Performance, Land Art and Photography

Francesco Gagliardi unpicks the ambiguity of the photographic document and its role as a cipher in both performance and land art from 1960 to the late 1970s

Richard Long, 'A Line Made by Walking', 1967, photograph. Courtesy Haunch of Venison

Richard Long, 'A Line Made by Walking', 1967, photograph. Courtesy Haunch of Venison

A couple of years ago at a Joseph Beuys retrospective in Berlin, I was struck by a large black and white photograph. It depicted an elongated bundle lying diagonally on the floor of a bare gallery surrounded by a peculiar collection of scattered objects that included a loose coil of wire, a thin metal spike and two dead rabbits. A nearby wall text identified the image as referring to Beuys’ 1964 performance ‘Der Chef/The Chief’ and described the action in some detail: in a room ‘prepared with fat wedges and strips, fingernail clippings and a ball of hair’, the artist, wrapped in felt and with his body ‘extended by two dead rabbits’, lay on the ground for eight hours breathing into a microphone, coughing, sighing and vocalising. The piece, the text specified, was performed twice: on 30 August 1964 in Copenhagen ‘for a small circle of artists’, and on 1 December the same year at Rene Block’s gallery in Berlin. The wall tag accompanying the framed photograph simply read: ‘Der Chef/The Chief, 1964’.

The juxtaposition of a text that identified two separate performances of the piece, and a tag that did not specify which of the two performances the image referred to, threw the object into an ontological ambiguity. It implicitly offered the photograph, not as a ‘record’ of a specific moment of a specific event, but as a visual correlate to ‘the piece itself’, conceived as an abstract, ideal entity. Especially startling was the shift entailed in the ontological status of the performance, identified with an idea or concept, rather than with any specific, embodied instantiation of that concept.

The ostensible offhandedness of such a radical curatorial gesture, and its inconsistency with the way performance documentation was installed and captioned in the rest of the show, provides a good illustration of a remarkable discrepancy between the art world’s newly rediscovered interest in performance, and the extent to which the role of photographic mediation in our understanding of live art remains under-examined.

In relation to photographic mediation, performance bears a striking similarity to land art. This is especially evident in the case of the many works often claimed as part of the land art canon that take on performance’s defining character: ephemerality. Think of Dennis Oppenheim’s ‘Cancelled Crop’, 1969, or Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’, 1967, the performative character of which is further accentuated by its explicit indexical reference to a performing body. As far as physical appearance is concerned, these works, just like performance, entirely depend on photography (and film and video) for their continuous existence.

Several of these impermanent earthworks are in fact conceived, and sometimes classified, as photo pieces. Similarly, in performance, there exists a tradition of works expressly staged for the camera, such as Vito Acconci’s ‘Trademarks’, 1970, and Oppenheim’s ‘Parallel Stress’, 1970. The mutual imbrications and overlaps, not just in chronological terms, between performance, land art and conceptual photographic practices, make any rigid taxonomy of these genres extremely slippery. For the sake of argument, however, in what follows I will concentrate on work the primary site of which ostensibly lies outside the photographic space: performances that originally took place in front of a live audience, and large-scale environmental sculptures that depend on photographic mediation on account of their forbidding remoteness, rather than because of a marked ephemeral character.

It is the nature of photography to be selective, to offer only partial views of a reality that extends, both temporally and spatially, beyond the instant captured by the camera. Inevitably, both performance photography and land art photography inherit this characteristic. Among the many alleged shortcomings of photographic documentation in relation to performance, it has been often pointed out that photographs can only capture an instant, or series of instants, of complex events unfolding over time, thus depriving viewers of a sense of the works’ duration.

Correspondingly, one might expect that in relation to large-scale environmental sculpture the main flaw of photography would be its failure to capture the work in its monumental totality. Discussing ‘Las Vegas Piece’, 1969, in a 1972 interview, Walter De Maria suggested that the reason he had never written an article on that piece (consisting of four shallow bulldozer cuts in the ground of the Tula Desert, two one mile long, two half a mile long, forming a half-mile by half-mile square with two extending sides) was that he ‘didn’t find a way to photograph it properly’, and that only multiple views, shot from different angles, could provide an approximate rendering of the piece. Similarly, the photo essay dedicated to ‘The Lightning Field’, 1977, in Artforum April 1980, is accompanied by the proviso that ‘No photograph, group of photographs or other recorded images can completely represent ‘The Lightning Field’’. These remarks could be read to suggest that, corresponding to the temporal selectivity of performance photography, the defining characteristic, one might even say the crucial flaw, of land art photography is its spatial selectivity.

On the other hand, it is arguable that only photography can provide a comprehensive view of some of the largest works of land art. Gianfranco Gorgoni’s iconic aerial images of Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, 1970, for instance, are shot from a viewpoint inaccessible to most visitors. Short of approaching the work from the sky, it is only through the mediation of photography that one can perceive ‘Spiral Jetty’ in its totality.

Aerial photography’s capacity to capture large-scale environmental works from viewpoints unavailable to ordinary viewers is matched, in performance photography, by the close-up’s capacity to show performances from angles and distances unavailable to live audiences in typical viewing situations. There is no stronger evidence of the extent to which photography is implied in our understanding of performance and land art than the fact that several of the most iconic images associated with these forms are crucially defined by specific technical possibilities of the photographic medium. Let’s return once more to Gorgoni’s aerial shots of Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, and to Françoise Masson’s close-up of Gina Pane’s left cheek crawling with maggots in ‘Death Control’, 1974. Images like these have come to play such a central role in our understanding of the works they illustrate, if not of the entire genres to which those works belong, that it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that that in the experience of most viewers these photographs have effectively displaced and supplanted the works themselves. And yet these images find no correspondence in the experience of the few who might have come in direct contact with the original works.

Going back to the claim that aerial shots are capable of offering comprehensive views of environmental sculptures, it has been suggested plausibly that works of land art extend beyond their immediate site, to the entirety of the remote spaces traveled in order to visit them. It is in this spirit, I believe, that critic Michael Kimmelman has referred to land art as ‘the art of pilgrimage’ and art historian Suzaan Boettger has argued that, from an experiential point of view, Michael Heizer’s ‘Double Negative’, 1969, could be said to begin in Las Vegas, where most visitors start their journey to the piece. If we take these suggestions literally, we may have to conclude that even the widest aerial shot of an environmental sculpture inevitably obliterates vast portions of the space ‘occupied’ by the work.

Such a literal reading, however, overlooks the essential aspect of what is left out. Quite obviously, a series of shots covering every mile of the road from Las Vegas to Heizer’s piece would not make up for photography’s inadequacy vis-à-vis the representation of the piece. What is missing in the photographs is not more space, but rather the experience of travelling through this space—an experience crucially defined by time. In the 1972 interview I referred to previously, De Maria makes precisely this point in a dense, vaguely disorienting, passage that is worth quoting in its entirety:


…it takes you about four hours to walk through this sculpture. Now the notion of experiencing the desert, experience this sculpture… By the way, it takes about two or three hours out of Las Vegas to drive to this place, it is about 100 miles from Las Vegas (…) and there is nothing in this valley except a cattle corral somewhere in the back of the valley. Then it takes you 20 minutes to walk off the road to get to the sculpture, so some people have missed it, have lost it. Then, when you hit this sculpture which is a mile long line cut with a bulldozer, at that point you have a choice of walking either east or west. If you walk east you hit a dead end; if you walk west you hit another road, at another point, you hit another line and you actually have a choice. At that point you decide which way to go and so forth, then you continue, you walk another mile and at another point you walk another half mile so and at a certain point you have to double back. After spending about four hours, you have walked through all of the three miles of the thing and you would have gotten your orientation because the sun will also be setting in the west and this is lined up so that all the lines are either east-west or north-south. I did this piece in 1969 and I haven’t done an article on it because I didn’t find a way to photograph it properly. You can only photograph in multiple views, you know, like this is looking east and this is looking…

[Paul Cummings, interviewer]—A satellite shot.

[Walter De Maria]—Well, that’s true, but that’s a different experience because that’s an experience like a drawing but this is an experience at ground level, it’s a different experience.


Approaching the work, getting lost and finding the way again, negotiating the itinerary: all of this is as much part of a large scale environmental sculpture as is its immediate physical presence. The work’s resistance to photography is brought about precisely by the medium’s incapacity to convey the experience of time associated with travelling to and through the piece—an experience, De Maria implicitly suggests, more aptly captured by language.

In the case of land art, consideration of the experiential character of the work opens up its temporal dimension. Similarly, in the case of performance, taking into account the experiential character of the work opens up a spatial dimension that photography often tends to repress. We are used to thinking of images of performance as flawed because they cannot provide us with a sense of the work’s duration, but we often take it for granted that, spatially speaking, performance images show us all there is to see. Think of Anthony McCall’s iconic images of Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975, in which the artist is shown drawing a line of paper from her vagina. Although we can reconstruct the action to some extent (there are at least five images in circulation, showing consecutive stages of the scroll’s extraction), we lack any sense of tempo and duration, not to mention what came before or after the performance’s most infamous sequence. (We know that the piece began with the artist undressing, wrapping herself in a sheet, climbing on the table, dropping the sheet and applying strokes of dark paint on her face and body, but none of this is documented in McCall’s photographs.) And yet, we may think that, with the artist’s body in full view, the space of the work is completely contained within the photographic frame.

As soon as we pause to consider what the live experience of watching ‘Interior Scroll’ might have been, however, we realise that the photographic frame has in fact obliterated a great deal more than just the work’s duration: the room’s size and shape, the arrangement of the audience in relation to the artist, etc. While fairly common in images of performance and body art, framing the body as an isolated object is more unusual in the documentation of theatre and dance, where the larger spatial (and social) context of the action is often explicitly alluded to. Think, for instance, of Peter Moore’s photographs of Yvonne Rainer’s early dance work, in several of which the action is framed by the surrounding audience, or by details of the theatre’s architecture such as the proscenium arch.

The reason performance is often shot in ways that encourage us to overlook the impact of spatial selectivity is, to a large extent, the result of an implicit subsumption of performance art by a visual arts tradition, rather than by the tradition of performing arts. More specifically, it is the result of an implicit, albeit paradoxical, equation of the performing body to the autonomous modernist object—an identification that is often reaffirmed through photographic framing. As in McCall’s images of ‘Interior Scroll’, in which Schneemann is shown standing on a table/pedestal, isolated against a neutral background (a composition reminiscent of countless images of modernist sculpture —in par-ticular, I cannot stop thinking, somewhat irreverently, of Brancusi’s ‘Princess X’, 1920).

I have focused this discussion on a feature of photography—selectivity—that, in relation to the medium’s documentary role, is often regarded as problematic. But I don’t intend to join the choir of those lamenting the inadequacy of photographic documentation as an access point into performance art, or, for that matter, land art. On the contrary, I believe that many of us who have developed a sustained interest in performance and land art have done so as a result of coming into contact with powerful, suggestive images of works that we will never actually see, and that the suggestive power of those images derives in part precisely by sophisticated ways of deploying the medium’s inherent selectivity.

A proper understanding of these works would benefit from a formal analysis and history of those visual artifacts: how do they function as photographs (and films, and videos); who commissioned, planned, executed and selected them; to what purpose (archival, commercial) were they primarily produced; what degree of involvement did the artist have in their production. As McCall’s images of ‘Interior Scroll’ suggest, attention to formal composition may help to understand the mutual imbrications between certain ways of photographically framing the per-forming body, the inclusion of performance in the visual arts tradition, and critical accounts of performance and body art identifying the artist’s body as the ultimate site of the work. The brief analysis I have offered here is a first step in this direction.

Francesco Gagliardi is an artist and writer based in Toronto