Friday, February 18, 2011

Art for the Moment

Making Art That Won’t Last
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Feb. 5, 2010 

Jim Denevan spent two weeks living in a yurt on a huge, frozen lake in Siberia last spring in the name of art. He left the warmth of his Santa Cruz home to create the largest piece of art in the world. Commissioned by the clothing retailer, Anthropologie, he created an enormous drawing on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, in southeastern Russia. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, containing roughly 20% of the world’s fresh water fish. In winter, the air temperature drops to minus 10 degrees and the surface of the lake freezes solid enough to drive on—the perfect canvas for Denevan’s artwork.

Denevan is best known in Santa Cruz for his outsized beach drawings. With just a stick and sometimes a rake, he draws huge circles, spirals, and other geometric shapes in the sand that are best viewed from a high vantage point like a cliff. These works are temporary and usually last no more than a few hours until they are reclaimed by the tides.

On the beach, Denevan normally works alone, but for Lake Baikal, he took four friends to help him execute the huge drawing. The team used sticks, brooms, shovels, a Russian Bobcat fitted with a large rolling brush, and GPS, to draw by pushing away the snow resting on top of the black ice for a high-contrast result. Denevan’s design—a series of circles along a spiraling Fibonacci curve—grew in size from circles 18 inches in diameter to 2 miles wide (10 miles in circumference). An unexpected snowfall and hurricane-force winds created two significant set-backs, and sub-zero temperatures had to be endured throughout their stay—not easy for a bunch of weather-spoiled Californians.

The finished piece spanned over nine square miles. The team departed in a giant Russian helicopter that finally allowed them to see their finished work of art from the air. “It was pretty spectacular,” says Denevan.


Denevan often works in lonely, isolated places, without an audience, and doesn’t mind that his finished work is quickly reclaimed by nature. He recently traveled to South America for a commissioned public performance of his beach drawing, but prefers a more private, spontaneous approach. “I like it when people come accidentally upon the drawings,” says Denevan. “But 70-80% of the time I head for a beach where no one else is around. I can go to the beach with nothing but a stick. It’s so freeing and uncomplicated. I’m doing it for myself. It’s soothing and meditative.”

Contrast Denevan’s preferred no-hassle approach to that of another land artist, Christo. Christo (along with his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009) rose to prominence in the 1960s for wrapping enormous manmade objects like fountains, bridges and buildings. But his work became more about the land when, in 1969, he wrapped 1 ½ miles of Australian seacoast with one million square feet of synthetic fabric.

Like Denevan, Christo’s work has always been large-scale and temporal—but there the similarity ends. Christo adds materials to the landscape—usually fabric and steel—and his works have to be dismantled after a short viewing period. In contrast, Denevan’s works—fabricated from nature—grow, stay and decay in a cycle more reminiscent of nature itself.

But perhaps the greatest difference between the two artists is that, while Denevan prefers a simple, spontaneous approach, Christo’s projects, by design, involve complexity and controversy.  Californians may remember one of Christo’s more ambitious projects from the 70s—a glowing white-fabric fence that crossed 24 ½ miles of rolling hills in Sonoma and Marin counties. Gaining permission from private land-owners after 42 months of haggling (including a 450 Environmental Impact Report, three sessions at the Superior Courts of California, and 18 public hearings featuring strong, organized opposition), “Running Fence” was finally installed over four days and remained in place for two weeks.


In May, the Bureau of Land Management will make its final decision on whether to allow another Christo art installation, proposed for a wild section of the Arkansas River in Colorado. For 18 years, Christo (now 75) has had his sights on this dramatic waterway for a project he calls “Over the River.” The proposed installation would suspend horizontally, a total of 5.9 miles of reflective, translucent fabric panels, above a 42-mile stretch of the river at eight distinct areas. The panels would be viewed not only by those traveling along US-50, but also by vacationers white-water rafting and kayaking underneath it.

Those who oppose the project and its two-year construction phase, say the highway congestion along the river would be dangerous, the beautiful landscape would be scarred, and the area’s wildlife would be severely impacted—particularly the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Surprising many, the local Sierra Club chapter has endorsed the project, chiefly on the merits of its temporariness and the artist’s willingness to mitigate environmental impact as much as possible. As with all his massive projects, Christo promises to finance the project himself, recycle all materials used, and leave no lasting sign of the artwork’s presence.


Obviously, creating colossal land art requires tremendous courage and determination. How many artists would have the stamina to devote themselves and their finances to a proposed work of art for years on end without any guarantees? Another Christo project—an enormous pyramid made from 410,000 stacked oil barrels—has been stalled in the United Arab Emirates for over 30 years.

And how many artists would willingly travel to desolate, godforsaken landscapes, often at their own expense, just to create an impermanent drawing that virtually no one will ever see firsthand? For Denevan, who avoids permits and red tape, just finding large open spaces for a project can be challenging. He’s currently exploring robotic drawing, inspired by the temporary tracks left by Rovers on Mars. “Not on the moon because the moon is a permanent surface—you can still see the footprints of the astronauts,” says Denevan. “But on Mars it will make a very distinct drawing. It disappears within a few months.”

Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the transitory nature of these two artists’ work that makes it so extraordinary and so worthwhile. For those who are lucky enough to actually witness Denevan’s or Christo’s finished artworks in person, the experience is no doubt heightened by the fact that is a fleeting and often serendipitous one. Like seeing a rainbow, a beautiful sunset, or even an unspoiled landscape, the experience is made more precious because it will not last.

Postscript:  Here's a little temporary land art in my own driveway, which I made hurriedly before work with the Fall leaves blown across the street from my neighbor's tulip tree.  By the next morning it had all blown away.