Any 20th century art history course worth its salt will have surely shown a slide of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and prompted students to commit to memory the work’s revolutionary scale and site specificity. From Smithson to Christo and Jeanne Claude, the history of environmental art is by now long and celebrated. However, after all these years, it is ripe for reevaluation by artists less concerned with altering the appearance of nature, and more interested in our interaction with the natural world. It’s exactly this sensibility of ceding control to nature that William Lamson investigates in two concurrent shows in Denver: a solo showing of his video piece Action for the Delaware at the Museum of Contemporary Art and three videos as part of the group show Object | Nature at Robischon Gallery.
Smithson, Christo and Jeanne Claude executed their work by imposing their aesthetic upon the environment. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty moved 6650 tons of rubble out into the Great Salt Lake, while Christo and Jeanne Claude wrapped the Australian coastline with one million square feet of fabric. These grand efforts, intentionally or not, seem to reflect a human desire to bend nature to the creator’s will. Other celebrated artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long have since taken less invasive approaches, but by rearranging leaves or stacking stones, these artists still exhibit a dominion over the will of nature. Lamson, however, departs from this tradition in a way that reflects a current, more sensitive attitude towards environmental impact by creating art that leaves behind the smallest traces possible, if no traces at all.
In Action for the Delaware (2011), a 14 minute long, sharply-produced video, we are introduced to a long shot of Lamson seeming to defy physics by quietly standing on the surface of the Delaware River as he drifts along with the current. This serene illusion is soon broken, as the video cuts to a close up of Lamson struggling to get aboard the apparatus that earlier kept him afloat. He has trouble standing up in the chaotic flow of the river, and when he does manage to get afloat, he struggles to pump water out of his boots in order to correct his buoyancy. The video periodically bounces back and forth between these two shots, letting the viewer in on the secret: even when the illusion is complete, the artist is still subject to nature’s temperamental will. In fact, the artist is only successful in his efforts when the river allows, and this becomes a poignant reminder of our everyday interactions with nature that we can never truly control.
At Robischon Gallery, a similar piece is shown titled Action for the Paiva (2010). Here, a long, static shot shows Lamson utilizing the same underwater platform to ever so slowly float on a river eddy. However, unlike Action for the Delaware, the illusion is never broken as Lamson cedes control of his movements and placidly drifts along the current for 25 minutes. The fog rolls in, birds chirp in the distance and the viewer is subtly reminded that nature always looms larger than the artist. In Untitled (Bottle) (2011), Lamson’s video camera follows a bottle that has been attached to a kite and set adrift in the desert amongst windswept sand dunes. The kite pulls the bottle along the sand creating a line that traces the contours of the dunes while following the pull of the desert wind. The piece has precedent in Long’s work, where he created lines out of rearranged stone, or even the prehistoric Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert. But unlike many of his predecessors, Lamson again defers to nature. The wind that truly creates the lines is also the force that will shortly destroy them. Finally, in Untitled (Blanket) (2011) Lamson’s video camera follows alongside a foil camping blanket as it is blown across the desert by the unrelenting wind. The blanket takes on a strange organic feel as it lightly tumbles across the endlessly flat desert floor. Again, the power of this video lies in metaphor, as the blanket which normally functions to protect campers from the elements is now subject to the will of the elements as it coasts aimlessly across the desert landscape.
Rather than leaving a semi-permanent scar on the landscape, Lamson’s performances leave minimal impact on the environments in which they take place. The only lasting relics are his visually appealing videos. The new media formats of video and performance coupled with his conscious treatment of his surroundings presents environmental art in a new, contemporary manner. In this way, Lamson becomes the environmental artist that is more suited for our times than the artists that preceded him.