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Arts feature

Out of the ordinary

From high in the sky over Cappadocia Susan Moore looks down at part of the largest contemporary land art project in the world

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

From high in the sky over Cappadocia Susan Moore looks down at part of the largest contemporary land art project in the world

There are few artists whose work is best seen by hot-air balloon. There are even fewer whose works can only be photographed in their entirety by satellite. To describe the Australian Andrew Rogers as a land artist on an epic scale seems something of an understatement. Over the past 13 years he has masterminded the construction of 47 monumental structures in 13 countries spanning seven continents and involving some 6,700 people.

The more remote a site, the better it suits his purpose. Rogers has a penchant for wilderness, desert and plateau, favouring culturally resonant sites that are often barely accessible, and not flinching from challenging extremes of climate. His first structure negotiated the 40-degree temperatures of the Arava Desert in Israel, 400m below sea level; his fourth, the oxygen-thin altitudes of a Bolivian plain at a height of 4,500m. One of his last was an unusually ephemeral installation confected of ash, ferried to site by sled, on an ice lake in Antarctica. All are part of a still ongoing global Rhythms of Life project which, as one might expect, is the largest contemporary land art undertaking in the world.

Rogers’s structures are essentially one of two things. Some are monumental geoglyphs — effectively linear emblems ‘drawn’ on to virgin landscape by the placing or piling of stones. The others are vast monoliths formed by stacking cut stones or by arrangements of single, rough-hewn columns. While one type is low-lying and hugs the landscape, the second dominates it.

The scale and range of this project is unprecedented — though not unparalleled — in the modern world. It is in prehistoric phenomena, of course, that Rogers’s art has its roots. He has cited the influence of the Nazca Lines in Peru, for instance: those famously enigmatic 2,000-year-old birds and beasts that are visible only from the sky. Ancient British hill figures cut into chalk downs also spring to mind. Closest of all, perhaps, are the Native American effigy mounds that are scattered throughout the Midwest, embracing the likes of 1,300ft-long undulating serpents of earth or rock eagles conjured out of piles of quartzite.

Rogers is undaunted by engaging with these sites. In the Atacama Desert, not far from the Nazca Lines, he worked with local indigenous tribes to create geoglyphs based on local pictureglyphs and petroglyphs that were constructed out of local stones fitted together in a technique using guano and clay that had been pioneered by the Incas. Another site is in the Gobi Desert near the western end of that earthwork par excellence, the Great Wall of China, begun in the 5th century BC as a rammed earth and stone fortification that grew to snake some 1,500 miles across Asia. Here the geoglyphs included an outline of a messenger on a horse found in the nearby tomb of a Wei emperor. Realising these works involved 1,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

I caught up with the peripatetic Mr Rogers in Cappadocia where we were to witness the raising of the world’s largest basalt arch — its 80-tonne columns rising 19m high — and the completion of the Turkish segment of the project. Here, the 12 structures of ‘Time and Space’ spread across a 2.5km site on a hidden plateau above the ancient town of Göreme and offer a vantage point towards the magnificent — and mysterious — 30m-high circular tumulus of Cec. It is, apparently, the largest contemporary land art park in the world.

From the road in the valley all the eye can see is the distant circle of pillars erected on a bluff, a tantalising glimpse of what looks like a ruined temple from the less distant world of classical antiquity. When you drive up the rough, specially constructed track to get there, the ‘ruin’ turns out to be 12 basalt columns laid out in a Fibonacci sequence in the form of a planetary ellipse. The tallest column acts as a beacon, its 23-carat gold tip gleaming in the sunshine. Here, the warm air heavy with wild thyme, you could be almost anywhere in the classical world, and such associations are intended by the artist. Rogers’s work is about nothing if not the dynamics of memory.

He likes the idea of creating ‘consecrated’ space, places that connect the past to the present in order to encourage the contemplation of the future. A crucial part of his process is the involvement of local people who come together not only to build the structures over weeks or months but who also suggest the symbols of the geoglyphs. It is a means of tapping a collective cultural consciousness. Monumental scale is used ‘to take people out of the ordinary’. The arch of ‘Listen to the Silence of the Land’, for instance, is the height of a four-storey building and dwarfs those who pass through to survey the view from an amphitheatre cut out of the rock.

Only by balloon (and there are a lot of balloons in Göreme) do all the different elements of the site ‘read’ in relation to one another. Up in the air, the hard-edged stone walls of the geoglyphs that from the ground seemed crafted with almost deadening precision suddenly spring to life. Most effective is ‘Grind’, where loops of walling 100m in width spiral to shape the form of an ancient millstone found on the hills. We float above a double-bodied lion, a date palm, a human-headed, bird-bodied Siren, the horse that gives Cappadocia its name and Rogers’s own ‘Rhythms of Life’ motif that is constructed at every site.

What also becomes suddenly apparent from above is the sheer ambition — audacity, perhaps — of Rogers’s undertaking. Is leaving a not inconsiderable footprint on this and every other unspoilt site of natural beauty anything other than territorial imperialism? Rogers is, it has to be said, an unlikely megalomaniac, and when we discuss this the thoughtful, soft-spoken Australian is at pains to point out that he strives for minimum environmental impact, using indigenous materials to build structures that one day will fall into ruin and return to the landscape.

Freezing water has already caused the collapse of a basalt arch at ‘A Day on Earth’, and its tumbled monoliths arguably make for an even more evocative ‘ruined’ colonnade. As for the construction of the great arch, that, too, has been plagued by bad weather and damage. But neither is likely to deter the steely-willed Rogers, whose projects, from the negotiation of government permits onwards, have invariably involved huge logistical as well as technical challenges.

Perhaps most extraordinary is how an undertaking on such a heroic scale could have evolved under the radar of most of the international art world, for Rogers — a former economist and successful businessman — has worked independently of institutions and dealers. He is coy about how this project has been funded or about how much it might have cost, citing only the support of foundations and private individuals. As one might imagine, plans for subsequent additions to the Rhythms of Life are already under way: next stop Argentina.

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