Crop Circles, England
Photograph by Diverse Images, UIG/Getty Images
Crop circles decorate a wheat field in Wiltshire County, England. This southwestern region of the U.K. is also famous for the prehistoric monument Stonehenge.
Once thought to be the work of aliens, crop circles—mysterious patterns that often appear overnight across large swaths of farmland—are now the work of ambitious artists. To stamp out their drawings, artists use stomper-boards that press down corn, wheat, and other crops. (Related video: Crop Circles).
Their designs, some up to three-quarters of a mile wide, started to appear in the 1970s.
Such creative fieldwork could be considered Earth art, or land art—a movement that started in the 1960s to draw attention to the natural world, expand the definition of sculpture, and to reject the commercialization of art, according to Kelly Kivland, a curatorial associate at the Dia Art Foundation, which maintains several Earth art installations around the U.S.
Earth art is landscaping on a larger-than-life scale. It is creating ephemeral drawings along coastlines and making enormous and permanent creations in the desert. It sometimes manifests as a trench excavated in the middle of nowhere or the alignment of spectacular celestial views through cement pipes. And lastly, it is about documenting the journey to the remote landscapes, or canvases, where these installations emerge.
(Read more about Stonehenge in National Geographic magazine.)
Circle in the Sand, Oregon
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Getty Images
Artist Jim Denevan rakes sand to create expansive designs that the tide will promptly wash away. This swirl, drawn on Canon Beach in Oregon in 2005, is just one of dozens of very temporary installations Denevan has imprinted on the Earth. Some reach for miles and take several hours to shape.
The ephemerality of it all is his art. He has been described by friends as the maker of moments.
When he is not carving sand, soil, or ice, he is orchestrating elaborate locavore dinners, through his food-based business Outstanding in the Field, on sandbars that appear only at low tide, in secret sea coves, and on the ever-changing landscapes of ranches and farms.
(Related: “Christo’s 40-Mile "Drape" to Cover U.S. River?”)
Celtic Horse, Slovakia
Photograph by Isifa, Getty Images
This 330-by-330-foot (100-by-100-meter) geoglyph, or stone sculpture, was painstakingly built in Slovakia by Australian artist Andrew Rogers.
The Celtic horse, unveiled in 2008, was modelled after the drawings on a coin found under the 12th-century Spis (accent on the s) castle (pictured above).
By some accounts, the stone horse is part of the world’s largest land art project—a series of 49 geoglyphs Rogers has built in 14 countries and on all seven continents. The project, which has involved over 7,000 people, is named “Rhythms of Life.”
Rogers emphasizes natural processes and the use of old materials, such as stone, in a new way. “These structures may last for centuries, or may slowly erode into their surroundings,” he told Landscape Architecture Magazine earlier this year. “For me either outcome is acceptable, as I like to leave these works to the vagaries of time, climate, and the control and care of the local community.”
Sun Tunnels, Utah
Photograph by Al Hartmann, Associated Press
Unlike artists such as Jim Deneven, whose work is meant to fade, Nancy Holt aims to achieve a sense of permanence. Her installation Sun Tunnels was finished in 1976 and still marks a section of desert in Box Elder County, Utah.
Sun Tunnels is the configuration of four 18-foot-long (5.5-meter-long) and 9-foot-wide (2.7-meter-wide) cement pipes that have been strategically perforated to highlight celestial constellations, as well as the sun during the summer and winter solstices.
Holt was a land art pioneer. She and her contemporaries—creators of the famous installations Double Negative in Nevada and Lightning Field in New Mexico—were drawn to the open desert spaces of the American West. Holt felt an immediate connection with the expansiveness there, according to a recent look at the history of the land art movement in High Country News, a publication that covers Western environment and social issues.
Spiral Jetty, Utah
Photograph by George Steinmetz, Corbis
This work of art—called Spiral Jetty—is a seminal example of Earth or land art. Built in 1970 with mud, 6,650 tons of basalt rock, and the help of contractors, the jetty is 1,500 feet (457 meters) long.
Constructed on the bottom of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the spiral makes an appearance only during prolonged periods of drought—the kind we’ve seen the last two decades. (Related National Geographic magazine article: “Drying of the West.”)
Artist Robert Smithson was playing with the common land art concept of entropy, according to Dia Art Foundation’s Kivland. “Smithson knew that eventually this work would sucucumb to the forces of nature, if not maintained,” she explained. Dia staffers, in partnership with the state of Utah and the Great Salt Lake Institute, do occasionally clear the site of debris, conduct water-quality testing, and try to ensure that the public has safe access to the jetty.
Smithson’s portfolio helped spark debate about Earth art’s relationship to the environmental movement, which also emerged around the early 1970s. Many pieces of iconic Earth art required serious earth-moving equipment and leave what could be considered scars across the landscape. Critics question Earth artists’ perceptions of the natural world. Is a lake bed, or a desert, a sacred space to draw attention to or simply a canvas on which to make an historic mark?
“Many were very ecological; some weren’t,” said Kivland of the
original land or Earth artists.
Checkerboard Ground, London
Photograph by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Volunteers cut a checkerboard design into the lawn at London’s National Trust Ham House Garden—the 17th-century residence of the Duchess of Lauderdale.
The colossal effort, a project called Manicure led by artist Caroline Wright, was part performance art, part landscaping. Wright set out to mimic the pattern of the house’s grand entrance hallway as part of an exhibition that celebrated the site’s history.
The end product was 256 squares temporarily carved into the lawn. “When we finished I think everyone was a little bit euphoric... quite tired,” said Wright in a National Trust video about Manicure. “But more than anything there was a great sense of achievement between everybody.”
Star Axis, New Mexico
Photograph by Charles Ross
When you stand in the Star Tunnel—part of an elaborate sculpture and observatory in the New Mexican desert—you are perfectly aligned with the Earth’s axis and a view of Polaris, or the north star.
But since our planet’s axis slowly shifts over time, so has the view of this iconic star. To address these planetary changes, the stairs rising within the Star Tunnel line up with Polaris’s positions through the ages.
The tunnel is part of a larger sculpture called Star Axis, an 11-story concept that artist Charles Ross birthed in 1971 and started building years later.
(Related: “Best Night-Sky Pictures of 2012 Named.”)
Palm Islands, Dubai
Photograph by Motivate Publishing, Getty Images
Earth art can come in all shapes and sizes. But whether this man-made peninsula and its associated islands off the coast of Dubai count is a question debated among art scholars and artists.
Palm Jumeirah is one of three offshore resort and housing developments for the uber rich. Together, the islands may be the world’s largest land reclamation project, with Jumeirah alone requiring up to seven million tons of rock.
On whether the islands are land art: “The reason Palm Jumeirah is shaped like a palm is to brand itself. It has to be conceptual to strike a chord, but it’s completely focused on selling itself,” American artist Robert Ferry told Time Out Dubai in 2009.
That was the year Ferry, who works frequently from the United Arab Emirates, and his partner Monoian launched the Land Art Generator Initiative—which is dedicated to creating public art installations that produce clean energy.
Nasca Lines, Peru
Photograph by Robert Clark, National Geographic
Did the Nasca and similar prehistoric Andean cultures create the first land art? From the air, you can see ancient spiders, hummingbirds, and other creatures carved into Peruvian ground.
These centuries-old desert geoglyphs became well known in the 1920s, when commercial planes began flying routes overhead.
Archaeologists and other interested parties have described them as the remnants of old roads, irrigation schemes, astronomical calendars, even as alien landing strips, or images to be admired from primitive hot-air balloons.
More recently, many experts have settled on a religious explanation: that the lines were created as pathways for ceremonies that honored sacred resources, such as water.
(Read more about Nasca lines in National Geographic magazine.)
Celestial Vault, the Netherlands
Photograph by Siebe Swart, Redux
The Celestial Vault is a 98-by-131-foot (30-by-40-meter) wide artificial crater scooped out of sand dunes along the Netherlands’ coast.
Finished in 1996, this installation is meant to focus your attention on the sky. From the base of the crater, you can lay down and observe a slice of the heavens.
Artist James Turrell’s main medium is light. “I want to put you directly in front of light, so you see it with your own eyes, not through my eyes,” he told Smithsonian magazine years ago.
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