Earthworks are human induced changes to the landscape. Although sometimes called Environmental Art or EcoArt, they can range from basically benign to destructive in terms of the environment they invade. We may be creating a dialogue about things other than people, but rarely are we actually talking about (or helping) the natural world.
Once art and artists escaped the former boundaries of the four white walls of the traditional art gallery, they spread into different areas and mediums with different purposes. Using a broad definition of earthworks, you can include artists combining architecture with landscape (landscape with architecture?) and those who speak to nature and our role in the natural world, imposing ON landscape versus dialogue WITH landscape.
I have no problem with ephemeral work that dissolves back into “nature” over a short time period or work that is basically inert like stone sculpture. However, I do find it ironic that some artists visually conversing about nature degrade and destroy the natural world through their work. All living things change their environment, but to point to the beautiful starkness of the desert (a very fragile ecosystem – one that takes tens or hundreds of years to revert back) by driving cement trucks through it and ruining a square quarter mile through sculpture hardly seems eco-friendly. To me, that dialogue says, “The earth belongs to humans to do what they will, consequences be damned.” Trump would be proud.
I have to laugh when reading about artists like Agnes Denes and her work “Wheatfield – a confrontation” done in Battery Park. Critics describe the work as if she were changing that land from human development back to its natural state. Yet, a monoculture of a domesticated plant that has been selected entirely for traits beneficial to humans is NOT the natural world. Wheat fields may be alien to New Yorkers, but they are alien to nature as well.
Of course, that gets us into a difficult discussion of what is “natural.” Most of us live in a human-made landscape and don’t even know what Nature is. Without human intervention, that empty lot converted to a wheat field would have hosted a forest of old-growth trees, including chestnut and elm, both of which have been virtually eliminated due to disease imported to North America through human trade. The ecosystem would have supported more than the New York City version of wildlife, namely squirrels, pigeons, and rats. Unfortunately, many of those animals are also gone. Some are still found elsewhere (Wolves. Mountain lions. Moose.) and others no longer found anywhere on planet Earth (Passenger pigeons).
Every day I wrestle with the “footprint” I leave by living an American standard of life with a permanent dwelling heated in summer and cooled in winter, indoor plumbing, electricity, gasoline fueled transportation, food grown using modern techniques, and the list goes on… Although I love sculpture and plan to continue making it, I cringe at the thought of the energy and materials I use (and waste) in the name of Art. I don’t have the answer to what we should be doing, but we mustn’t kid ourselves: we may make art that lies outside the gallery or museum, but we are still talking about man-made landscape, not Nature.