I’m a slow writer at the best of times, but occasionally, books turn up that hold back the process even more. Ina Kwon’s Piles of Earth and Rubble – München/Gyeongju, and Emanuel Cederqvist’s The Ditch arrived on my desk around the same time in early 2022. Together, they kicked off a process of reflection that’s taken a while to resolve.
Like many young photographers studying in the 1990s, I’d been strongly influenced by mid-twentieth century transformations in the way we think about landscape. In the wake of WWII, artists looked for new ways to respond to a radically changed environment. Traditional modes of representation no longer felt suited to the task of depicting a landscape scarred by years of war, increasingly subject to the transformations of capital, and further threatened by a burgeoning ecological crisis. Movements like Arte Povera, Environmental Art, Land Art, and exhibitions like New Topographics influenced a generation of artists working with landscape. Though they expressed it in different ways, these movements shared the same internal contradiction: the awareness that human activity was harming the environment, and the confident expectation that human ingenuity could provide a solution.
Kwon and Cederqvist’s books prompted a rethink of work that’s shaped my own ideas about landscape for a long time. Though neither address the topic of Earthworks specifically, they got me thinking about the means and motivations of land artists, and how they compare to the aims of those who carry out similarly ambitious terraforming projects for different reasons.
This disparity showed itself clearly in the so-called Earthworks movement. The term itself was circulating amongst artists before the 1968 exhibition of the same name at the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York City, but the show brought it to the attention of a wider public. It’s ironic, in retrospect, that a broadly utopian desire to renew humanity’s relationship with nature should have been expressed in works that are so violently disruptive. No self-respecting artist today would pour molten asphalt down a hillside in the name of ecological awareness, as Robert Smithson did for his Asphalt Rundown works of 1969-70. Nor would they be likely to dynamite a quarter of a million tons of rock out of the desert floor – which Michael Heizer did in 1969 to create Double Negative – as a means of reflecting on the relationship between an artwork and its environment. For today’s sensibilities, many of the period’s best-known works can look like hubristic spacegrabs – grandiose gestures of domination that embodied, if not utopia itself, then the assumption that utopia was something that could be engineered.
Kwon and Cederqvist’s books prompted a rethink of work that’s shaped my own ideas about landscape for a long time. Both are simply designed, combining archival imagery with black and white photographs shot in a neutral documentary style that appears, at least superficially, to channel the ‘new topographics’ aesthetic. Though neither address the topic of Earthworks specifically, they got me thinking about the means and motivations of land artists, and how they compare to the aims of those who carry out similarly ambitious terraforming projects for different reasons.
The Ditch is about a massive and mostly unknown piece of infrastructure that snakes along the full length of the island of Öland off the Swedish coast. Anticipating a German landing on Öland during WWII, an army engineer called Nils Hallström proposed the construction of a five kilometer long channel that could be flooded with seawater in the event of a German attack, creating an impassable moat and turning the surrounding farmland into a swamp. Overseen by Captain Raoul Thörnblad, work on the project commenced in 1940, but was halted when it became clear how much it was going to cost. The German attack never materialised, and Thörnblad was later court-martialled for squandering Crown funds.
Photographs don’t really do justice to the enormity of this undertaking, and the design of the book leans into this. Sixteen archival images, reproduced in small size on the page, show the project in the early stages of its creation. Set against the vast landscape, the various structures – a motley collection of gates, ditches and a couple of strange domed structures – appear anonymous and a bit pitiful. Whatever optimism they represented at the time hasn’t lived on in the photographs: if there’s a master plan at work, the images give little hint of what it might be.
Cederqvist’s own photographs, taken between 2017 and 2020, are reproduced at almost full-page size. They show a benign and mostly unspoiled setting of farms, marshes, and woodlands. Apart from a few piles of rubble, and the odd lichen-splashed concrete slab, nearly all of the original infrastructure has been reabsorbed into the landscape. Of the ditch itself, little remains save the odd scattered shallow pond, some carpeted with algae, others filled with oil-filmed water. Rather than the enduring presence of ruins in the landscape, Cederqvist’s photographs underscore their disappearance; human ambition quietly overturned by nature.
Rather than the enduring presence of ruins in the landscape, Cederqvist’s photographs underscore their disappearance; human ambition quietly overturned by nature.
Piles of Earth and Rubble examines two more persistent kinds of forms: the landscaped parks created out of the remains of German cities destroyed in WWII, and the burial mounds of ancient Korean kings, which dot the urban landscape in cities like Gyeongju. A short text, in the form of a first-person story, runs through the book and supplies some context about the history of these structures.
Munich’s Olympiaberg resembles a natural formation, but it’s not – the 190m hill was created between 1947 and 1958 from the rubble of bombed buildings. There are similar ‘Trümmerbergs’ (rubble mountains) in cities across Germany. At Olympiaberg, paved walkways wind along the shoreline of a small lake; groves of trees and shrubs dot the hillside. Kwon’s images emphasise the hill’s unnatural contours. The setting has the same manicured feeling as one of c18th English garden designer Humphrey Repton’s landscaped parks – artificial tracts of lake and woodland carefully designed to seem natural. Created mostly for private landowners, Repton’s parks were expressions of power and taste; the huge amount of labour that went into them was an open secret and a vital part of their meaning. Landscapes like these were not meant to replicate nature, but to affirm humanity’s dominance over it. The Trümmerbergs, on the other hand, borrow nature’s tactics in order to forget, cloaking the memory of violent destruction in the benign guise of ‘natural’ space.
The burial mounds or tumuli spread throughout the Korean city of Gyeongju are expressions of power that linger long after those who built them have gone. Symmetrical and deliberately unnatural, these small hills stand out from the rest of the cityscape. They’re said to be remnants of the Korean Silla dynasty, which emerged around 57BCE and lasted for nearly 1000 years. In the past, the tumuli acted as memorials and markers of territorial claims. Since the 1970s, they’ve been promoted as important symbols of Korea’s cultural heritage, proudly reasserted following the country’s release from years of Japanese colonial rule. In Kwon’s photographs, the mounds are almost swallowed up by the trappings of the modern city.
When I began writing this text, I’d been thinking of the structures in Cederqvist and Kwon’s books as ‘readymade’ Earthworks – the terrestrial equivalents of something like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. That idea turned out to be mostly implausible, but it was helpful in unpacking the difference between a real Earthwork and something that just looks like one. Like Repton’s gardens, the point of an earthwork is, in large part, the work, and the mark left on the land is not just a statement of concept or value, but an explicit assertion of human agency. Of course there’s work involved in creating a ditch, a hill of rubble, or a burial mound – but the significance of structures like these doesn’t depend in quite the same way on the labour that went into building them. The difference is subtle, but it’s important, because this emphasis on the act of creation in the past – the artist’s ‘gesture’, if you like – has the collateral (and unintended) effect of impoverishing the Earthwork’s meaning in the present. Although conservation might not be a priority for the artists who made them (Heizer, for instance, is happy to see Double Negative erode and eventually disappear) many of the genre’s key exemplars are hothoused like artifacts in a museum, their meaning fixed by their status as art objects, even as the world around them changes – relics of a kind of ecological stewardship that feels nostalgic and, with hindsight, more than a little naive.
The structures explored by Cederqvist and Kwon are manufactured forms that are also part of a living, evolving landscape. They may endure or they may disappear, but that’s part of what they are; the relationship between the makers’ original intentions and their meaning in the present is complex and highly unstable.
The structures explored by Cederqvist and Kwon, on the other hand, are manufactured forms that are also part of a living, evolving landscape. They may endure or they may disappear, but that’s part of what they are; the relationship between the makers’ original intentions and their meaning in the present is complex and highly unstable. In their own way, both of these publications reflect on this instability – which is, in the end, what sets the metamorphic character of built space apart from the intransigence of an Earthwork. It’s not just individual ambitions that shape a landscape, in other words, it’s the changing relationship between the broadly natural and the human-made; the way that history itself is written and rewritten on the land; the way that a place can accommodate remembering and forgetting, often at the same time. And the meaning of whatever remains is not the legacy of one person – it’s created collectively by a host of other human and non-human agencies. The Ditch opens with a quote by French essayist Georges Perec: ‘The earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.’ Kwon and Cederqvist show how this authorship is always shared across time and space, and how easily this writing can be altered or erased.