publication of the International Sculpture Center
Conversation with Bill Vazan
by John Grande
Mirages (Delta de Métis), 2002.
Granite, 5 boulders, 15 ft. high. Site-specific work at the juncture
of the Mitis and St. Lawrence Rivers.
on the land surfaces of five continents over the past 30 years, Bill Vazans
land art projects originated in the conceptual and Minimalist art tendencies
of the 1960s. Many of his projects from the 60s and 70s were
ephemeral and survive only through documentation: photographs, books,
catalogues, films, and videos. Among the early works were
Worldline Project and Canada in Parentheses. The latter was created simultaneously
on both coasts of Canada in collaboration with Ian Wallace in August 1969.
Each artist created a crescent-shaped formWallace on the west coast
at Spanish Banks in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vazan on the east
coast at Pauls Bluff on Prince Edward Island. The parallels between
land arts ephemeral yet conceptual approach to the land surface
and the conceptual gridding and labeling of geo-forms found in mapping
became evident in the photo sequences brought together from this initiative.
Vazans Worldline Project (1971) established imaginary lines that
criss-crossed the globe. Actually set down simultaneously as taped lines
at 25 locations in 18 countries, they joined the respective latitudinal
and longitudinal positions of each site to the others as imaginary lines.
As a performance/event Worldline made evident how disconnected from real
life objective standards of measurement really are, rationalizing
and segregating human culture from nature, quantifying the global environment.
Vazans most controversial projects include Pressure/Presence (1979)
installed on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, a site that decided
the future of Canadian history; large-scale land art drawings created
on the Nazca plains in Peru (198486); Mag Wheel #3 (1993) in Utah
and Nevada; and Socle Circulaire (1997) in Gotland, Sweden. He has undertaken
other projects, which he calls Stands for a Parallel World, amid the limestone
monoliths of the Mingan Archipelago on the lower Saint Lawrence River
(2000) and in the mountains
of Thebes in Egypt (2001).
Vazan is interested in cosmological models and the way all cultures adhere
to systems that enable them to rationalize the universe. The geological
aspect of each site (and the human history that has taken place there)
plays a role in his land art. By circumscribing each place and siting
it in our imagination, re-creating quasi-mythological land forms and engraved
stone sculptures (whose markings resemble Aztec, Mayan, or Celtic carvings),
Vazan makes us all the more aware of the geo-specificity of a site and
in so doing helps us to recognize aspects of the universal and cosmological.
Born in Toronto in 1933, Vazan now lives in Montreal and is one of Canadas
best known sculptors.
Outlikan Meskina (Map for Caribou Hunt), 1980.
Permanent, site-specific work, City of Chicoutimi, Quebec.
Courtesy Marcel Clouter
As early as 1963 you were involved in earth art projects. Was this
a move to get art out of the galleries, as was the case for Robert Smithson,
Michael Heizer, and others?
No. I had never had any gallery experience so it was not a reaction to
anything, just what interested me. I was not in an art milieu and came
to it from another viewpoint. My system, my guts, my intestines were telling
me I had to work as an artist. I had come down with ulcerated colitis
and started to make art again while recovering in hospital. I had two
lives. Doing my art and a regular life. It allowed to me to be much more
open to many things. To go up north to the cottage country and arrange
stones, to play around with tide levels, or to try making a mix of concrete
and stone into a mass was not a big aberration. It was fun.
1968 you were doing low-tide sand forms on Prince Edward Island and then
the Snow Walk Maze in Montreal (197374), followed by chalk
line drawings in Toronto and Quebec City. These works were ephemeral.
Do you feel a contradiction between these ephemeral works and your more
recent stone landscape/assemblage pieces?
BV: It depends how
you look at it. I now find it kind of absurd for me to have done this
sort of work. To find I have done something that has a permanence of thousands
of years is another thing. Artists are contrarycontradictions on
contradictions. Whether the work lasts minutes or many years, it is all
ephemeral. Time, by definition, is ephemeral. If you want to do a land
piece when you dont have access to the land, which is often the
case, you have to think of an interior thing. One way for me to make a
land piece is to make maquettes via engravings on small stone surfaces.
These become like sketches for possible large-scale land pieces.
Ravens Nest, 2002.
Granite, 6 boulders, 11 x 13 x 30 ft. Site-specific work at Riverside
Park, Kamloops, British Columbia.
engravings on your stones sometimes have cosmological referencesconstellations,
Celtic interlacing motifs, aboriginal song lines. Do you feel any contradiction
between the ancient and the contemporary? Are these forms an appropriation,
an adaptation, a re-creation?
BV: I enjoy
seeing and would like to celebrate, even propagandize, this art form.
It doesnt get much exposure, and when it does its always put
down to a secondary or tertiary level. So I develop it into my own kind
of work. Its a way of expressing what underlies our basic reality,
which is that we are not permanent. The
reality is our non-permanence and that is something I want to put into
Shard (1989), now re-sited at the McMichael Collection in Ontario,
references the proto-history of the natives of North America. Early native
mythology is generally something we know little about.
BV: I was intrigued
by the Peterborough petroglyphs at Stoney Lake and the Lake Mazinaw pictographs
in southern Ontario. We dont know what tribe created them. The images
I engraved reference these and other petroglyphs I saw along the Columbia
river in Oregon, as well as the Australian aboriginal dream time. Shibagau
is probably a French term originally used to describe the native tribe
there. For me, this piece is like a fragment of the Canadian Shieldrather
like a shard of pottery, but a natural, geological, contextual one.
Meskina is re-creates in rock form the cracks in a caribou shoulder
plate bone, the traditional tool that native shamans used to read the
best places to hunt caribou. Is there such a thing as indigenous culture
in its original context anymore? Are we largely re-creating religious,
archaic, or even modern motifs in art?
BV: When you
have been around long enough you eventually come to see that everything
is pretty well the same. It just comes in a different package. I guess
what makes it of value is the way it is restructured and reformed in a
contemporary way. When I get a stone from the land, its like bringing
the land to me in a reduced form. I keep the patinato keep its natural
historyand create a miniature land piece on it.
on turf, 1,400 ft. diameter. Site-specific work, Plains of Abraham,
the drawings preparations for larger works? What is the relationship between
your drawings and land art pieces? I dont want to call it land art.
Lets call it earth investigation.
BV: What is
a drawing? It is a two-dimensional rendering. Where do I work? On the
surface of the earth. Its a two-dimensional rendering. Usually I
dont go high, and I dont go deep. I may go down a foot. I
may go up a foot. In the end, it has the basic physical form of a drawing
but on a bigger scale.
the Uffington Horse, or the Cerne Abbas Giant, land art from Roman times
BV: Yes. These
Iron Age people made drawings on their land. What that entailed was digging
into the turf to expose the white chalk rock mass. What you had was white
on green. You can see this in the Ghostings (1979) piece I made
next to the waterfront, at the site of the former baseball stadium in
Toronto. It was a white-on-green, two-dimensional line work. The chalk
outlines were of native long houses and the circular palisades around
these tribal villages, those of the Neutral tribe, in southern Ontario.
I included straight lines that suggested the direction of glacial scrapings
during the last Ice Age. Those lines were based on actual scrape lines
found in the bedrock during the original subway excavations in Toronto.
The scrapes were under a foot longI exploded them to hundreds of
feet long in chalk, the kind that sports stadiums use.
Engraved stone, site-specific work at the LIlot Fleurie, St.
Roch, Bas Ville, Quebec.
the process for Pressure/Presence (1979) in Quebec City the same?
The markings reflect the geological history of the St. Lawrence Valley,
while the actual place is of great historical significance as the site
of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, where the English defeated the
French in 1763.
BV: It was done by
the very same process and was inscribed with a non-toxic, chalk-based
paint on the grass. It even showed up the following spring after the snow
had gone. I liked the idea of the white taking out the white. When the
snow melted, the white came back in very pale green tones. When the grass
grew it disappeared. I incorporated the concentric circles seismologists
use to indicate such things as earth movement because the St. Lawrence
valley is on a major fault line. I interspersed the concentric circles
with spiral lines, which were like giant fingerprint whorls and evidence
of the human or cultural presence of the artistidentity marks. It
was very massive, measuring 1,500 feet in diameter. The configuration
is also a bulls-eye, a target, that references history. The problems
that instigated the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1763 are still
with us today. You still have an ongoing cultural tension between the
English and the French. The presence is of the artist, the
pressure is the release because of this land movement, and
thirdly, this bulls eye, a pointer toward our cultural history,
which is actually bi-culturalEnglish and French.
1996, at the LIlot Fleurie in St. Roch, Bas Ville in Quebec, a place
reclaimed by the local community and now a site for ongoing sculpture
projects, you engraved a sculpture that attracted a lot of attention.
Why the title Prédateur?
BV: The image looks
very much like an extraterrestrial, something you would not readily recognize.
The lines I engraved on it flow here and there, bulging, then collapsing
like the limbic system of the brain, and there are two deep holes at one
end like eyes. There was talk of microscopic traces of life found on a
meteorite from Mars in the news so it became a kind of joke. Could this
piece have fallen down to earth from Mars? This kind of stone is glacial
debris from the Laurentian field and has a frosted surface with glances
or slag marks all over from rolling about in the last Ice Age. You dont
see the true colors on them until theyre worked on.
Hindu Sign, 1994.
Sumeet bricks, .5 x 15 x 15 meters.
Site-specific work in India.
has been a subject throughout art history. It recorded property, established
geographic contexts, and provided the viewer with an image of natures
unbridled wealth in the case of the early colonial painters. Do you envision
land art interventions as a way of getting away from representation, from
sculpture as object, a way of integrating your work in the landscape?
BV: I think I get
into deeper issues than talking about wealth and representing landscape.
I titled a recent show at the Musée du Quebec Cosmological
Shadows (2001) because from prehistoric times right up to now, despite
trying to understand whats around us, weve never come to the
end. We only see the surface of things, which is constantly changing.
When I try to do something on the land dealing with what has been on that
land, whether its cultural or natural history, I use todays language,
which is as a two-dimensional plane, to interpret it. What fascinates
me is how science, with all its beautiful constructions that deal with
essential reality, is hypothetical. Contemporary science and theory never
come up with a final answer. They keep changing it around. I like to deal
with these scientific models when making art forms on the land and in
these engraved stones.
Antipodes FocusPacific Ocean #2, 2000.
Desert stones, 1 x 40 x 45 ft.
Site-specific work, West Aswan summit, Egypt.
such as Rosalind Krauss have referred to land art as de-centered in that
it is less object-based or formal than sculpture. It may be de-centered
as formal art, but it is also integrated, with a strong sense of place.
Its integrated into life. Isnt that more centered?
BV: Its more
centered when it represents a group thinking or identity, and it is de-centered
when it is not one individual doing the work, because it takes other people
to wander in and think of it. This is the kind of art many primitive or
early societies created. They invited their shaman or their artist to
re-create a common identity with nature about them.
photoworks stretch and expand our sense of time and space; they have developed
over the years to become entirely independent from your land art projects.
BV: My photoworks
are a direct outcome of my need to document my land pieces. Working in
the fieldwhether making lines in the sand on a beach or in the snow,
using a machine to dig trenches, or assembling a rock configurationinvolves
a context so far from the art context that you want to bring it back into
a sort of framing or box. The artist needs and wants to show. The scale
and concept can be so vast that you cant capture it in a single
photo, so I investigate the manipulation of space and time through my
photoworks in a panoramic grid-sequential fashion.
civilizations such as the Nasca and First Nations sought to communicate
with the gods by way of land art. El Dios de los Aires (The God of
the Winds), a work you made in Peru, communicates this sensibility.
BV: Yes. I hired
crews to shovel and sweep clear lines to create configurations in an area
adjacent to the actual archaeological sites where these earth markings
existedthe cultural history of the area. We created two abstract
god or wind forms derived from images on ancient Nasca pottery. Its
a kind of engraving practiced by the early Nasca 1,500 to 2,000 years
ago. Researching the Nasca landmarks, I found the most convincing theory
to be the idea of getting water. The Peruvian coast there is mostly desert.
Only in the valley run-offs from the Andes do you have green belts of
streams coming into the Pacific. So the Nasca went to these dry desert
areas and made configurations mainly directed to the summits of the Andes
where the gods were supposed to dwell. The supposition was that ritual,
walking on these lines, would get the Gods to bring more water down the
mountain sides to the coastal irrigation systems.
Antipodes FocusPacific Ocean #1, 2000.
Furrowings in sand, .75 x 69 x 99 ft.
Site-specific work, near pyramids, Giza plateau, Egypt.
serpent-like piece you created in Sri Lanka in 1997 uses brick as a principal
element but creates a kind of ontological drawn form. You were effectively
drawing with bricks.
BV: That was fortunate.
When I got to Colombo, the man who took me to all the sites was living
in a brick yard. Some of the images I saw on the Hindu temples had a three-headed,
hooded cobra, so I decided I would focus on that imagery when I got to
making some land pieces there. Time is very short on these trips, but
fortunately my guide had enough people in his brickyard to give me a hand.
That is why it is quite a wide spread.
is so important in determining solid and liquid shapes and forms in nature.
BV: I am actually
working on a piece called Soundings from the Water Planet, part
of what I call my ongoing World Works. One series is The Antipodes,
and then theres The Stands, and the third one is Soundings.
Soundings is going to be a major visual thing, because it involves
material I have picked up from the earths surface over the past
40 years or so in Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America.
it be a configuration based on these materials?
BV: No. Its
not going to be one figure. Exhibition arrangements will vary and evolve.
Actually, it incorporates the material I picked upusually earth
or sandand suspends it in an acrylic medium. I just pour the acrylic
on to bring out color and an expansive texture. The visual emphasizes
liquiditythe essence of our existence. Sometimes theres a
bit of scatter. I am putting earth and various elements such as shells
into it. There will be many of them. Im up to 151 now.
the Antipodes project?
BV: To show how we
have collapsed our range on this planet to be almost like a grain of sand.
Whenever I go to a site, I ask the question, What is on the other side
of the world from where I am? Then I represent what is on the opposite
side of the world in reversed form. When I was at the pyramids of Giza,
for instance, I made zig-zag forms, engraving by scooping sand with hands
and feet, that represent the Pacific Ocean on the other side and allude
to mirage refractions of the nearby pyramid silhouettes.
an endless explorer, innovator, and seeker. Do you ever feel you are trying
to communicate with or express some greater transcendent force through
BV: Im fascinated
with how people, no matter where, have tried to communicate with something
other than themselvesthe other. I guess my way of making contact
with the other is by taking a parallel position with what these people
have done. Of course, Im only in one time and place. Is there a
connection with God? We all want to connect with God, whether or not we
deny his or her existence. We eventually realize, one way or another,
that we did not bring ourselves here, and we have no control of how were
going to get out of here.
John Grande is
an art critic and author of Art, Nature, Dialogue (forthcoming
from SUNY Press, 1998). He lives in Montreal.