Uncommon Ground: On the trail of Land Art in Britain 1966-1979

By Mark Sheerin | 21 May 2013
Colour photo of an ancient path through a wood
The Pilgrim's Way, once walked by Hamish Fulton© Oliver Dixon
In many cases here today and gone tomorrow, the trouble with land art is also its strength. It resists commercialisation. It draws you back to the landscape in which it appears. And it takes its cue from minimalism and achieves its effect with the most limited means possible.

With this in mind, Culture24 has compiled a guide to some of the UK’s most notable pieces of geography-specific art. The artwork may well be gone when you get there, but that’s all the more cause for reflection. And many of the following pieces are represented in a fantastic 2013-14 land art touring show currently in Southampton.

Colour photo of a river between two fields
A body of water in London, also a plinth for Bruce McLean© Shaun Ferguson
Our trail begins on the outskirts of London with a World War II Airstrip in the North Weald. This was the site for Anthony McCall’s powerful evening performance Landscape for Fire II (1972).

A short looping film shows a small group of figures in white setting gridded fires in an empty field. British land art tends towards the subtle, but this has plenty of drama.

Moving across the capital, Olaf Street is our destination. The W11 address is represented by what looks like a monumental piece of neo-expressionism.

But Olaf Street Study is rather a scientific "probe" which travelled round London accumulating painterly matter in a series of random addresses. This was the work of the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology, better known as husband and wife team the Boyle Family.

Colour photo of a statue in the midst of Holland Park
Holland Park, London, scene of a Roelof Louw intervention© Piotr Zavobkiewicz
Next, head for Holland Park, where you can imagine Kensington and Chelsea’s largest green space festooned, if that be the word, with 200 scattered slats of wood.

Roelof Louw’s 1967 intervention may have been temporary but, like so many pieces of land art, it lives on in the form of an incongruous photograph. Landscape gardening is a clear, if ironic, interest of the South African artist.

Metropolitan London is surprisingly rich in historic pieces of land art. And so Bruce McLean is another artist to have put down a marker here during the late 1960s. Beverly Brook, described as a minor river, is the scene for his ephemeral sculpture. Details of his materials may have been lost in the mists of time, but it is safe to say they float as the waterway becomes his plinth.

Colour photo of a cottage in a garden on a shingle beach
Is it a garden? Is it a sculpture? Either way it's by Derek Jarman© User Jasper33
Water, in this case the nearby English Channel, also features in our southernmost piece of land art. Filmmaker Derek Jarman has left his mark on a patch of shingly coast near a power station at Dungeness.

Perhaps it is gardening rather than sculpture, but the strangeness of his driftwood posts and outbreaks of hardy flowers such as horned poppy, valerian, sea kale and woody nightshade are certainly worth a mention.

If you visit East Sussex in search of work by John Hilliard, you find it just as did the artist himself. The conceptual photographer came to Mount Caburn to look for a track across the hillside and a vapour trail in the sky.

If you can find the track, no doubt nearby Gatwick airport can supply the trail. Hilliard plays with notions of the scenic and picturesque by setting up his shots before leaving home. So here you can do the same.

Colour photo of a grassy peak in the South Downs
Mount Caburn, where John Hilliard came in search of a composition© David Saunders
The Iron Age trenches of the Uffington Horse are the locale for our next example of fleeting land art. This is where Roger Ackling harnessed the sun to make one of his best known burn diagrams.

And They Cast Their Shadows is the name given to the piece in Oxfordshire. Using a lens to scorch his wood or paper backings was perhaps one of the most innovative moves in the history of Land Art.

No trail of land art sites would be complete without an epic walk or two. But it’s up to you whether you follow the footsteps of Richard Long or Hamish Fulton. The former, who made the first ever piece of peripatetic art as student in 1967, also walked from Windmill Hill to Coalbrookdale (from a site of Neolithic industry to a site of the Industrial Revolution).

Aerial photograph of a neolithic white horse hill figure
Some ancient land art close by a solar powered work by Roger Ackling© USGS
Meanwhile, Hamish Fulton - an artist whose entire oeuvre amounts to one long ramble - has walked the Pilgrim’s Way. Ancient pathways linking Winchester and Canterbury have been explored and followed.

Fulton marked the occasion with a photographic print or two, but he is adamant that the walk itself is the artwork and not the collateral. In this way he holds firm with the non-commercial tenets of land art as a whole.

Keith Arnatt is represented on our trail by Liverpool Beach Burial. The whereabouts of one of his "situational sculptures" are vague.

Somewhere on Merseyside, this artist took students from the Manchester College of Art to a beach and buried them up to the neck for a conceptual photo. Check with the tide if setting up your own photo opportunities here.

Our final piece of land art is our most elusive of all. It is best described as a circle of ash trees coaxed to grow towards one another forming a shelter.

Ash Dome, by David Nash, is an example of "growing sculpture". The artist reveals that his famous piece is in Snowdonia, but beyond that nobody knows. It’s a park of more than 800 square metres, so good luck.
Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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i have a painting called peacehaven it was bought from southampton art gallery in 1966 for £10.10 shillings could anyone tell me anything about the artist i think the name is forster
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