the lakebed. It was hotter on the lakebed than off. And I think it like, it really drove home like how strong these artists’ visions must have been for them to sit there under the sun making these perfectly straight chalk lines and digging trenches. Like, that’s hard work, and you gotta really feel like it’s worth it.
PLACZEK: So another thing Aurora talked about was how this is one of the most seemingly dead and desolate places on earth, and it’s amazing to think of what resulted from that and what people have filled it with. There’s the artists who came in and filled it with art, but since then, there’ve been others who’ve filled it with their own creative output.
SALAZAR: Yeah, and you’ll see — you’ll see some homemade stuff coming around the track.
PLACZEK: A few times a year, El Mirage will host the Southern California Timing Association, which runs speed trials for off-road vehicles…very off road.
SALAZAR: There’s a couch that’s turned into an automobile that drives around and they just go real slow and go around and they’re kicking it with their little end tables and all. And there’s a little bar that goes around. So there’s some different things.
GOBBO: Cars look great speeding across the lakebed. And you can see that in tons of commercials.
PRATT: Whenever I see Toyota, Subaru, those kind of commercial on dry lakebed, I can recognize the background here, so this is one of their favorite spots.
PLACZEK: Feature length films have been shot here too.
SALAZAR: A lot of different movies. Jurassic Park, pieces of that.
GOBBO: Along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
GOBBO: There Will Be Blood.
PLACZEK: And Lethal Weapon. And then there’s another kind of artist that loves coming here.
MUSIC: [NICKI MINAJ, Hey Mama]
GOBBO: Numerous music videos have been shot here, including Nicki Minaj.
PLACZEK: Janet Jackson.
MUSIC: [JANET JACKSON, LOVE WILL NEVER DO (WITHOUT YOU)]
GOBBO: Shania Twain.
MUSIC: [SHANIA TWAIN, THAT DON’T IMPRESS ME MUCH]
GOBBO: And this California classic.
MUSIC: [DR. DRE, CALIFORNIA LOVE]
ABMI: FLY SOUND
AMBI: BOTTLE ROLLING
AMBI: OVERWHELMING WIND SOUND
ACTOR: The trailblazer sits tall in her saddle and stares directly at the sun.
ACTOR: Nothing on this flat earth rides as fast as the trailblazer. Nothing but the sweepers. And they only run at night. Her skin smells like metal and sparks. Her eyes are black crystals, and her teeth are quartz.
ACTOR: The trailblazer’s rig looks like a silver wasp. You can see her coming by the light shining from its body. If you listen, you can hear the engine buzz.
AMBI: RACE CAR
ACTOR: On hot days, she drives to the middle of nowhere, and digs a hole, twenty or thirty feet down. Just for the hell of it.
ACTOR: She builds ramps to jump, and tracks to trace. Her tracks shimmer in the heat.
AMBI: MOTORCYCLE FADES
ACTOR: Every night the sweepers come, and sweep the tracks away. They fill the holes, and level the ramps.
AMBI: MOTORIZED SWEEPING
ACTOR: Every morning, she starts over.
ACTOR: The trailblazer sweats through her new leather jacket, but that’s alright. She can break into an abandoned mall, and steal another.
ACTOR: Nobody knows where the trailblazer sleeps. If she sleeps. She might retire to a concrete pyramid beyond the hazy mountains. Or she might hibernate like the shrimp, nestled deep in the cracked ground. The shrimp don’t wake up, but she does.
ACTOR: Today, the trailblazer zooms around a course of her own design. Her wheels spit sand from either side like golden wings, and bite the rock below. Her rig drills through monzogranite, magma, and molten iron. She drives until she blasts straight through the earth and out the other side. I’d like to see the sweepers fix that.
AMBI: MUSIC [ALASH ENSEMBLE]
PLACZEK: That’s it for Episode 1. I’m Jessica Placzek.
GOBBO: I’m Maddie Gobbo.
PLACZEK: The song you’re listening to was performed by the Alash Ensemble. Check them out. The amazing Elori Kramer composed all the other music in this episode. Thank you, Elori.
GOBBO: And thank you to our voice actor Joy Miller.
PLACZEK: If you want to see photos of what we’ve been talking about, follow us on Instagram @rawmaterialpodcast.
GOBBO: Thanks for listening! We’ll be back in two weeks.
PLACZEK: This podcast is a production of SFMOMA.
PRATT: You could roll a nickel a mile out there because, I mean, it really is that flat. So darn flat.