Trace (Exhibition Book)
Michael Shiell (2011)
Danielle Smelter
Trace: Exploring Alternative means for documenting Ephemeral Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2011)
Sites of ExChange
Danielle Smelter (2010)
The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece
Michael Shiell (2007)
What is Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2004)
Bone Fire: Artistic Expression in the Arid Zone
Michael Shiell (2003)
Shelter and Survival
Michael Shiell (2002)
The Changing Sense of Social Space in relation to a devolving Ephemeral Environmental Artpiece

Since the late 1960’s the increased significance of context within the creation and exhibition of artworks has ensured that a greater emphasis is being placed upon the physical, social and mental space that works now occupy. Permanent public artworks have been seen to change a society’s sense of a given space. Impermanent works that have a definitive installation and de-installation timeline have also been seen to have a similar effect. Ephemeral environmental artworks however do not possess this same definitive beginning and end.

Unlike permanent, solid works designed to withstand the rigours of time, ephemeral environmental works exist within time’s cycle. They are not intended to be a massive imposition within a space but rather an element of that space that will pass. This brevity of life when coupled with a lack of any formal de-installation process means that the works departure is more like the gentle passing of a life. Unlike the finality of removing work from a site, devolution allows the work to evolve into something else. In this case the intent of the artist and thus the original work may be lost but the constituent elements of the work can remain. This also allows for the continued evolution of society’s connection to that space through that work.

Illustrative to this I will review the developing sense of connection with a specific space that has grown with the devolution of an ephemeral environmental artwork in western New South Wales. Begun in 2001, the work entitled ‘Bone Circle / Bone Fire’ has considerably devolved. With this devolution however there has been a development in the significance of the space for the small community that uses the area.

In terms of understanding art’s potential for the transformative experience of space into place there is an incumbent need to better understand the artwork’s relationship to its surrounding. Traditional outdoor works tended to impose themselves upon areas in such a way as to become the focus. Prior to the 1960’s artworks inhabiting outdoor spaces generally did not see the specific contextual issues relating to the site as needing to impact upon the work. The art piece was a standalone autonomous entity. The space it inhabited was merely its surroundings. Works that have been produced more recently however are more likely to take into account at least some of the contextual issues that are applicable to the given space during a works creation.

This earlier attitude of the artwork being the focal element while the outside world tended more to distraction was also reflected the apparent attitudes of the gallery world. In Brian Dougherty’s seminal text ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Spaces’(1), he explores how the physicality and functionality of the gallery space framed peoples’ understanding of the art experience. He discusses the space of the gallery as possessing a sanctified quality similar to that of a church or a cathedral; a reverent space where silence is observed and the artwork is exhibited and seen in a highly codified and constructed manner. More poignantly however, he also wrote that the physical space of the gallery was created in such a way as to exclude the outside world. Nothing from without is allowed in that may be a distraction to the sanctity of the space and the works on display. With this in mind it is clear why the contextual significance of outdoor spaces did not impact on the works that would inhabit them. These works were not an interaction with space but rather an imposition that forced themselves to be the overpowering focus of that space.

Towards the end of the 1960’s the predominance of a single driving style behind artistic development appeared to shatter. At this time we saw the beginnings of Conceptual Art, Arte Povera and Land Art to name but a few of the new directions. Many of these new directions did share varying degrees of overlap; a rejection of the supposed preciousness of the art object, a greater consideration of the role of process in the works creation and a varying degree of rejection of the gallery structure. Arguably the strongest initial rejection of the gallery system was to come through the early American Land Artists. Their distaste of the present system and the power it wielded was probably best categorized when Michael Heizer said “The museums and collections are stuffed, the floors are sagging but the real space exists”(2). They purposefully sought locations well outside of the usual artistic sphere as they headed for the Western Deserts of the United States. They further turned their backs on the galleries as they created works that were so massive and tightly bound with their site as to be uncollectible. Beyond their rejection of the gallery system and many of its underlying principles the development of their art forms also began to signal a change in the role of space in the consideration of art. As Michael Heizer stated “the intrusive opaque object refers to itself. It has little exterior reference. It is rigid and blocks space. It is a target. An incorporative work is aerated, part of the material of its place and refers beyond itself”(3). This statement appears as a conceptual precursor to the development of the more recent thinking such as that of site-specificity. Although his sentiments did not overtly speak of a need for a relationship between the work and its site it did flag the beginning of a coming change.

Although these fledgling concerns for site, which would later develop into the issues of space and place, appeared to influence the early Land Artists it is debatable as to whether their monumental results were particularly mindful of their sites. Indeed one journalist remarked that “earth art, with very few exceptions, not only doesn’t improve upon its natural environment, it destroys it”(4). The flaws in this sentiment however are twofold. Firstly, beautification was not a goal of these works. Their motivation was driven by a desire to interact with the land not impose the judgement of beauty. Secondly, these massive works were produced at a time when public concern for environmental issues was only just beginning through the growth of the environmental movement. In this regard if some of these works are judged by today’s standards they do appear to work against the site rather than with it. In contrast a similar earth-bound practice developed almost simultaneously in Europe but with distinctly different results. The works of artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were considerably more intimate and personal. In many ways it is the work of these English artists that share a direct conceptual link to today’s ephemeral environmental art practices. One aspect of commonality shared between these two differing working methodologies that also influencing other artistic practices was the increased emphasis being placed on the context of works. 

The heightened consideration that is now being given to the context in which a work is being seen has ensured that a greater emphasis is being placed upon the physical, social and mental space that works now occupy. The context has become a primary consideration in the relationship between an artwork and its site. In an attempt to define this relationship Stephanie Ross wrote that artworks could be understood to exist along a continuum. She defined various categories along that continuum from site dominant, through site adjusted, then site specific and finally to site conditioned and determined. The progression through each of these categories meant a stronger bound relationship between the artwork and its site(5). This understanding of site-specificity does assist in our comprehension of arts potential for the transformative experience of space into place, because works that are more strongly grounded in their site can act as a conduit to the formation of a relationship with place.
One sub-branch of modern artistic practice that owes a lot of its development to the early Earth and Land Art practices is that of Environmental Art. Although not bound by a standard set of codified principles this movement generally is concerned with interaction with the land rather than merely its representation. Through the sited artworks of various artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and Nils-Udo this practice has also defined a different type of relationship to site that is more than just temporary. The affiliation is greater than that of a static object and its place in the land. By re-considering art as a process of interaction rather than solely by the objects it produces, the longevity of works can also be considered as an issue of context.
With regard to environmental artworks the physical connection to the context of a place is self evident. Of particular interest however, is the more subtle connection of ephemeral environmental artworks to the concept of time within the context of a site. The creation of permanent works is an object-driven practice that seeks to create unchanging forms that exist outside the effects and cycle of time. Temporary works such as installation art are still an object-based practice but they recognise the cycle of time. Therefore these works have a definite and limited time for which they exist. The installation and de-installation processes are clearly marked and the boundaries of the work are well defined. In contrast to this there is another creative practice that incorporates the significance of time without the strictly defined parameters of an installation and de-installation phase.

Ephemeral environmental artworks may appear similar to other temporary art practices yet they also have some very distinct differences. As a process-driven practice ephemeral environmental artworks are concerned with a greater length of artistic interaction over time. As the name suggests ephemeral artworks not only exist for a short period, but are also a living process. In contrast to temporary artworks that have distinct installation and de-installation phases that are externally applied, ephemeral artworks devolution occurs as a result of internal mechanism. Most commonly these mechanisms are a combination of the material of the work, the site in which it is created and the affects of nature and time. As these mechanisms are internal to the work and not activated at the hand of the artist, the longevity of the work is less defined. Also in contrast to temporary works whose de-installation is harsh and sudden, the devolution of form that occurs with ephemeral works is more akin to the gentle passing of a life.

Ephemeral environmental art by its very nature incorporates a level of ambiguity. It is a process driven creative practice that places no emphasis upon the creation of a permanent form. This reorientation towards the creative process rather than the product means that to comprehend the artwork the viewer must understand any form that it creates is a function of time. The comprehension of the existence of an artwork however is not easily defined because these works incorporate the devolution of their form as part of the interaction. Therefore even though the form of a work may be breaking down, it still exists as part of the greater art process.

As a result of ephemeral environmental artworks incorporation of change in the forms it creates, it allows viewers of the work to return and experience both the work and space anew. Unlike a static artwork that potentially may be comprehended in a single viewing, artworks that incorporate change necessitate multiple visits to comprehend a works evolution and devolution over time. Although this series of visits does not guarantee peoples’ perception to change from space into place it does allow a greater length of time, and volume of experience in which this change can occur.

The temporal boundaries around these works are not the only margins that can appear blurred. Although these works are an interaction with specific sites, these sites are generally not bordered by any physical boundary. This lack of demarcation defining the works existence is only heightened as the work de-evolves. Its material constituents are still present, however they may have crumbled and fallen, but this destruction was always an intended element within the entire process therefore it still exists within the understanding of what is the art.

The effect of this ambiguity as the work de-evolves can impact the social perception of the space. Unlike temporary artworks whose de-installation is definite, ephemeral artworks devolution means that their presence still lingers even after their form has deteriorated. The lingering remains of an ephemeral piece appear to extend the works capacity to transform peoples’ perception of space into place. In contrast to the finality of removing a temporary work from a site, devolution allows the work to evolve into something else. In this case the intent of the artist and thus the original work may be lost but the constituent elements of the work can remain. This also allows for the continued evolution of society’s connection to that space through that remains of the work.

Due to the short life span of these types of works they also incorporate a secondary process of documentation. This recording is not done as a means to extend the life of the work, as this would be contrary to the original intent; rather it is done for the purpose of sharing the memory of what has passed. This documentation can then play a continuing role in the ability of the work to transform peoples’ perception of space into place.

Case Study
The Science Faculty through the University of Ballarat provides their students with in-the-field training through an annual excursion to a research property in western New South Wales, known as Nanya. Since 2001 these field trips have also incorporated an artist’s residency program that allows for two emerging artists to experience the land of Australia’s arid zone. I was fortunate enough to participate in this artist’s residency in its inaugural year. The initial appeal of this opportunity lay in its sense of immersion in a unique and altogether inexperienced environment. Additionally the potential for gaining some understanding about how others understand their experience of environment was a considered outcome. In reality the experience was a great deal more than that. The work that I created during this residency was to have an ongoing affect beyond anything that I could possibly imagine prior to the experience.

Before applying for the Nanya residency I had focused upon creating site specific ephemeral artworks in familiar environments. In so doing, I was working with areas that were charged with personal history and significance. I felt that this lack of a personal narrative in response to that land was of some concern; however any anxiety I may have felt turned out to be ill-founded. The breadth of scientific knowledge allowed for an augmentation of my own experiential understanding, which was lacking in this land. Although this scientific basis created a solid foundation it remained merely a point of origin in terms of the creative process. It formed the beginning dialogue between myself and the land, however the final resolution for the work was far removed from the clinical, objective results of scientific observations.

Primarily my work focused on the need for and lack of water within this landscape. As part of the arid zone this area of Australia was at that time experiencing its fourth year of drought conditions. As a result of this the signs of water deprivation were evident upon this scorched land. The lack of water created a very real and tangible pressure to the survival of both plant and animal life in this area. Survival pressures within specific environments also shared a degree of overlap with an ongoing interest I had in shelters as sites of relative warmth and safety along the length of a journey through the land. Far from being a point of disjunction between an organism and its environment, a site-specific authentic shelter can speak of the environment and the organism’s relationship to it.

During the beginning of the residency I was less concerned with creating works as I was with adjusting to the space. Absorption, reflection and the subsequent creative expression is a journey that requires both experience and time. During this period I gained both an objective understanding of what I was seeing through the scientific information being provided, while also being aware of my subjective responses to both the sites and materials of this land. The overall sense of space is one of great openness. The minimal undulations among the vast open surroundings gave a sense of great distance. Within this expanse I sought areas of slight depression, for had there been water it would have flowed and pooled here. These gentle recesses became the intimate sites for the works.

Working around this framework I made a number of smaller artistic interactions with the land. In each of these pieces the materials were sourced very near to the site where the works were then created. However it was the final work done during the residency that is of the greatest interest; not only for the work itself but also for the ongoing transformative result that it has had upon the scientific researchers and students who continue their own work at the property.

Bone Circle / Bone Fire
As the final work that was done during the residency the piece entitled Bone Circle / Bone Fire was the most resolved. At a superficial level the work could be understood as an interaction with the land in general, particularly in a land of such vast openness. In reality however the conceptual basis was drawn more generally but the work was a response to the small site in which it was created. The primary material that was used for the work was sun-bleached animal bones which were collected close to the depression where the work was situated. These bones were indicative of the harshness and aridity of this land. Its prevalence was also due, at least in part to the drought conditions affecting this part of Australia.

In deciding specifically on which slight depression to utilize for the work I decided on one that was close to the main animal drinking area on the property. Being almost completely dry it meant that many animals had perished in this area. I collected all the bones I would require from within a 150 metre radius of the site. I then swept the loose sand out of the depression with the intention of highlighting the cracked clay of this dried sunken hollow.

The bones were then arranged in a circular form within the depression. The purpose in working in this circular format was in direct response to the place of water in this land. As water flows along these vast open areas it gathers the loose debris and plant material that is found on the earth surface. This debris moves with the flowing water to collect in the puddles that settle in the depressions on the land’s surface. The debris moves to the waters edge in response to the action of wind and water. As the water evaporates the residual plant material is left in a pattern of circles and lines depending on the nature of the flow. In effect this patterning could be seen as a tiny topographical map as the debris traces the contour of the greatest height that the water reached.

The work remained in this form for the rest of the day but was destined to change after the setting of the sun. As part of the conceptual basis behind my environmental art practice is to create ephemeral works that have a changing life, it is not uncommon for my pieces to have a number of developmental stages prior to its own natural devolution. The next phase was to incorporate a cairn-like structure in the centre of the circle that would be internally lit under the darkness of the night sky. Using the remaining bones I began to build the small cairn skyward.

Beginning from the basic concept of the shelter as a place of respite and nurture in a harsh landscape I decided to make the cairn hollow, which also meant that the work was more fragile and susceptible to environmental conditions. This fragility was a vital element towards the honesty of the work as it reflected the tentative balance of life in this land. Since this work was also inspired by the dynamism of natural processes it would seem fraudulent to then create works that were dense and long-lived.

During the residency the moon in the night sky was almost full. This meant that working by moonlight alone was not difficult. Due to the extent to which the bones had been bleached by the sun’s rays they appeared to glow under the radiance of the moon. Under these conditions the sun-bleached surface of the work created an eerie glow that seemed to resonate within the landscape. There was another stage however, during the works evolution that was to radiate more light.

During an earlier work I had observed that the bones held with them a sense of foreboding. The presence of death seemed to linger on. The challenge was then to use bone material as the basis for the work, but also to incorporate another element suggestive of regeneration and life as it applied to this environment. Fire is vital to the regeneration and bio-diversity of plant species, which then support animal species in this area. I therefore opted to include this as the additional element within this work.

Working carefully so as not to topple the fragile bone cairn a selection of dry grasses and small sticks were placed inside. The incendiary materials were then lit. Fire breathed a new life into the work. It was no longer a static form. The flame flickered and danced in response to the gentle breeze passing through the openings within the bone cairn. This dynamic movement brought a play of light and shadow to the bone circle. In turn the cast shadows danced around the ground, creating new energy and life.

Eventually the warmth and light of the fire died, leaving only the structure. This structure remained intact for the rest of the residency.

Post Residency
After the completion of many artist residency programs, the artist walks away in the knowledge that the experience that they have just had is completely over. Very rarely would an artist get a second chance to revisit the same site through the residency program. At the time of leaving Nanya I also believed that to be the reality of that experience also. I knew that I would pine to return to the silent, peaceful spaces of this harsh arid land but the opportunity would not come again as the program was designed to give different emerging artists the opportunity from year to year. Therefore when I left the intact work Bone Circle / Bone Fire it was with a longing as I knew that I would not have the opportunity to see the manner in which it returned to nature.

In September 2004 (three and a half years after the initial residency) I had just begun postgraduate studies through the Arts Academy at the University of Ballarat. The Nanya residency program was calling for proposals from the latest group of emerging artists. I did not apply as I had already had my experience and I did not wish to deprive another artist of theirs. Once the artists were chosen I was approached by the organisers who asked if I would like to attend again. As a postgraduate researcher I could do my work at Nanya without depriving others of the opportunity of attending the residency. Although a considerable amount of time had passed I was still very keen to see what remained of that work. Prior to leaving however I was to learn a great deal more about the way in which this work had affected others.

One of the most visibly evident indicators that the work had impacted others and their experience of this place became notable during a pre-trip meeting. After the initial residency the Science Department had purchased a very large photographic reproduction of the work, which had since hung in the main office of the school. While attending a meeting at the school I noticed that beside the large photograph were a number of smaller ones that been taken over the passing years. Upon enquiring I was to learn that the students had independently recorded the works devolution. As the students who attended these excursions generally changed every two years I was surprised that there was this level of continuity. During the 10 hour bus ride to the property I was to learn in part how this transformation had occurred.

Within the environmental management course at the University the excursion to Nanya is a requisite part of the program. Students in their second and third years of study visit the property to learn through doing their own first-hand research. Over the years staff had begun to use thee photographic record of the work as a tool to give the incoming students a sense of the Nanya experience. This image was also used within the science school to be indicative of the role of the artist residents and suggestive of the types of outcomes they may produce. As a result of this exposure students became highly accustomed to the work, however this was not the only exposure they received to the work prior to the excursion.

Other than the students, a minimum of four staff from the school also went on the excursion. It was these staff members that provided the continuity for giving the students a basis for the work prior to their arrival. As I was to learn from the students one particular member of staff spoke about this work with great enthusiasm. In his retelling of the works creation he imbued the story with so much fervour and life that the students’ explanation sounded more like mythology than a process that I had actually lived. This form of oral history may lack the objective observation and certainty of detail that a definitive record produced at the time of the work’s creation may have had, however its ability to be retold brings with it a sense of life. Details can be blurred a little, potentially elements may even be lost, but if the speaker’s enthusiasm means the overall event still lives and appears relevant then maybe the cost is negligible. With regard to ephemeral works that incorporate the element of change as a vital part of their identity then it may well be relevant that oral history be used as a form of documentation. The work itself is bourn out of living process therefore a living record such as oral history and story telling would also be relevant.

During this return trip I noted a further two things of interest with regard to this piece. Firstly the manner in which the work had devolved was particularly interesting in regard to its initial inspiration. The work was inspired by not only the aridity of the land but also water and the manner in which it flows through a landscape. The devolution of the work had occurred in a direct relationship to this inspiration because the flow of water and the movement of the wind that has changed the work. Over the three and a half years since my previous visit the property had received some rainfall. This rain coupled with the effects of wind had brought loose sand and grass seeds back into the depression where the work stood. As had inspired the work, this flow brought that material to rest at the edge of the work. As the water evaporated the seed began to germinate. What remained then upon my return to the site was a shadow, a living ghost. A reminder of what had once been. The second point of note was the fact that the site of the work had now increased in apparent significance. Prior to the work this site was of no greater significance than any other area on the property. However over the previous years a visitation to the site had become a fixture in the excursion timetable. Upon seeing what remained of the work I quickly realised that it was not the work that drew them back but rather the place. The work became the conduit through which the experience of this space became one of place.

The unique relationship between ephemeral environmental artworks and the places they inhabit is distinctly different from both permanent and temporary art. As a process-driven art form its concern lies in the interaction with, and the formation of a relationship with a place. Since it is no longer the object but rather the process by which a works existence is measured this leads to a level of ambiguity about where the artwork begins and ends; both spatially and temporally. The spatial ambiguity occurs as a result of a lack of delineation regarding the physical boundaries of the work and the environment. Unlike the edges of a photograph these works do not have strongly marked limits. The temporal ambiguity is bought about as a result of the artistic interaction occurring over a length of time that also incorporates the devolution of the form as part of the artwork. If the conceptual underpinnings of the work intend for its devolution to be integral to the understanding of the piece then the form is no longer central to the works comprehension. One result of this uncertainty is that the work becomes an integrated element of that place. This tie between the work and the place can allow viewers to form a stronger bond to, not only the changing work but also the area it inhabits. In this way the work can act as a conduit to the greater experience of the place in which it stands. Although the artwork is not guaranteed to transform peoples’ perception of space into place, it can assist with the formation of an ongoing relationship to the area.

(1) Dougherty, Brian “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space” University of California Press, San Francisco (2000)
  (2) Beardsley, John “Earthworks and Beyond” Abbeville Press Publishers, New York (4th ed), (2006): 13
  (3) Beardsley, John “Earthworks and Beyond” Abbeville Press Publishers, New York (4th ed), (2006): 13
  (4) Auping, Michael “Michael Heizer: The Ecology and Economics of Earth Art” Artweek 8 (June 18 1977): 1
  (5) Ross, Stephanie “Gardens, earthworks and environmental art” as found in LANDSCAPE, NATURAL BEAUTY AND THE ARTS – Selim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell Cambridge University Press, New York (1993): 175