Entering the galleries of Princeton University Art Museum, one is greeted at first by familiar sights: Monet’s “Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge” and Toulouse Lautrec’s “The Sacred Grove” – both landscapes in the traditional sense.
Nobody’s Property, on view through Feb. 20, 2011, explores a new kind of landscape: a contemporary look at the land and earth. Even the exhibition title forms a kind of landscape on the rug as you enter. Its shadow lettering makes you think about whether it’s projected light or sculpted into the pile. You hover over it to see if you cast a shadow – the first step in interacting with this powerful exhibit that was three years in the making.
Using video, assemblage and photography, the landscapes here “examine the representation of space in military, scientific and utopian discourse,” according to exhibition text. For these artists, “land and space are the physical expressions of human relations…”
Back in the 1600s, when Europeans went outside to paint en plein air, all they really could make contact with was the land. As space exploration took off in the 1960s, artists, too, started to look at the earth in a new way.
In 1970, Robert Smithson created his earthwork sculpture, “Spiral Jetty,” made of mud, salt crystals, rocks, earth and water on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Only visible when the lake water reaches a certain level, it is more present in the conversation of how it gave way to a new form of sculpture.
Contemporary land artists “demonstrate a profound affinity for Robert Smithson,” writes PUAM Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kelly Baum in the exhibition catalog. The artists in Nobody’s Property represent a new generation of land artists, she continues.
“The last ten years have seen a resurgence of interest in land and space among contemporary artists in general,” Ms. Baum writes. “War, capitalism, globalization, and urbanization have all triggered dramatic changes to the planet, changes that artists are addressing alongside philosophers, social scientists, geographers and nongovernmental activists.”
The title of a video installation by Francis Alys says it all: “The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can become Poetic.”
“It is a lens through which we can view all the works in this show,” says Ms. Baum.
In the room with the video is a chair and desk with a laptop, a light and a book. On the walls are a map and some text. In the video itself, against ancient stone architecture, we see a man puncture a can of green paint and take a long walk through Jerusalem, holding the paint can so it drizzles a distinct green line through the city.
He passes cars, markets, boys in Hasidic garb, goats, and people who either look bewilderedly at his actions or seem oblivious. Some even wave at the camera, taken more with the act of videotaping than the act itself.
By redrawing a section of the Green Line (the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements Israel and its neighbors Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War), between Alys hoped to bring, if not clarity, then a new perspective to the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine, according to exhibition text. “His primary tools in this regard were absurdity and poetic license. As he once said of his performance in Jerusalem: “art (can) provoke a moment of suspension… a brief sensation of senselessness that… makes you… revise your prior assumptions about… reality.”
The soundtrack is narration by Palestinians, Israelis and Britons on the performance. Viewers can interact with this work by touching a screen and choosing narration. For example, “…everyone’s trapped in the rhetoric…”
One work, recently acquired by PUAM, “Land Mark (Foot Prints)” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, artists based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, shows a grid of photographs of footprints in the sand. Look closely, and these are not ordinary footprints. Back in 2001 and 2002, a group of activists trespassed onto a U.S. Navy bombing range in Puerto Rico. Each wore customized soles on their shoes: some with pictures and some with text, but the message was clear: they wanted to preserve this land that was theirs.
Emre Huner’s “Juggernaut” is about those magnificent men in their flying machines: In this video, a bunch of gray-haired men in suits sit around a table holding model planes. Behind them are animated films of combat. The men smoke their cigars, drink brandy, wear supercilious smiles and scribble notes.
These are the men of war, wearing hard hats in the factory buildings where war craft is manufactured. Men in lab coats are waiting around for results, looking at paintings of dinosaurs in ancient books. Alka Seltzer is plopped into a glass of water. Says a narrator of a film within the film: “…it’s the future we’re interested in because that’s where we’ll spend the rest of our lives; it can be whatever we propose to make of it.”
Mr. Huner, of Turkey and the Netherlands, was influenced by the six months he served in the army, working in NASA photo archives, where he saw men inventing new weapons for the space age, treating them as toys. He references the 1939 World’s Fair World of Tomorrow, with architecture of warfare and the model city of the future. During a recent presentation at PUAM, Mr. Huner showed a film clip of Walt Disney, holding a space ship and saying that one of man’s oldest desires is air travel “… the frontier of interplanetary space.”
“We live in a post nuclear environment and we have to contend with it, it won’t go away,” says Matthew Jackson, who has created an aerial view of bombed out Dresden. “The landscape is not outside of us, it’s part of us.”
Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 2000-1010, is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Campus, through Feb. 20, 2011. Museum hours: Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m. www. princetonartmuseum.org