Preston Thomas Memorial Symposium Expands Earth Art in Theory and Practice
"Earth: Projections 50 Years after Earth Art," AAP's fall 2019 Preston Thomas Memorial Symposium, brought a range of experts, artists, architects, and scholars to the college over three days to discuss and expand upon a deeply resonant historical moment in art practice and exhibition at Cornell. The event was organized by assistant professor of architecture Tao Dufour and informed by his work and research interests that include the phenomenology of perception and corporeity, phenomenological accounts of the experience of spatiality and the "natural" world, and their relationship to ethnographic descriptions of space. The 50-year anniversary of the original exhibition served as an ideal opportunity to acknowledge Earth Art's prescient questions that remain critical to reconsidering the environmental and political contexts of art and design practices today.
The Earth Art exhibition was organized in 1969 by Thomas Leavitt, the director of the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, and curated by Willoughby Sharp. The show included a series of 10 in situ installations created by artists who called the status of art objects, their material, and their site into question. The exhibition marked a nascent moment for the land art movement and has had an impact felt far beyond its original time and place.
"While the 1969 exhibition profoundly reintroduced a fundamental relationship between a work and the transforming physical properties of site," said Andrea Simitch, professor and chair of the Department of Architecture in her opening remarks, "we will now ask in 2019 — in this time of environmental crises — how might an expanded understanding of site have context beyond the physical and serve to render visible the more ephemeral properties of our fragile environments, and in so doing, call us to action?"
Assistant professor of architecture Tao DuFour selected the symposium's theme as a means for advancing current political-ecological dialogue and understanding contemporary environmental urgencies in relation to the concrete conditions and context for the original exhibition. The program not only tracked current calls for climate change action to Earth Art's original line of inquiry but also set out "to consider the legacy of earth or land art more expansively, specifically the significance of women artists; explore the re-articulation of the motif of Earth in terms of the figure of Gaia in the hypotheses of James Lovelock and the political ecology of Bruno Latour; to and bring us face to face with others as future generations . . . And, to consider a reorientation of the thematic of the earth in terms of phenomenologies of atmosphere, from earth art's traditional concern with ground, excavation, and soil toward the sky, weather, and ultimately — climate," according to DuFour.
The symposium included lectures and discussions, a screening of Marilyn Rivkin's documentary film on the original exhibition, a public opening of two specifically commissioned installations — Flag the Earth by designer Rania Ghosn and Far Above by artist Jorge Otero-Pailos (B.Arch. '94, M.Arch. '95) — and a closing seminar. While the collective work of the all-male group of artists commissioned by Leavitt and Sharp was a primary point of focus for critical reflection, the program expounded the impact of the larger earth art movement with the discussion of works by women land artists such as Agnes Denes, Mary Miss, Nancy Holt, and Helen Mayer Harrison who made significant connections between their work, the environment, feminist and postcolonial thought, and social justice.
"In its historical aspect, students in attendance witnessed how the critical perspectives of women were excluded from the original Land Art exhibition," says Ainslie Cullen (B.Arch. '19) who assisted with the symposium's coordination. "Through the historical, we can reflect to further consider whose voices must be amplified — not only those of women but also of racial and ethnic minorities, queer people, survivors of abuse, and so on, in an effort to accurately depict the reality of the histories we write through our own work and discourse in the present day. Such perspectives are fundamental to developing equitable, critical, and responsible architectural discourse on climate."
Invited speakers for "Earth: Projections 50 Years after Earth Art" included eminent scholars in art and architectural history and philosophy as well as design practitioners, each of whom approached the legacy of the Earth Art exhibition from different but related perspectives. Lecturers included Peg Rawes, professor of architecture and philosophy at the Bartlett School of Architecture University College London; James Nisbet, associate professor of art history and visual studies at University of California–Irvine; Ghosn of Design Earth and associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT; and Otero-Pailos of Otero-Pailos Studio and professor and director of historic preservation at Columbia University.
The Preston H. Thomas series is a biannual symposium funded through a gift to AAP from Ruth and Leonard B. Thomas of Auburn, New York, in memory of their son, Preston. This semester's "Earth: Projections 50 Years after Earth Art" was organized by DuFour and coordinated by Cullen with Hallie Black (B.Arch. '19) and Evan McDowell (B.Arch. '19) assisting; as well as student ambassadors CoCo Tin (B.Arch. '19) and George Tsourounakis (M.Arch. '21). Recent symposia include "Wasted: Trash Talks: Design for the End of Material as We Know It," organized by Caroline O'Donnell, Edgar A. Tafel Professor of Architecture; "Rafael Moneo: A Series of Talks," organized by Andrea Simitch, professor of architecture and chair of the Department of Architecture; and "Matter Design Computation: The Art of Building From Nano To Macro," organized by Jenny Sabin, Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture and associate dean for design initiatives, and Sasa Zivkovic, assistant professor of architecture and director of the Cornell Robotic Construction Lab, among others.
By Edith Fikes