When the first wave of land art – or Earth sculpture, as some called it – exploded onto the art scene in the late 1960s, the work was almost always gigantic. One of the most famous land sculptures, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, stretched (and still stretches) 1,500 feet into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Other works required bulldozers to build, or were at such a large scale that they could only be appreciated from an airplane or the top of a nearby mesa. The sculptures were monumental.
New Zealand sculptor and photographer Martin Hill is a land artist who works in a different key. He specializes in the intimate and close-up, in the subtle revelations of fleeting moments. His tools are the rake and the ice chisel, and his materials are whatever he can gather with his own hands: willow bough, maple leaf, pumice stone and moss. Working with his partner-collaborator, Philippa Jones, Hill creates land sculptures from found materials, photographs the scene, and then dismantles the work. The art is ephemeral; no bulldozers allowed.
The London-born Hill has been specializing in land sculpture since 1992, when he realized he could use art to, as he says, “tell the story of the transition that is underway now towards a circular economy that emulates the way nature works.” It’s the idea of biomimicry, expressed through artistry.
Hill’s most common form is the circle. He makes circles from rocks gathered along a riverbed, from snow, from driftwood collected on a beach. Often he creates half circles of stacked stone or carved ice in standing water, and then waits for a reflection to appear. The result is a complete ring that is almost like an apparition, half physical and half illusory. Hill returns to round shapes again and again, with an urgency that is itself cyclical. The circle is both his muse and his métier.
When asked what he hopes viewers will take from his sculptures and installations, Hill has said: “I hope people reflect on their relationship to natural systems and how they can help to improve it through the way they live their lives.” His method may be enough to communicate that message. Hill and Jones craft their sculptures, take their photographs, and then the materials return to the earth, leaving no trace.
Photographs of Martin Hill’s land art have been shown at galleries and museums in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and North America. He is the author of the book Earth to Earth: Art Inspired by Nature’s Design. Learn more about his work at www.martin-hill.com.
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