In the late 1960s and 1970s, the idea of making work out of doors came to represent the ultimate freedom for many artists. Such work didn’t have to be permanent, or involve any conventional materials or processes. ‘Sculpture’ could be made by going for a walk, or floating pieces of wood on a stream, or throwing a handful of stones in the air. As a result, one of the most traditional of all forms of art – landscape – was transformed into something radical and unexpected. But what does this freedom mean to us now? Can we ever hope to recover it, or even to understand it?
These have been key questions for me and my co-curators in the process of realizing the exhibition Uncommon Ground: Land art in Britain, 1966-79 which is just coming to the end of its first run at Southampton City Art Gallery, before going on to Cardiff, Warwick and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I’ve been working with Joy Sleeman of the Slade School of Fine Art and Ben Tufnell, formerly with the gallery Haunch of Venison but now setting up a gallery of his own. It has been fantastic collaborating with them, and with the Arts Council Collection and Hayward Touring, who are the exhibition organisers.
Exhibitions like this have a long back-story. This one goes all the way back to a Research Network I ran with Joy in 2006-8. We organised a series of Land art-related events and established partnerships for future collaborations. The aim was always to put exhibition proposals together, and in 2009 Joy and I seized the opportunity provided by an unexpected gap in the schedule of the Djanogly Art Gallery to curate Earth-Moon-Earth, an exhibition conceived to mark the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing in 1969 (a vintage year for Land art!). But to get a historical show on a larger scale – Uncommon Ground includes twenty-four artists – off the ground was always going to take time. Once the Arts Council decided to green-light the project, however, it has all been relatively plain sailing.
The hardest thing was to come up with a title for the show. ‘Land art’ is a tricky term and a number of the artists are unhappy with it: in the end we got away with it by using it as a sub-heading. We struggled to agree with each other or with the Arts Council’s marketing team, and the catalogue was practically in press before we finally came up with something that we could all live with.
We had to make a few compromises, inevitably: we couldn’t secure the participation of all the artists we wanted, including, sadly, two key women artists (their presence would have enabled us to challenge the received view that Land art is a blokes-only affair). We would have liked to have included more film, but the costs were prohibitive. But in the end it is the show all three of us dreamed of making.
Nicholas Alfrey (Associate Professor, Art History)
Uncommon Ground: Land art in Britain, 1966-79 is on at the Southampton City Art Gallery until 3 August. It will travel to the following venues: National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (28 September 2013 – 5 January 2014); Mead Gallery, University of Warwick (18 January – 8 March 2014); Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (5 April – 15 June 2014)