Earth: Projections 50 Years after Earth Art

A light blue-grey graphic which displays the word earth, in bold capital letters.

Preston H. Thomas Memorial Symposium

Earth: Projections 50 Years after Earth Art, the fall 2019 Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lecture Series symposium at the Department of Architecture at Cornell University, will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Earth Art exhibition at Cornell's then Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art in Ithaca. The symposium presents a significant moment to critically reflect on the legacy of this seminal event, and project on its significance for art, architecture, and design in the contemporary situation defined by planetary issues of environmental crises. Curated by Thomas Leavitt and Willoughby Sharp and featuring in situ works by land and environmental artists Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer, Neil Jenney, Richard Long, David Medalla, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and Günther Uecker, the 1969 exhibition instituted a paradigm shift in the understanding of the materiality and environmentality of art practice. Half a century later the prescience of the exhibition constitutes a profound provocation for an ethical and political reorientation toward Earth as the fundamental ecological horizon of life.

The symposium aims to situate the Earth Art exhibition in the contemporary context of political-ecological thought. It proposes to widen our understanding of the historical conditions motivating the work of land artists of the time, including the work of women land artists such as Agnes Denes, Mary Miss, Nancy Holt, and Helen Mayer Harrison. In the face of anthropogenic climate change, epistemological frameworks once thought to be secure are breaking down as the atmosphere itself becomes understood as a cultural production through human-induced carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Alongside new theories of nature/culture and human/nonhuman entanglements in disciplines such as anthropology and science and technology studies, artists and designers — including architects and landscape architects — are turning toward the provocations of land artists to problematize purely technical and instrumental understandings of the environmental implications of design. Such approaches include modes of experimental preservation and speculative practice and activism as a mode of political-ecological design practice. In projecting contemporary theoretical and ethical perspectives back onto the tradition of earth art, the symposium aims to bring this historical art praxis into the present in a way that challenges not only our historical understanding, but provokes a fundamental transformation of our modes of knowing and being with/in the earth as our shared, interspecific environing world.

The symposium will feature four lectures from eminent scholars in art and architectural history and philosophy, and design practitioners, each approaching the legacy of the Earth Art exhibition from different but related perspectives. Speakers include:

  • Peg Rawes, professor of architecture and philosophy, University College London
  • James Nisbet, associate professor of art history and visual studies, University of California–Irvine
  • Rania Ghosn of Design Earth and associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT
  • Jorge Otero-Pailos (B.Arch. '94, M.Arch. '95) of Otero-Pailos Studio and professor and director of historic preservation at Columbia University

The symposium will be accompanied by an exhibition of design work specifically commissioned for the symposium by Design Earth and Otero-Pailos Studio.

The Preston H. Thomas series is funded through a gift to Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning from Ruth and Leonard B. Thomas of Auburn, New York, in memory of their son, Preston. The symposium events are free and open to the public.

Organized by Tao DuFour, assistant professor of architecture; coordinated by Ainslie Cullen (B.Arch. '19) with Hallie Black (B.Arch. '19) and Evan McDowell (B.Arch. '19).