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PRINT April 1980

The Expulsion from the Garden: Environmental Sculpture at the Winter Olympics

IF THE SILENT OPERATIVE in late modernist art has been the gallery space, its outdoor corollary during the same period was and is “the environment,” a set of conditions loosely defined by their relation or non-relation to the white interior cube. Time, space, rivers, deserts, erosion, natural contouring, creation and decreation—the forces of nature—have been usable insofar as they echo issues appropriate to painting and sculpture.

The thinking was that you either did art inside the white cube or outside it, and that what you did outside it was merely an extension in formal terms of what you were likely to do on the inside. According to this geographical shift of logic, Michael Heizer could draw rings on the desert with a motorcycle and Robert Smithson could lay down a perfect spiral in salty lake water; the scale was colossally larger, the circumstances were “realer,” the art was purer and the problem of the audience had been solved once and for all because human presence was no longer necessary: the audience was Eternity. The unspoken subtext of environmental art joined the artist in a one-on-one pact with Creation, an unmediated flow of information from perceiver to perceived and back again. The Artist in the Garden with God.

Environmental art has evolved in what has come to seem protected circumstances—protected, that is, within a rather narrow private-property definition of the word “environmental.” Acknowledgements to the human community usually crop up only in the negative, as when projects on the land run into opposition from wrathful local citizens. Upper New York’s Artpark, if you look at it one way, is a sort of wild game preserve for endangered/dangerous species, marked off from the culture around it by a fence. And “environmental art” has become a neat package of prescribed rules containing formal solutions to problems that may themselves no longer be formal.

The art program of the Winter Olympics put this hermetic logic to its most severe test. Eight environmental pieces, four permanent sculptures, two environment-performance situations, as well as video, paintings, murals, crafts and photography had all somehow to be squeezed in among the enthusiastic jocks. Despite the indifference and occasional hostility of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, a team of local and New York City people raised their own money ($1.5 million, compared to the Olympic budget of $230 million), setting out to implement a little-known Olympic Charter mandate, placing art on the same level of importance as the games. (That’s the mandate that installed the ill-fated Corridart at the ’76 games in Montreal, paid for by $8 million of Canada Council funds.)

A jury chose the environmental artists (jurors were Richard Koshalek of the Hudson River Museum, Jo Anne Allison of Artpark, Irving Sandler and Ed Levine). Painters, photographers and craftspeople were grouped into shows at the local Center for Music, Drama and Art, and the galleries at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. Those artists working outdoors—Mary Miss, Doug Hollis, Elyn Zimmerman, Nancy Holt, Siah Armajani, Richard Fleischner, Phil Simkin, Pat Oleszko, Lloyd Hamrol, George Trakas, Robert Irwin—were allowed to choose their sites anywhere in town or throughout the 20-odd miles of Olympic venues. Although the portable objects could carry their rationale, turtlelike, along with them, the Olympics immediately threw everyone else up against enormous contrasts of scale.

For one thing, outdoor art hasn’t often been forced to deal with the picturesque. The Adirondacks are very beautiful, a mountainous upwelling of some of the oldest rocks in the world. Peaks, though not high, are gorgeous, and the accompanying snow and ice phenomena are spectacular natural versions of Hudson River Sublime. For another, there is the social scale. Lake Placid is a modest village of 2,700 that for two weeks numbered 40,000-plus, a human pocket in the woods that became the focus of the international press. A main street out of National Geographic, a population out of Thoreau. Snow that turns to brown salt slush; sub-Arctic weather conditions; Pinkerton guards; a thousand mythical white-suited FBI men patrolling the forests with guard dogs; checkpoints like going through the Berlin Wall; coffee $1 to $2 a cup; a ski village with brightly dressed athletes and spectators speaking all the languages of the world; the jolt of High Tech (the Olympic facilities) versus Low Tech (travel was often faster by foot, dogsled or horse-drawn sleigh).

On the High Tech side, Olympic construction produced occasional miracles of environmental sculpture. The 70- and 90-meter ski jumps project like Futurist rocket launchers from the bald top of a mountain, its face carved into a curve that parallels the flight of a human body through space. Equally eerie—the luge and bob runs, two suicidal, ice-lined concrete chutes banked into vertical turns and lit with sodium vapor lamps so that at night they glow a sulfurous orange, setting atmospheric ice crystals on fire and fogging the mountainside in a haze of the ineffable, as bizarre as the Cambodian temple scene in Apocalypse Now.

Faced with such visual, social and economic density, most artists fled to the few neutral zones liable (or destined) to be missed by the crowds. Mary Miss chose a nearly invisible cut in the forest leading downhill from a research laboratory parking lot. Elyn Zimmerman ended up (after several enforced site changes) on the sunken lawn in back of the Center for Music, Drama and Art (the local, sponsoring organization).

Robert Irwin, who has successfully controlled a number of delicate perceptual situations in which he could regulate sensory information, was apparently overwhelmed by the perceptual din in Lake Placid. He retreated to a pure white snowbank behind the new field house in the center of town—in the densest area of Olympic activity, then (when that location didn’t work) to a short rise behind the building’s glass-enclosed stairwell. His final installation—seven clear Plexiglas sheets propped on their edges like ice panes on point—radiated defeat. And a perplexed Lloyd Hamrol, diverted from his first few ideas by technical difficulties (including a lack of snow), cast a 16-foot Snow Tree House on the grounds of the Lake Placid Club, a sprawling resort hotel and center for the national and international Olympics committees. One enters the piece several feet off the ground and squeezes up a narrow contortionist’s passage whose roof slides claustrophobically along one’s back. At the top the passage opens out, a minor catharsis of relief. In light of such expansive Hamrol snow-and-ice pieces as the ring mound he did in Minneapolis in 1975, it’s hard not to read this Inside Passage as an introverted ocholphobic response to the Olympics.

Celebratory art violates the precondition of privacy that is necessary when the subject of art is the perceptual history of the artist/everyman. Hermeticism has its rationale, especially when the intent is not to bring art to the people but to draw selected observers to the art, observers who are expected to have achieved a near-professional level of sympathy with and research into the artist’s aims. Hermeticism falls apart when—as at the Olympics—privacy breaks down under the sheer human intensity of excited hordes of spectators. The other easy option, cheap spectacle (lots of balloons in the sky or flashing lights) is worse than nothing at all, and besides, it can’t compete with those organized by the professional spectacle-makers. Surely there must be a middle ground.

In Lake Placid there was a clear need for celebratory art, and only those artists not officially part of the National Fine Arts program were able to provide it. Naj Wikoff, fifth generation of the family who founded the Mirror Lake Inn and one of the local figures most responsible for getting art to the Olympics, set tall Vikinglike banners on a hill overlooking Route 86, the bus route into town. And Carl Nesjar, a Norwegian and a Fellow at M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, made the one piece the whole town loved: a frozen, five-globed fountain (reference: the Olympic logo) sponsored by the Norwegian government and dedicated to the ’30s figure skater Sonja Henie. The members of the New York art press shook their collective head in dismay as torches were lit inside the icicled globes and floodlights played over the Norwegian flag; as a heraldic artwork, however, the Nesjar stood uncontested.

Mirror Lake was the social center of town. People walked, skied, skated, rode dogsleds and drove snowmobiles across its frozen surface; at night the awards were given out on its narrow end, near the Lake Placid Club. One could draw a rough correlation between a piece’s proximity to the lake and its social reflexivity. Out on the ice at the end of Main Street, Phil Simkin and helpers built another of his human-centered games. More structural than the participatory puzzles and mazes he’s done in Artpark and Philadelphia, the piece consisted of seven house-like dwellings covered with a skin of white, rip-stop nylon and feather quilting (a parodistic “down shell”). The soft gray tone (feathers collecting like snow in the translucent quilting) blended with the lake’s overcast grays and greens. Stuck out in the middle of the ice sheet, the row-houses suggested fishermen’s huts or nomadic tents or a fleet of north-country Flying Dutchmen buoyed by a Valkyrian chorus of (real) Flexible Flyer sleds.

Simkin used the natural draw of the lake to great advantage. Curiosity brought a constant stream of visitors, who discovered inside each dwelling a different milieu corresponding to a crass pun on one of Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Man: (Creamsicles on the floor (childhood’s narcissistic gratifications), pinball machines (adolescent game-playing), two rocking chairs joined together (the interdependence of old age). Most conscious of its audience’s vicarious Olympic-sized yearnings, Rosebud II was a dream machine cranking out Citizen Kane-style hopes and wishes. At night it glowed softly out on the lake, like the green beacon that from a distance so enraptured Gatsby.

It is not surprising that those who felt most comfortable with the crowds were the two “performance artists,” Simkin and Pat Oleszko. (The NFAC was loose with its categories.) On the lakeshore near the bandstand, a bulbously costumed Oleszko and sidekicks cajoled passers-by into posing for a picture behind three wooden athletes in Constructivist garb (her Three Musicians, revised for the occasion). When onlookers proved shy, the threesome cut loose to crash the daily parades and awards ceremonies, determined to play the Fool to the Olympic Lear.

Since the Olympics often seemed staged less for the public than for the TV cameras, video had an immediate circumstantial affinity with the games, and was installed in various spots around the lake. Seven pieces were commissioned for the occasion and curated by John Handhardt of the Whitney. Buky Schwartz and Wendy Clarke occupied the downstairs entrance of the new Hilton; Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette were in the Lake Placid Club. (Schneider’s Time Zones, shot longitude by longitude while traveling the world on a Guggenheim grant, was shown on eight simultaneously transmitting monitors in a big bay window overlooking the lake.) Nam June Paik, Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanford, and Skip Blumberg all made tapes that were to have been displayed around town, though I never did quite locate them. (Blumberg’s, when I finally saw it, was a funny account of the Lake Placid Fourth of July ski jump contests.)

The category of traditional permanent sculpture (chosen in the only Olympic art competition) fared far less well. Intended in a way to fill the celebratory role, it found itself engulfed by the flags, the excitement, the athletes, even the conifers around the lake. Joel Perlman’s 16-foot, black-paned High Peaks couldn’t compete with the Birdseye logo of ice blocks just a few yards away. James Buchman’s Cor-Ten and granite spire was dwarfed by the backdrop of the field house. Linda Howard fared somewhat better; her openwork aluminum piece, its vanes joined in gentle curves and sweeps, was parked on the edge of town near the Center for Music, Drama and Art, where it could look with quiet affinity on the mountains.

There is a notion that public-scale sculpture ought to fit anywhere you put it, like a painting or a pot. But in Lake Placid, traditionalist objects were terribly vulnerable to their milieu—“decorative” in the worst, irrelevant sense. It reminds one that if painting shook off illusionism in order to free itself from the dictates of the picture frame, environmental art did something similar in opening out a sculpture’s “edges” to encompass the horizon. (All the more reason to worry about what’s on that horizon.) Through the expansion of the conceptual limits of a piece (a logical extension of the move to take sculpture off its pedestal) you were afforded the freedom to escape solipsism and its corollary, preciousness. Art could move out into the real world. Did anyone imagine it would leave audience behind?

THE ONLY OTHER ARTIST (besides Irwin, Hamrol and the performance people) to use the densely public traffic areas was George Trakas—with disastrous results. What happened to Trakas was a spectacular version of what most of the environmental artists encountered: a fulcrum of issues that brought “audience” posthaste, out of the theoretical realm and into the practical.

Trakas arrived in town last summer to begin work on his piece just after a bitter, local controversy had erupted regarding a red-and-yellow Lyman Kipp sculpture (not part of the Olympics), which had been brought to town by a local art committee and set down next to a small town pond. Residents had argued (with some justification) that the Kipp’s garish lines ruined the pond’s soft natural landscaping. Trakas undoubtedly aggravated those wounds by shortly afterward proposing an alteration of the only open knoll in downtown Lake Placid, a gentle rise overlooking a crossroads next to the old arena. He intended to recontour the hill, sandblast a boulder, and build one of his walkways from the road, increasing the retaining wall at the base of the hill to as high as 8 feet and adding an eighteen foot Cor-Ten arch over one corner. Jurisdictional disputes with the village and town bureaucracies and a threatened lawsuit slapped on by an angry neighbor stopped the project.

The dispute may sound like a classic case of the artist against the philistines, but from a revisionist point of view (and this article is frankly revisionist) the issue is far more complex. On the practical side, few people live in the Adirondacks without some fondness for “the environment”; an artist is often seen as an interloper on fragile terrain that’s already pretty beautiful. The normally sympathetic Adirondack Park Administration and Federal Department of Environmental Conservation prevented Elyn Zimmerman from keeping ice open on a wilderness lake, and told Richard Fleischner to stay away from the banks of the Ausable (pronounced Oh-sable) River. Second, a small town that might be expected to assimilate a little change, suddenly found itself in upheaval. (Townspeople even had to apply for permits to get their vehicles past roadblocks.) A public conditioned to expect that artists will not care about local opinion found in the art program a perfect dumping ground for their resentment of the Olympics. Third, the jurisdictional complexities of small-town democracy grew infinitely more complex during the games providing sports fans such as Town Supervisor Jack Shea (a 1932 gold medalist) and Town Attorney Jim Brooks (the lawyer plying the threatened lawsuit) with an easy weapon to use against the art program. Nancy Holt reports that until she won over some of the town’s leading citizens, contractors stalled her to the point of distraction. The conclusion: artists were operating in a highly socialized milieu, whether they liked it or not.

Now consider the theoretical arguments. For artists working in the environment the question was this: who, exactly, constituted “the audience”? Ten years ago the answer had been clear. Audience consisted of all those people who were willing to make the metaphorical journey out to the artist’s own ground—out to the unmediated Garden. More than anything else, it was the site that enforced purity; the actual structures on the land involved decisions of far less crucial nuance than the choice of location. Site is now considered transferable, however—from Battery Park landfill to Wave Hill lawns to the Niagara gorge to the Olympics. Transportability puts new pressures on site art. In Lake Placid, aside from a few stragglers from the art press, no artist could assume a knowledgeable public. Artists therefore had three choices (I’ll call them the Three Options): one, to forget there was an issue; two, to infer a civic or human relationship within the work; three, to play to the crowds.

It seems to me that environmental art has quietly endured the same transition now evident in decorative, emotive, surrealist and non-formalist painting—an alteration in one’s expectations toward the audience. Crowd pleasing isn’t a sin any longer. Simkin’s structures lost nothing in visual effect by also being fun—nothing, maybe, but a little rigor (mortis). And where Option Three worked for him, Option Two did just fine for Armajani and Holt, whose seemingly formal work carries a buried populist (hence social or moral) component.

Armajani’s white frame Reading House—Robert Pincus-Witten calls his style “carpenter vernacular”—adopted a sort of protective coloration in its location, the corner of a modest neighborhood park bordered by similar-style white frame houses. An indigenous, carpenter-designed, New Englandish, peak-and-gable architecture at first seemed common to all the dwellings, Armajani’s included. Protective coloration, however, is biologically advantageous only if the camouflage is close to exact. Armajani wasn’t really in hiding; for didactic reasons, something was “wrong” with Reading House. The floor plan had been bitten into at odd, non-utilitarian angles; the eaves were too high, so that like those of a Quaker church they expressed spirituality; the interior, furnished with ambiguous benches/pews/picnic tables, seemed to hint at purpose and contemplation. By exposing the emotional foundation of ad hoc American design, Armajani reminds us that American pragmatism has generated countless forms of the “moral space”—from Transcendentalist philosophy to Shaker dwellings to (a widely quoted Armajani fixation) Jeffersonian architecture. Democratically, Lake Placid residents responded as they saw fit. Someone left half a bottle of beer to freeze on the table; someone else scrawled a name on the wall. A prominent town official protested to me that in the summer Reading House would become a center of awful, unspecified sexual activities. Like a too-human alien in their midst, the house fed townspeople their own image.

Holt’s Lake Placid piece is built on her familiar cylindrical model—a 30-foot tower of warm red, hand-cast brick, penetrated by two archways and four tall windows oriented toward the cardinal compass points. As always, the site is immaculately chosen. Open fields and low hills stretch in two different directions; forest borders a third, and, across the road to the ski jumps, weathered gravestones protrude from an old cemetery. John Brown’s bitter, hardscrabble farmhouse lies just over the hill, under the shadow of the jumps. With no mountains visible, the vertical dimension belongs entirely to Thirty Below.

One of Holt’s previous works, Sun Tunnels, inhabits an inhumanly indifferent desert exposed to cosmic/cyclical/stellar time. Thirty Below, on the other hand, seems possessed of a human history: Saxon stone towers or Celtic battlements or ancient grain silos. (Could she have seen the stunning, native-stone silos on the New York State Thruway north of New York City?) If you moved the tower to the desert it would look like an Anasazi ruin—distinctly “of man.” One recalls how much stone has been laid in New York State by its settlers. The populist content is subliminal, but essential; it shows not only in her sensitivity to locale, but in the fact that all her works involve a collaboration with the people who live around them and who contribute as much to the “environment” as does the terrain.

Option One, finally, can be divided into two categories: Transitional (Hollis, Fleischner) and Non-transitional (Miss, Zimmerman). Transitional means that the artists accepted some connection to the Olympics; they would not have done quite the same piece somewhere else. Non-transitional means that I sense resistance; the same piece probably would have been done anywhere.

Mary Miss built Veiled Landscape in a narrow, open swath cut by the utilities company through a forested hillside. Not only could she have done it anywhere, but its structural complexities—descending bars, or barriers, of slatted fencing and wire screen—refer back to earlier Miss installations. Beginning at the parking lot at the top of the hill, one encounters a screened-in platform, followed down the slope by a row of upright telephone poles, three low slatted fences that obstruct travel, and a tall pair of frames with a path between them opening out to the descent. I’m keenly in sympathy with Miss’ rites of passage—with the kinesthetic body-projections that happen on manipulated ground—and I’ve spent some time trying to decide exactly why Veiled Landscape, an obvious reference to foreshortened and obstructed mountain-viewing, doesn’t live up to its name. It seems more an intellectual exercise, like picking out the planes in a Chinese mountainscape. Is the descent too long, the forest not sufficiently a barricade, the site too mundane? Faced with the Adirondacks, one feels she was too cautious.

Miss is not usually diffident, but Zimmerman is. Though their pieces shared certain similarities—Zimmerman set up a funnel of chain-link fencing that directed one toward a small, nearly invisible path into the forest, ending at a picture-perfect pond—the traverse into the woods was so gently ambiguous (you never quite knew where you were going) that it became the most reticent of all the environmental works. Zimmerman’s first proposal planned to leave a quarter-mile slice of open water in a frozen wilderness lake; the funneled lawn was the only good site left after fighting through what one N.F.A.C. staff member termed the “high school biology text transparent overlay” of conflicting jurisdictions. Dramatically anti-interventionist, Zimmerman’s attitude toward nature comes close to being artless. The pond, more perfect than a Japanese garden in being untouched by human hands, was the piece’s true point of focus.

I had a dramatic glimpse of the Hollis when I topped a rise onto a rolling, snow-sheeted golf course descending down to Route 86 from the Lake Placid Club’s rear grounds. The view was terrific—hills, valleys, mountains, conifers, sky, clouds and the twin ski jumps in the far distance. Over a glittering ice crust floated a cloud of 800 dayglow orange windvanes mounted on tall aluminum poles. As the wind changed direction, so did they. This California artist, who’s built air flutes and wind harps, was the only one to successfully open his art to the sweep of sky, the interface of wind, rock and forest. Later we drove past them and they darted away in formation like fluorescent starlings.

Hollis shared with the Winter Olympics a conviction about freedom, space and energy. Richard Fleischner built a piece that could as easily have appeared in Artpark except for a covert (and very clever) jibe at the sports mentality. His Fence and Covered Fence was just off the road in a small field across from the foot of the ski jumps, at the beginning of beautiful, open bottomland. It was two-faced: if you stood on the road with your back to the jumps you saw a small squarish pasture marked off on the side nearest you by a chest-high slatted fence, at left the same fence plus a tall covered “pavilion,” at rear a row of evenly-spaced cedars, at right the cedars plus a weathered picket fence. The field thus contained had a lovely, soft, gentle rightness about it, as though its dimensions were predicated on a projection of the human body in casual motion. It recalled gaming fields, jousting arenas and medieval tourneys—times when “sport” also had a human scale.

If you walked to the cedars and turned around, you did a Jekyll-and-Hyde doubletake. The covered fence now shot across the horizontal plane while above it towered the awesomely vertical spires of those double colossi, the ski jumps. Sport isn’t to human scale any longer. The jumps rose above the horizon, monuments to verticality and aspiration, their steep incline impossible to sustain and therefore “heroic.” Fleischner’s fence hugged the horizontal—the plane of everyday life, the one that dominates human existence, the one that finally undercuts every attempt at verticality.

The Olympics closed amid ecstasies of nationalism and pan-nationalism, Chuck Mangione’s jazz, and little girls spinning on the ice to the Ode to Joy. Strange to say, but the pageantry affected me like nothing since the all-night party after my high school graduation. As the TV men said, nobody wanted to go home. The Olympics’ peculiar grace, as in war, is to have let us live through an experience that towers over ordinary life. It’s the horizontal dimension, however, that will endure. During those 12 days Lake Placid housed the best and most extensive group of site projects in the country. The games forced on environmental artists a totally extraordinary intensity that raised questions it’s too early to answer with finality. The intensity may never be duplicated, but the questions probably will. The games, meanwhile, never knew what art they held.

Kay Larson is a New York based art reporter who has a weekly column in The Village Voice. All photographs, except for Nesjar’s sculpture, by the author.

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