Land Art Ethics

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Nothingness: Anne-Katrin Spiess

Anne-Katrin Spiess explores a relationship with the aesthetics of place and with expansive landscapes. Her work contracts and expands from an interior architectural perspective to an outward ecological consciousness. Nothingness is a short essay on the artist’s journey in which Spiess engages with the phenomena of nature while encountering the harsh realities of human consumption, ultimately inspiring her to advocate for environmental protection.

Born and raised in Switzerland, Spiess moved to New York City in1989 as she always felt it to be “the center of the universe.” An opportunity to study at Parsons School of Design initiated her journey in the study of environmental design with a focus on utopian architectural spaces. During this period she studied with Allan Wexler and was inspired by Land Artists Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria who had moved their art practices from the interior studio to the great landscapes of the American West to engage the aesthetics of place. (1)

Spiess was also greatly influenced by her father, Hans Spiess, a landscape designer who later become an architect, and who had a great love for the land. Although initially interested in becoming an architect herself, Spiess decided she did not want to create anything that would permanently alter any beautiful landscape. She was more attracted to temporal and mobile structures that leave the landscape unmarked by human activity.

In her journey to find Nothingness, Spiess sets out to explore expansive spaces where she can create works informed by influences outside the art world. She begins this journey in 1993 with the first in a series entitled Thinking Box Projects; a collapsible wooden structure that is built to her own dimensions as a mobile private thinking and meditation space. The box, constructed with five panels of ¾” plywood and painted white, was crafted as a sanctuary to be made available for any user who might want to set up a private and completely undisturbed space. While the box was initially designed with city dwellers in mind, to permit regeneration within an urban environment, it became an inspiration for venturing out into isolated lands to provide ultimate seclusion.

For her first desert expedition in 1995, Spiess rented an RV and ventured to Death Valley in order to experience her first true desert landscape. She then realized that having a mobile studio and living space with which she could spend extended periods of time by herself in remote sites, would allow her to produce work outside of the traditional studio setting, so she proceeded to purchase a vintage Airstream trailer. Two years later (after needed repairs), she was ready to set out again into the aesthetic frontier. Twenty-seven feet long with all the amenities, even a small bathtub, Spiess felt it had everything she needed to have a home base in even the most hostile environment.

During her solitary journeys, Spiess never really knows where she will end up, following her instincts to find the perfect sites to conceive her temporal installations. “Getting lost” is one of her key strategies for finding the most intriguing sites. She has traveled to the prairies of Nebraska, the lake country of Michigan, the blighted lands of Death Valley, the red rock deserts of Utah, the rocky flatlands of Newfoundland, a rugged seascape in Maine, and in recent years the loneliest areas of Nevada. Spiess usually works on public lands and has found access never to be an issue for her temporary small-scale works.

In 1997, Spiess spent weeks scouting for sites on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BML) lands in Nebraska. She located a site that was completely out of view of any signs of life and set up her Thinking Box on top of a grassy hill so that she could contemplate the horizon line. Spiess occupied this space for days, meditating, looking at clouds rolling past, writing, and losing track of time. These sensory experiences began her personal evolution of understanding ones place in the environment, as a profound personal intervention. Documentation of this experience was captured with photographs.

The following summer, in 1998, Spiess traveled to Lake Michigan where she ventured outside the Thinking Box to engage the landscape as a performance. She sat for a week contemplating a sand dune, its shapes and formations. After much thought she decided, since the dune was perfect all by itself and did not need any intervention, not to build or create anything physical but instead to simply walk across the dune, to float on time creating a consciousness of action. To document this she asked a young woman who was at the dunes to walk across as she photographed this movement in time. Entitled Time: Slowly Walking Over One Dune, the action was a turning point from being alone in a meditative space. Spiess now engages the natural environment as a documentation becoming more conscious of herself in time and space, with the land as her point of reference.

Time: Slowly Walking Over One Dune, Lake Michigan 1998

In 1999, Spiess traveled with her Airstream to Newfoundland where she expanded on this consciousness to include again a performance of interactions in the environment entitled River Bath. Rather than relying on self to determine the experience, and nature being other, to be observed, her work is now dependent on nature itself for a specific outcome. Whereas before she used nature as a setting to look inward, to be in a protected environment in relationship to nature, she is now consciously looking at how she will interact with nature as an exploration of its limits.

Over several days she worked in a riverbed carrying heavy rocks placing them into the shape of a bath where she planned to bathe in a ritual cleansing performance. There were storms with heavy rains and she found her work continually swept away by flowing waters. Not giving up Spiess reassembled the rocks to follow through with her plans. Waiting for a warm day and the water level to clear, it took three weeks before she was able to document herself in this temporary structure before the water carried it away once again.

In many of my projects I transform seemingly insignificant actions into sacred rituals. Anne-Katrin Spiess

Twelve Bags of Trash (Result of "Highway Cleansing”), Utah 2000

In 2000, Spiess sets her sites on a cross-country trip to Utah. This trip is significant as she embarks on several projects and steps into the role of activist. Inspired by the work of environmental artist Dominique Mazeaud who performed The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande (2) over several years, once a month picking up liter and trash dumped in her local waterway near Santa Fe, New Mexico, Spiess decided to adopt a one-mile stretch along a highway for Desert Highway Cleansi
ng in Southern Utah. Here she picked up trash for two days, documenting each piece of litter, and later washing every beer bottle and can, and separating them by color. Now, not only has she evolved from escaping to nature for solitude to experiencing nature in relationship to self, she is asking questions that create a relationship with others in connection with nature; people she does not know, people who have thrown bottles and paper out their windows while driving down the highway that she finds herself collecting. On the third day, after she assembles twelve bags full of aluminum cans, glass bottles and trash, Spiess documents the bags in the landscape with a photograph entitled Twelve Bags of Trash.

During this same trip, Spiess decides to create objects in the environment with found and designed forms. She assembles the aluminum cans, glass bottles, local rocks and dirt, borrows dinosaur bones from a local rock shop and then photographs these elements in clear plastic containers. She states “Because of the strict drinking laws in Utah, people get fined if they are found with alcohol in their vehicles. However, thr
owing beer cans out the window seems acceptable, no one seems to mind. The dinosaur bones have been here for 65 millions years and now we have beer cans.”

Four Elements, Utah 2000

What is going on in the mind of the person who was doing this? Why do people do this here? It is very sad. Anne-Katrin Spiess

The trip to Utah has a profound effect on Spiess. In 2001, she is invited to create installations for two separate exhibitions at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island for which she decides to address issues of waste in A Walk on the Beach, and Chopsticks (3/4). For her installation in response to the closing of the Staten Island Landfill, the largest landfill on the planet, Spiess cleans up the beach on the island and then displays her findings in tall see through glass columns at the center of the gallery. In front of each column is a panel providing information that invites the public to consider their role in, and to take steps to, reducing the amount of trash they produce on a daily basis.

In effort to also raise awareness about deforestation, she created a contemplative installation entitled Chopsticks including statistics on how many square miles of forest are being logged in order to produce chopsticks used daily on the planet. Spiess also produced a take away brochure, which she distributed to restaurants owners asking them to discontinue using wood chopsticks and to use bamboo or washable plastic ones instead. This is an ongoing project and Spiess continues to hand fliers out whenever she is at conferences or gives talks. This more informational approach is a dialogic component new to her body of work. She is excited by the potential of having a direct, practical affect on the viewing public, experimenting with how art can educate or transform culture.

I have such a concern for this planet. If I can make a contribution, I will. Anne-Katrin Spiess

Following these two exhibitions, Spiess is grounded by the awareness that nature is not infinite and that humans are impacting the environment beyond her earlier experiences of Nothingness. Her search for a site where she can immerse herself in nature with greater depth now becomes an exploration of the limits of nature and to test her survival skills.

In the summer of 2002, she drives up the shoreline of Maine to find a barren flat island or “ledge” not too far from the waters edge. After two months of searching, Spiess locates an ideal site and decides to “adopt” it. Located in a mostly unpopulated area, visitors to the shoreline take note of her activities. She decides to share her plans, informing onlookers that her activities are a part of an artwork or performance. This puts them at ease and she finds that no one intervenes in her work over the next three summers when she returns.

One of her foremost interests working in Maine was to explore how she could live sustainably on the “island” while securing necessities for survival such as food, water, and shelter. The first year Spiess decides to build a shelter for herself by mimicking birds building nests for their young. She also experiments with foods available to her along the shore such as clams, seaweeds, periwinkle, and pine needles.

Spiess then decides to identify a source of water for a performance where she will drink eight glasses of water, the amount suggested by doctors to drink each day. After experimenting with different techniques of water collection including a slightly altered version of a solar still, which did not produce great tasting water, she decides the best solution is to collect rainwater. It was a particularly a wet summer, so it did not take long for the glasses to fill up. For her solo performance she drank each glass, one after the other, which she captured on video in a documentation entitled Drinking 8 Glasses of Water.

To conclude her first year on the island, Spiess decided to stage an official celebration entitled Dinner Party, arriving by kayak wearing a ball-gown, jewelry and lipstick, her intent was to cook mussels and periwinkles for this momentous occasion. Instead, she ends up serving herself a kind of aspic made with seaweed, and white wine, as the weather was very windy and she was not able to light a fire.

Traveling to and from the island over several days by kayak, submitting to weather that either cancelled or made her activities difficult, having to pack equipment in waterproof bags and making several trips a day pushes Spiess to surrender to nature. She learns that nature is in control and can alter your best-laid plans. This forces her to think ahead, to disconnect from hard-wired patterns of relying on modern technology like electricity.

Spiess becomes attached to this site and travels a second summer in 2003 to Maine. People who remembered her from the previous summer told her that her island missed her.

Before her arrival Spiess had planned a series of smaller projects. However, once she got to the island she decided that she needed to actually live there. She ultimately constructed a shelter that would provide safety and protection for her, a temporary habitat where she could live for ten days. She creates a waterproof cocoon-shaped structure using borrowed wooden palettes from a lobsterman as a base, a thin wooden frame made from lattice, and cover made from sailing cloth that she purchased from local sailmakers. Entitled Shelter Frame this work represented her desire to protect herself from wind and sea.

I have set a rule for myself where if I need to buy materials or tools, they must be within a half hour of driving from the site of the project, so as to minimize unnecessary emission of toxic car fumes. Anne-Katrin Spiess

Spiess’ work is highly influenced b
y years of independent coursework in ecopsychology, wilderness survival, and shamanism. She has studied at Schumacher Colllege an International Centre for Ecological Studies (5) in England with John Seed and Ruth Rosenheck where she explored deep ecology and how all species are interdependent. She has completed intensive courses with Tom Brown’s Tracker School (6) learning Native American survival skills including fire making, water purification, edible plant identification, and shelter building. She has also participated in shaman and geomancy workshops that inform her work creating spaces and structures in harmony with both the physical and spiritual environment of the earth.

Her work reveals connections between art and survival, survival as creativity, through ritual activities documented with photographs and video. Through solitary encounters in isolated environments, nature performs for Spiess as both a mirror and teacher. Her journey in search of Nothingness reflects a desire to immerse herself in nature’s aesthetics, which ultimately gives her cause to honor our deeper dependencies on nature.

Patricia Watts, 2007

(1) Land Art, Princeton Architectural Press, 1995 ISBN: 156898040
(2) Dominique Mazeaud, “The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande River.” A seven-year project in New Mexico including a monthly ritual to clean up the river as a prayer with documentation of visits in a journal (1987-1994).
(3) “Chopsticks,” installation was created for the exhibition “The Artist Within.” Snug Harbor Cultural Center, New York, 2001.
(4) “A Walk on the Beach,” installation was created for the exhibition “Artists respond to the closure of Fresh Kills Landfill.” Snug Harbor Cultural Center, New York, 2001.
(5) Schumacher College, ecopsychology.
(6) Tom Brown Tracker School was founded in 1978 by Tom Brown, Jr., Americas most renowned Tracker and Wilderness Survival expert. Based on the teachings of Stalking Wolf, the Apache elder from whom Tom began teaching, when he was seven years old.