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(Way) beyond gallery space

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What does it really mean to “think outside the box”? Or create something larger than life?

Artist Jim Denevan not only thinks outside the box, he reshapes it. Making temporary circular drawings on sand, earth, and ice, his ephemeral designs are eventually erased by waves and weather. His latest feat won the title of ‘largest land art installation,’ covering 12.5 square miles on Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Denevan started the instalation in March 2010; by May it had disappeared. This beats Denevan’s previous record which was a sand drawing in the desert of Nevada, which had a circumference of nine miles.

But why would an artist live for months in a yurt in the middle of frozen Siberia, to create a record-breaking artwork he knows will disappear with changing weather? spoke with the artist about his inspiration, the public’s response, and how he creates such perfect circles.

MutualArt: Have you always created temporary land art? Where did the idea of working in this medium come from?
Jim Denevan: I think that art that goes away is not that much more interesting than art that sticks around, because when you become an artist you, in a conventional sense, decide to become like a hoarder of sorts and you hoard your own production and reference it all the time, and you catalog it, and if you sell it you have to carefully describe what it is, and then you have a body of work, and this body gets bigger and bigger, physically…but to do something substantial - say if I was making things like Richard Serra, big heavy objects - it’s just a lot to think about, but if you are making something large that doesn’t stick around…one thing is you don’t have to think of its mass and the second thing is that the surface… it’s like this constantly refreshed piece of paper, or you could say a constantly refreshed computer screen…


From left: Lake Baikal,  Tidal flats of the Spanish Banks (created and then washed away within 6 hours), Nevada's Black Rock Desert

I think to do large things that disappear is more the condition of the world, that’s the phenomena that we experience every day, whether it’s traffic becoming very dense and then easy, or here at the beach in California, tide coming in, covering the rocks and then it goes out later in the day, that’s the way of things…I like the every-dayness of creating artworks in a place that’s constantly refreshed, so I may be doing something exceptional in the sense of doing it very large in comparison to other artworks, but the fact that it’s transforming into something else, doesn’t seem like that big a deal, because every thing's transforming.

The Lake Baikal art project in Siberia is described as the largest land art installation - can you talk about the process of installing your drawing? How was the work implemented? How do you get such perfect circles?
All the artwork I do, none of it is in a model form at all, it’s all made big and then it becomes small through reproduction. So it’s completely different than people who design parking lots or freeways or crop circles, or big stuff on the ground.

Regarding the circles, when I did a drawing on the desert in Nevada, which was composed just walking with a stick, and I walked more than 100 miles, over about a 3 week period, and then I ran over the spot I marked with a stick with a truck with some fencing behind it to make the lines pop out and be wider.

Then I came back the next year and for the first time I did it with GPS-aided circles…I got two guys marking points from the center, so that basically I’m free handing between, maybe on a nine mile circle there’s 57 points that are marked with a flag, and then I’m driving... and that creates the circle, going at 70mph it takes about 13 minutes to go around the whole thing.

So I’m kind of guessing from point to point; and I adjust after and try to make it better; the circle is not incredibly perfect, if you’re on the ground you can see the flaws.


How do you expect the viewer will interact with the work?
It is fun when people come upon it and have no idea that it’s there, that’s interesting, and to be working in the desert and somebody you haven’t seen in 3 or 4 days just happens upon it, and you’re out there by yourself, and they ask what you’re doing and you just say, “oh, I’m just out here drawing circles…”

When people come upon it, and this is especially true at the beach, they take it in slowly at their own pace; children will run and get excited like it’s their playground and adults will pick this contemplative thing, examining the geometry, thoughtfully, and there are people with everything happening in between.

A couple walking along, they’ll take it in as some place to center their affection for each other and find some place and kiss because the geometry at that particular place feels like the place to kiss; or (laughs) we had a guy who decided this one spot was the perfect place to light a fire, and he went and got the logs and he lit a fire, right in the middle.


 I really take the hands off approach- I go away from it for 5 minutes or 25 minutes, and people just do whatever they do, and definitely seen some pretty funny things. I’ve even had people threaten me, I went home and I came back and ran across the drawing because it was pretty dark, and some people were on the cliff looking at it and they thought I was abusing the drawing, and this one guy was yelling that he was going to kill me if I kept running over the artwork.

I think doing something enormous, there is some aspect of some ridiculous heroic folly, but the fact that it goes away brings it back down to earth, to some degree, that people can just walk out there and see that it is just snow and ice and of course they think to themselves, “wow, this is going to be a great place to go sailing in a few months”, so it takes out some of the bombastic quality.

 What hurdles do you face?
When you make something really large, people are drawn in, for one thing it’s hard to ignore; I got an email from one guy who was flying from London to San Francisco he happened to look out the window, and it was weird to get an email from a guy named “Art Cross,” asking if that was my stuff, and it wasn’t publicized yet but he recognized it out the window, and the funny thing is I actually have a picture of that plane in the sky going by, and Art’s up there flying by (see below)…so with large things people are drawn in.


Do you have to get clearance to do these kinds of things?
I did get a letter from the Department of Interior regarding our work in Nevada, saying [“ the etching of geometric patterns (art)”] wasn’t among the permitted activities; it doesn’t say the making of art…It’s not like being negative or judgmental about the art per se… if it was permitted they would probably actually call it art.

And also in Russia, the Russian ETA showed up one day and told us to stop and have to check with headquarters, and it turned out that the bureaucrat in charge was just upset that he wasn’t personally asked if it was okay…and then 2 hours later they said okay, go ahead. It’s definitely not a Christo situation, where he’s enjoying the bureaucratic hurdles, but I think I will probably do more asking in the future, to tell you the truth.


Do you go back to the installations to see how time has affected the work?
Siberia that would last about a month and a half before the ice breaks up and it also decays for that period of time...It’s kind of distinct for a week or so, and the next time there’s substantial weather it’s pretty much erased. The Siberia drawing is 110% gone, but the desert drawing, I have some shots from space; I did the drawing May 10th and the shot is from June 16th, and it actually shows that after a rain storm, half of the drawing is under water and the part that is not under water has been decayed, it’s pretty beat up but its looks super interesting.

What’s next?
I’m curious about city planning, and I’ve been asked to do some speaking in the Netherlands regarding landscape architecture and urban development…there’s some figures in the world of landscape architecture doing this kind of work, so I’m included with this group of people having intellectual ideas about the shape of cities, so I’m excited about speaking at that, that other people are like Harvard PhD types, and I’m running around making marks freehand.

And on that big Apollonian gasket desert drawing where there’s the nine mile circle, and then the circles get smaller and smaller and smaller...I’m having that drawing made on a microscopic scale, since it’s a fractal, and the teeniest circles will be 247 million times smaller than the almost ten miles circumference circle…It will simultaneously be the world’s largest drawing- well I already beat that record with the Siberian drawing- and the world’s smallest.

Written by staff; images courtesy of the artist is a revolutionary online art information service which covers the world of art by collecting content about events, venues, artists, articles and auctions from thousands of web sites.
Jim Denevan