‘Land art’ drives home message on environment

by Angela Jeffs

Imagine you are driving along an expressway and suddenly you are slicing a hare — inscribed into the landscape to right and left — in half. Truly a most uncomfortable and powerful metaphor for what we are doing to nature.

Using the landscape as an expressive medium is not new. Consider the sacred and celebratory prehistoric images carved into English chalk hillsides. Or the geometric mystic marvels that can only be fully appreciated from a great height over the Plains of Nazca in Peru.

German-Austrian artist Hans Joachim Bauer goes one step further, however. He brings a gently expressed but profound moral anger to what he terms “land art.”

Hans, who is based in Mardorf, near Frankfurt, recently spent nearly two months in Japan on a third study curve. “I graduated in English and economics, then gained a doctorate in the history of philosophy. Now I’m into Zen, which fascinates because there’s no pressure — you just have to sit, and look into yourself. At age 63, this is a new beginning for me. What do I want to achieve? Well, I’m not seeking enlightenment, simply peace of mind.”

He is the opposite, he says. Forever busy. Responding to an insatiable curiosity that continues to lead him all over the world.

In 1967, Hans reached what some might consider his peak of mainstream success in Berlin, managing a company that manufactured Venetian blinds. But he exchanged it to wander around northern Spain. “I wanted to push the limits of freedom. I went with my family, and when they returned home, continued on walking alone.”

But it was tiring, so he bought a horse to carry his luggage. When that animal proved too big and too much trouble, he exchanged it for a donkey with long soft floppy ears, named Manzo. But she was not very bright; every time Hans stopped, she would turn around and try to go home. “She’d only ever known one place and one life you see, carrying milk cans.”

Three months with Manzo greatly expanded Hans’ sense of freedom, going up and down and around mountains, sleeping when and wherever. But there came a time, in mid-December, when he passed an open window in a village, heard a table being set for a meal, and realized it was the end. “I wanted to go home.”

For many years earlier in his career, Hans had worked a teacher. But his doctoral thesis — on the influence and impact of national politics on local history — led him eventually to write an autobiographical novel, “The Lead Ark,” about his hometown. “Published in 1988, it was photographed, relayed to a satellite and will still be up there circling Earth 1,000 years from now, when we will all have vanished.”

The term “land art” was first coined by Michael Heizert in the U.S. “He launched a creative movement in which artists would base their ideas in one of the four elements: earth, air, water, fire.” Hans became greatly interested, and in 1994, created a huge figure spelling out “GOTT” across 50,000 sq. meters of landscape. “It was a two-year project in total, using plant life and nature to ask where God had gone.”

Some find his work — some 60 projects to date — heretical. The winter project “Blue Church,” which used blowtorches under ice to illuminate a church drowned in a dam project, was described as blasphemous. In Finland, one of his sculptures caused a huge fight, and was finally destroyed with chain saws.

In 1998, wanting to make people think about how their lifestyle — and car culture in particular — was destroying nature, he found the perfect location: “Drivers would see the 300-meter-long hare as they descended a hill and realize that they were cutting it in half, the head and front paws in a meadow to one side of the road, and the tail end in a field of yellow rape the other.”

Some drivers were deeply affected. Others thought it a joke. “Someone even took the trouble to add a 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) penis. I was flying over it, saw it.”

A current project involves photographing rural communities, also from high above. In Spain, for example, half the inhabitants of one village (some 500 people) gathered in a field with their tractors, cars and animals to create a large face. “I did this in another place in Spain. Also Portugal. I’d like to do the same in Japan, eventually compiling all the photos into a book.”

Meeting in Kamakura, where Hans had been studying Zen from November to mid-January, he was readying himself to work with German TV on a history project. “My hometown is marking the 650th year since its foundation. I’ll be collaborating with environmentally responsible spray artists, creating images and data on pavements. People will see it, read it, walk on it, carry it away on their shoes.”

Land art, he says, is primarily psychological in its impact. It does not make a lasting impression on the landscape itself, only — hopefully — on people’s minds and attitudes.

Hans does some occasional consultancy work, helping companies and organizations create land-art-based ads.

The most important things at this stage in his life are art and Zen. “I’m getting up early to go practice at Enkakuji Temple in Kita-Kamakura; they have a daily hourlong practice session from 6 a.m. Afternoons I go mostly to the Zen-do in Hase, on the Enoden Line, or walk on the beach.” And so saying he gave me a photo of a line of grouped stones he had laid out on the sand and then allowed to wash away to sea.

Land art, he says, is about communicating ideas and messages. It has nothing to do with wanting to make his mark.

“I don’t want to leave anything behind.”