Sajda van der Leeuw

writer - photographer - academic


Summary, preface, acknowledgments and contents

Earthrise, 1969 (NASA)

Earth in Focus:

The Complex Sculptures of Land Art and their Big Picture Effect, as Seen through the Lens of Photography and Film (1960s – 1970s).

Sajda Alexandra Josée van der Leeuw

Linacre College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom


A thesis submitted for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy



This dissertation focuses on previously unstudied material of the films and photographs of and as Land Art, in which the reciprocal relation between the Land Art sculptures in situ and lens-based media is considered. It introduces the notion of ‘complex sculptures’, sculptures that are not only site-specific, located within the landscape or in an exhibition space, but also time-specific, mediated through photography, film, and even television. The complex sculptures of Land Art are thus shown to incorporate both a mediated and phenomenological viewpoint.

New archival material is presented through which a re-evaluation of Land Art becomes possible, one that includes the abundant use of lens-based media by the artists working in early Land Art. This is related to the socio-political circumstances of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to specific historical events. The importance of a decentring dynamic in the Land artworks is pointed out and related to the ‘primary humility’ that certain critics perceived in Land Art. Not in the sense of a sublime experience that overwhelms reason completely, or a ‘back to nature’ experience, but as a channelled, constellational experience of multiple elements. It is thus shown that the artists of Land Art were seeking ways in which both presence and absence, ‘presentness’ and distance, would become components of their aesthetics through their search for a continuous relationship between their artworks on-site and the distancing and displacing functions of different media, like film, photography and texts. This dialectical constellation of elements is directly bound to the ontology of Land Art (or: its ‘conditions of possibility’) – an ontology that points to a search for a different worldview: interested in ‘the bigger picture’ of the relation of human beings and our planet, as well as the growing awareness – as a lived experience – of the intrinsic reciprocity of our lives.

Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977.


During the summer of 2013, which was the summer in between the two years of my MA program in Art History at New York University, I was able to visit Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, thanks to the generous Levy and White travel grant of the Institute of Fine Arts. As many people have related in their stories about visiting this great work of Land Art, I too had a feeling of initial disappointment when I stepped out of the car (it must have been about 3 PM) and had a first look at what I knew must be The Lightning Field. My disappointment came forth from the fact that there seemed to be no artwork at all: the 400 stainless steel poles that constitute The Lightning Field were almost invisible. A vague shimmer betrayed the presence of some of the first poles, closest to the place I was standing – all the rest had disappeared.

However, just as all the other visitors to the field, I had paid for spending the night in the wooden cabin, which practically meant that I would be at The Lightning Field until the end of the next morning. That was quite some time to spend with an artwork, in an age where it is considered normal to spend only those couple of seconds with an artwork that are necessary to photograph it with a mobile phone. I therefore decided to ignore my initial disappointment and take a walk in the field. This was when the first shock befell me: as soon as one steps into the field, something starts to happen. It is almost as if the steel poles work like acupuncture in space – they condense the space into a place where one can wander. And wandering I did, and with every step avenues, like sightlines, were opening up all around me. Due to the placement of the 400 steel poles in long rows, running from north to south and west to east, sightlines between the poles are created into every possible direction around the beholder inside the field.

It dawned on me: The Lightning Field is like a field of vision – the operations of vision laid bare. But a vision of what? The horizon? Well, the surroundings of The Lightning Field are definitely beautiful, with some mountains in the far distance and the rough, dry land with the characteristic sparseness of vegetation of that part of New Mexico (one of the states furthest south of the United States) under one’s feet. However, if I would walk all the way to the end of the avenues created by the poles, and reach the end of The Lightning Field, my unobstructed view of the horizon was less mesmerizing than when I was still contained by the field. This made me return inside the field again and again. I felt I was looking for some sort of explanation. What to think of this unique, quite strange but enticing sculpture?

Of course, many people do and did the same. They start thinking about the number of poles, the geometrics of their positioning, the way that they were manufactured, or if lightning would strike and if that would create a credible danger while inside the artwork. They start counting, walking around the borders of the field, examining it from afar. Or maybe they just sit down somewhere, maybe on the porch of the wooden cabin at the edge of the field, trying to figure it out. I, at least, did all of this. However, after some time, one simply gives up on this attempt to ‘figure it out’. There is no way rational thought can lead one anywhere inside The Lightning Field. Like a Japanese ‘Koan’, The Lightning Field is like a riddle that can never be solved through thinking – and if there is a solution to the riddle it can only be intuited through experiencing the artwork.

I believe that it is at the moment one reaches this conclusion that The Lightning Field starts to do its most mysterious work. Or rather, it is at this point, that we can allow the mystery of the field to do its work – we simply open-up a bit, and start to think less, because of which the artwork can enter our very body and mind. And it enters first through our vision. Because we cannot figure it out in our head, we simply start to be with whatever is in front of our eyes. One sees the reflections of the light on the poles, one sees the surroundings of the field within the landscape. And then, slowly, one becomes aware of something else: one starts sensing oneself in that place, breathing, looking – still thinking, but quieter now. When seeing is related to sensing, and sensing is like seeing, it is as if one suddenly becomes alive.

During the moments of sunset and sunrise, the sun reveals The Lightning Field in its most glorious form, due to the reflection of the sun on the poles and the long shadows they cast on the ground. Seeing and sensing this, the beholder of the work is gripped by a sense of beauty, combined with a feeling of wonder. A sheer sense of being alive is felt: of being here, present, for this sunset, and this sunrise.

When I left The Lightning Field, I felt I had encountered a great work of art. Not because it left me astonished by its cleverness, or skill, or artistic concept, or even because of its beauty. But because I realized that I finally understood what had happened in the field. I believe that all art aspires to make the unseen visible. But the greatest art is also able to make oneself visible to oneself, not in one’s usual egoistic vision of self, but as a being that is a part of a collective world – the huge web of life. The long avenues, forming the linear perspectives of The Lightning Field, do not only point to an ‘elsewhere’. They also mirror the gaze and point it back to oneself. In every step, in every turn, one not only looks out into the landscape, but simultaneously sees oneself seeing, sensing, becoming aware and more present to what is around: life itself. One thus not only sees oneself seeing – one literally sees vision as such: a dialectics between the seen and the seer. And in that vision, something more is revealed. It can strike us like lightning. Who am I if not an intrinsic part of this planet I walk on, this world with all its sentient beings, plants, rocks, its moon and Sun?

It is since then that I believe that the great, diverse works of Land Art were concerned with doing precisely this: to make not only something visible, but also someone, by teaching us how to see the world that we continuously create around us. Great works of art do not allow us to figure out the meaning after one look, after which we can rush to decide if we like or dislike what we see. Instead, they reveal us to ourselves, in relation to everything that we normally consider to be ‘not self’.

Simple. Breathing. Sensing. Looking. It is as if one gets in touch with something more essential – memory beyond time. Something that goes beyond our personalities, ego, wishes and desires. One gets in touch with what we have called, since the beginning of times, ‘being human’. And to be human, one needs to realise that one is alive, intensely, at every moment of time, and as an intrinsic part of a world that is just as alive as we are.

To be a human being. And through that, the realization that one is related to all other beings on this planet. After all, we are here together – on this Earth. Or, as someone expressed it once, in this ‘spaceship’. What kind of responsibility does that bring to human beings? What kind of responsibility does it bring to the artist? And what possibility does it bring to art?


I am thankful that even after four full years of working on this dissertation, these essential questions, once perceived while standing in The Lightning Field, still touch me deeply. And I would like to thank many people for reminding me of these questions, always rekindling the fire that stood at the cradle of this gigantic undertaking called a ‘PhD’.

I would first like to thank my supervisors, Professor Geraldine Johnson and Professor Anthony Gardner, at the University of Oxford. Without their continuous guidance, unwavering support, and critical revisions, I would not have been able to finish this project – let alone start it. I am also grateful that, during those periods of research where life – as it inevitably does – intervened with our carefully laid-out planning, they were concerned with more than my dissertation and made me feel cared for. (The significance of one’s university as the alma mater, a term still used in certain countries, comes to mind here.) I would also like to thank Professor Joy Sleeman, who has always been available for a coffee and chat about anything related to Land Art and has been like a mentor for me these past years. She also co-organised a panel with me at the CAA conference in 2017, together with Professor Jane McFadden, to whom I also owe thanks, not in the least for her inspiring recent book on Walter De Maria. I would also like to thank all faculty and staff at the History of Art department in Oxford with whom I have worked in one capacity or other. Of course, I am grateful for the generous support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Scatcherd Scholarship of the University of Oxford, without which I would not have been able to finance these years of doctoral research. I also wish to thank the Terra Foundation for their support during my predoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC from September 2016 to the end of February 2017, and my colleagues, mentor (John P. Jacob), and staff at the SAAM, who were all a great support during that intense and turbulent (from a political perspective) time. The rich, often unexpected, and many times ‘new’ primary sources that I discovered in the Archives of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art Archives have become the strong foundation of this entire dissertation.

However, as it happens in our lives, I feel that I owe most thanks to those people that are an intricate part of the web of my ordinary, daily life: my friends and family. Firstly, I would like to thank my best friend Olle Kruyt, who passed away at the age of 37 in a tragic accident during Michaelmas 2018. I will always remember his encouragement to finish anything started, his strong ever-present doubts about our role in life, his never-ceasing humour and unexpected viewpoints, and above all, his loving and always generously given support as a friend. He will never cease to be a part of me. I would also like to thank my best friends from the Netherlands: Jorinde, Renate, Anne & Ric, Anouk, Wendy and Clemens, for the many Skype calls they have endured since I moved abroad. Thanks also go to other good friends: Taha, Katharina, Katherine (Katie) and her sister Bunny, Clancy, my old roommates in Oxford, my friends in New York – especially Susan and Ferdinand (now in Munich) – as well as other places in the US, my old friends and Fulbright fellows, and my fellow DPhil candidates and Linacre college members in Oxford. There are also Laurie & Nicola, Vivien, Akbar and Sushila, Dick, Diana, Hettie & Robert, Anush and many other companions I cannot all name here, who have been very important for me during these past years, and their presence has helped me to remember those questions that are most important in life and to always come back to the realisation that it is not so much the answer to those questions that matters. For that I feel very thankful to them all, and in a specific kind of debt.

As always, my thanks and love also go to my mother Joke and stepfather Ruud, who have never ceased to offer their advice in difficult moments and whose support and love forms the very basis of my life, although I often wonder how they have managed to bear with me for such a long time. But most of all, I wish to thank Marco. Thanks to him, my web of life has gained the shine and warmth of the sun and has been transformed from a sticky ordinary spider’s web, to something that likens an artwork made of silken threads, catching the sunlight in the drops of water that remain there after a ‘British blue’ rainy morning – reflecting the beauty of life all around and bringing an eternally returning wonder about finding ourselves here, now, together.


Table of Contents:


Short Abstract                                                                                                           p. III


Long Abstract                                                                                                           p. V


Acknowledgments                                                                                                     p. IX


Introduction – An Art of Uncertainty: Complex Sculptures                               p. 1     

The Expanded Field of Land Art                                                                    p. 7

The ‘Big Picture’ Effect                                                                                 p. 10

The Primacy of the Object: From Private to Public Space                             p. 15

The Art of Uncertainty                                                                                   p. 20


Chapter I – Land Art and the Exhibition Space: An Intentional Paradox          p. 25

  • Outside In: From Earthworks to Earth-Scapes                              31

Earth Works, 1968                                                      p. 34

The Lack of the Outdoors                                                       p. 38

Towards Earth-Scapes: Walter De Maria’s Earth Room     p. 41

  • Inside Out: The Exhibition Space as Nerve Centre                  50

Earth Art, 1969                                                                       p. 51

Manifesto for a New Art Movement                                      p. 53

A Manipulated Causal Web:

Dennis Oppenheim’s Gallery Transplant #1                    p. 57


  • At the Threshold: The Space of Printed Matter                  63

Avalanche Magazine’s Crusade                                             p. 66

The Permeable Space                                                             p. 71

            1.4. First Preliminary Conclusion                                                                  p. 75


Chapter II – An Infinite Camera:

The Framing of Land Art through Photography              p. 78   

            2.1. Michael Heizer: The Shape of Vision                                                     p. 87

                                    A New Dimension: As Seen Through A Fish-Eye Lens         p. 89

                                    A Threshold Experience: The Shape of One’s Own Vision     p. 94

                                    A New Infinity: To See Behind the Veil                                p. 100

                                    Photography’s Existential Question: The Fragmented Self         p. 102

2.2. Jan Dibbets: Seeing beyond Thought                                                      p. 105

                                    Elegant Paradoxes: Reality and the Picture Plane                        p. 107

                                    The Ontological Quest and The Photographic Act                  p. 111

2.3. Nancy Holt: Sculptures of, and Drawings with, Light                            p. 115

Sculptures of the Sun                                                   p. 116

The Eye Framed and Framing the I                             p. 120

Traces of Memory and Art                                           p. 122

2.4. Robert Smithson: True Fiction Eradicates False Reality                         p. 125

The Mirrored View                                                      p. 126

In between Reality and Fiction                                    p. 130

            2.5. Second Preliminary Conclusion                                                              p. 137




Chapter III – Land Art’s Filmic Reality: An Expanded Landscape                        p. 140 

3.1. Time and Scale in (and out of) Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty                p. 149

                                    On and Off Site                                                                       p. 154

The Movement of the Zoom: Within the Surd State                p. 161

                                    An Experiential Remoteness                                                  p. 165

3.2. Walter De Maria’s Landscape of Spikes                                                 p. 169

                                    Cinema and Movement: Filmic Spikes of Danger            p. 174

                                    Avenues of Experience                                                          p. 179

                                    A View in the Total Round                                                    p. 186

3.3. Ephemeral Land Art: Mary Kelly’s An Earthwork Performed                   p. 193

                                    Modes of Seeing and the Transience of Time                        p. 194

Time and the Fragment                                                p. 199

                                    Land Art Reloaded: Delayed Reactions                                 p. 203

            3.4. Third Preliminary Conclusion                                                                 p. 207


Chapter IV – Time-Specific Art: Land Art and Television                                 p. 209 

4.1. Transmitting Land Art: An Intentional Paradox                                     p. 220

                        Televised Artworks – Present or Absent?                              p. 223

                                    Richard Long’s Walking A Straight 10 Mile Line

forward and back, shooting every half Mile                 p. 225

4.2. One Step Beyond: Segmentation and Contingency                                p. 233

                                    Barry Flanagan’s A Hole in the Sea                                       p. 234

Dennis Oppenheim’s Timetrack                                             p. 238

4.3. Endless Reflections and Re-enactments: Technology as Analogy          p. 243

Robert Smithson’s Fossil Quarry Mirror with Four

Mirror Displacements                                                p. 246

                                    A Processual Indeterminacy: Marinus Boezem’s

Sand Fountain                                                            p. 252

            4.4. The Vision from Above: A Landscape of Tensions                                p. 257

                                    Perspectival Plays: Jan Dibbets’ 12 Hours Tide Object

with Correction of Perspective                                   p. 258

                                    Walter De Maria’s Two Lines Three Circles in the Desert        p. 262

                                    The Missing Link: Michael Heizer’s Coyote                         p. 267

            4.5. Fourth Preliminary Conclusion                                                               p. 272


Conclusion – Caught Between Two Worlds                                                           p. 276


List of Captions                                                                                                         p. 284


Illustrations                                                                                                               p. 304


Bibliography                                                                                                              p. 485