Sacred Art of the Earth:
Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks

Maureen Korp

Continuum 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Korp takes as her starting point two works from a gallery exhibition in Quebec, but her concern in Sacred Art of the Earth is with works of art which are site-specific and which can not (with rare exceptions) be exhibited in a gallery. Ancient or contemporary, such "earthworks" share common features as sacred places, and the religious and aesthetic concerns of contemporary artists can provide insight into those of their ancient counterparts. Korp's goal is not, however, theological or artistic: she is interested in universal, trans-cultural responses to sacred sites, as places.

She begins with a study of the photography of Jennifer Dickson. Dying from lung damage incurred printmaking, Dickson shifted from prints of nudes to photographs of the gardens on old European estates. Korp analyses several of these in detail, using the methods of traditional art criticism, but her primary concern is with Dickson's experience of the gardens as sacred, set-apart sites.

The next chapter jumps across the Atlantic and backwards in time to the ancient landscape makers of the New World. Korp is cautious about generalisations, but she suggests some commonalities in Amerindian built forms. She sets these in the context of more general beliefs about the earth and of links to religion, cosmology, and language.

The central chapter of Sacred Art of the Earth presents a formal typology of sacred places.

Any sacred place is an organized space. As an organized space, the [visitor] responds to it in particular autonomic ways. That affect is one of the recognition of power, sacred power (kratophany), a power particular to place, which may or may not be intermingled with the recognition of that power as a sacred being (theophany).
Korp uses ideas drawn from Christian Norberg-Schulz, Mircea Eliade, Kees Bolle, Tadehiko Higuchi, and John Dixon to analyse the spatial organisation of such sacred places, using terms such as boundary, entrance, path, horizon, and domain.
A sacred place is enclosed, set-aside or set-apart space. It has a boundary. A correct point of entry obtains. The path to this place requires a separation of oneself from one kind of space to another, a space more animated, more intensified, more focused, centred. There is something we apprehend about that place that requires our attention.
We may or may not recognize it by name as a god, an experience of the sacred personified in a theophany. ... The place is not like other places, and in that way we experience it as a localized, site-specific kratophany.
This is illustrated from the experiences of theologian Belden Lane, writer Maragaret Dyment (a visit to a medicine wheel), and Korp herself (observation of a lava flow on Oahu). Site-specific kratophany is related to, but distinguishable from, both religious experience (whether theophany or "primitive" animism) and aesthetic response.

Starting with a curatorial statement from a 1969 "Earth Art" conference, Korp considers the failure of traditional art history and art criticism to deal adequately with earthworks. She then considers a categorisation of earthworks by Mark Rosenthal, in which two kinds of earthwork — "modest gestures in the landscape" and "idealized landscapes" — are site-specific. This, combined with the typology of sacred sites developed in the previous chapter, is used to analyse six prominent contemporary North American earthworks: Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels", Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field", Michael Heizer's "Complex One/City", Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty", Charles Ross' "Star Axis", and James Turrell's "Roden Crater".

The final chapter looks at the power of "geo-metaphors", ways of seeing the earth on a larger scale. The two Korp considers are the representation of the earth seen from space and the proposal for a "Buffalo Commons" stretching across a dozen states and provinces of the United States and Canada.

I approached Sacred Art of the Earth with some uncertainty, since I find much art criticism sterile, divorced from broader concerns and prone to cleverness for its own sake. While Korp is obviously comfortable with traditional analytic criticism, however, she ranges far across the expanses of religion and anthropology. And the only possible traces of pure cleverness lie in the occasional "decorative" connection (such as an attempt to link the Old World gardens in chapter two with the New World earthworks in chapter three).

Sacred Art of the Earth is clear, to the point, and elegantly and succinctly argued. It is also attractively illustrated, with sixteen pages of high quality black and white photographs. I found it both a pleasure to read and a tremendous source of ideas. It has helped me understand my own experiences of kratophany — on the peak of Semeru or at Yosemite — introduced me to some extraordinary contemporary earthworks, and provided me with a powerful framework for approaching historical and ethnographic accounts of sacred places. A heady mix of art, religion, and anthropology, Sacred Art of the Earth deserves a large audience.

August 1997

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%T Sacred Art of the Earth
%S Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks
%A Korp, Maureen
%I Continuum
%D 1997
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0826408834
%P 208pp,16pp b&w photos