REVIEW: Feminist Land Art Retreat: Free Rein



Feminist Land Art Retreat, also known as FLAR, is a conceptual project that began with a stack of cheap, grungy, yellow posters featuring a mirrored image of Spiral Jetty - Robert Smithson's infamous artwork which has become the emblem of the Land Art movement of the 1960s and '70s - to advertise a feminist land art retreat in the Elaho Valley of British Columbia over the 2010 Labour Day weekend. Minimizing, rotating, then duplicating this iconic photograph into an image that evokes ovaries, fallopian tubes and the female reproductive system, FLAR manipulated the way we read Smithson's legacy and the history of monumental sculpture. This once masculine intervention is transformed into an image that makes one consider the fertility of the earth. This gesture introduced a line of curiosity that persists in FLAR's works regarding the different ways we can think about, reflect on, and articulate what Land Art is.

Eight years later, FLAR presents their first solo exhibition in Canada at SFU Galleries' Audain Gallery. Free Rein is a multi-disciplinary presentation of five new artworks that explore the concepts, language and symbols within the genres of Western cinema, Land Art and space exploration. The exhibition questions the dominant masculine perspective within these disciplines, and considers ways that feminine ways of seeing, listening and relating can create images and narratives.

Walking into the Audain Gallery's temporary entrance on West Hastings Street, I immediately encounter Bridle (2018), a giant sculpture made of thick rope that fills the space with its demanding presence. A closer look reveals that it is caked in red earth, which has become dry and crumbly. The ropes are stoic, bearing their immense weight and radiating a sense of strength from their knots and joints. The title and form of the piece alludes to a horse bridle, yet registers as various things: a necklace, a chain, a bridal veil, a net.

Feminist Land Art Retreat, Bridle, 2018. Audain Gallery, installation view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Feminist Land Art Retreat, Bridle, 2018. Audain Gallery, detail view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Walking along the windows, I approach Receiver (2018), a red clay bowl emerging from the wall. It is similar in colour to the red earth enveloping the rope sculpture, but looking closer I see flecks of silver and dark thin lines that speckle its surface. As I turn away, the sound of a woman singing slips out from the wall behind the bowl and lingers. This song is Hearts in a Ring (2018), composed, sung and recorded by Susanna Browne. It resonates within my body the way a mother's lullaby helps a child sleep.


time on the horizon

hours pass through fired burned

a new moon's arising

through other worlds I have learned


Feminist Land Art Retreat, Receiver, 2018. Audain Gallery, detail view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Walking back to the entrance of the gallery, I notice two stacks of 11" x 17" posters. Short phrases printed in silver metallic ink in a capitalized, blocky, bold font, describing a thing without every stating what it is, fill the broadsheet. Keywords hint that the thing observed is alive and feeling: "Clamping tail, Rearing, Bucking, Kicking, Striking, Bolting..." The text on one side of the poster appears to describe the thing in a calm state, while the reverse portrays a subtle but sudden shift into restlessness and tension. Installed as two stacks of posters side by side, juxtaposing one another, the moments observed in the texts appear cyclical, flowing back and forth between uneasiness and peace. The texts seem to come alive, as the sounds being described in the text filter in behind me, echoing from the gallery.

I turn to read the exhibition vinyl and notice that the rope from Bridle snakes through the blackout curtain and into the gallery, where a mixture of sounds - bells, birds, wind, crackling, hammering, snorting, neighing and whinnying - calls me into the darkened, curtained off space.

Entering the gallery, I am struck by the strong smell of hay emanating from the sculptures, titled Natural Alternative Grazers (2018). The sculptures are made from nets of varying sizes filled with hay that hang low from the ceiling or lay on the ground in the northwest and southwest corners of the gallery. The scent conjures the time I accompanied a friend to a barn and stable where she worked, housed her own horse and took riding lessons. This was several years ago. I've only been to these places a few times in my life and have never taken horse riding lessons myself, but they've always been memorable because nothing smells the same as a barn filled with bales of hay, dirt, dust, and horses. Thinking back on my relationship with horses and horseback riding, I realize I've never connected to the animals or the sport the way my friend did and still does. I always saw horses and horseback riding as something unattainable because it represented and embodied a certain level of economic and social class that I was not a part of and felt alienated from - then, and even now.

Feminist Land Art Retreat, Free Rein, 2018. Audain Gallery, installation view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

The underlying financial support that is required to be able to partake in certain activities also reveals itself within the male dominated Land and Earth Art movement. One of the most important patrons and supporters was gallerist Virginia Dwan, who not only provided the space to present the work of Land artists but also financed the creation of well-known artworks. Dwan was one of the few women in an otherwise all boys club. Without her, many of today's most referenced "angsty" and "anti-white cube" works of the Land Art movement, such as Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70), and Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field (1977) might not exist.


and how does my body move

it draw hearts in the ring

the higher the mountain

the later the spring


As I inhale the smell of hay, the immersive 18-minute, 3-channel digital video No Man's Land: The Trilogy (2018) arrests me with three large floor-standing screens that divide the space. Their semi-opaque surfaces allow for the projection to be viewed from both sides. The positioning of the three screens creates a viewing experience in which visitors can see multiple projections simultaneously from different perspectives.

Each screen features a distinct video projection, set in a unique location and season. Each video depicts the day in the life of horses, goats, and the women who care for and train these animals, set amidst boundless landscapes. The videos begin with a still long shot of a full moon, then fade to black, and cut to an establishing day shot, mirroring the cyclical rhythm demonstrated by the posters. Several images resonate in my mind: a person driving a car in the countryside, horses being groomed and trained, goats and cows, domestic and wild fires, clay being kneaded and fired to make ceramics, large stretches of snowy forests, deserts and canyons, symbols or maps being drawn on the ground, and clouds crossing a luminous moon in a pitch-black sky. Accompanying these images are intense sounds that reverberate through my body: the heavy breathing of horses, wind, chimes, the crackling of fire, clay being kneaded, and an orchestra of crickets.

Feminist Land Art Retreat, Free Rein, 2018. Audain Gallery, installation view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

A particular scene that stands out to me is of a woman training three horses in a small round pen. The woman gets the horses to run around the pen in a circular path as she side-steps alongside them. The camera attempts to track the circular motion of the horses' legs and even loses them at one point. It brought me back to when I was young and would spin around in circles then suddenly stop. My body had stopped spinning but my eyes perceived me to still be in motion.

FLAR thoughtfully plays with what is seen and heard in No Man's Land to create a space that evokes a range of feelings and sensations. In some scenes, they generate a sense of chaos and anxiety, such as when one projection shows a contained pit fire juxtaposed with a second projection of a growing wild fire, and a third of horses that are visibly anxious and neighing loudly in distress. In other scenes, the sounds are harmonious, like when the kneading and throwing of clay mimics the sound of horses running and walking in the ring. While trying to make sense of what I am hearing with what I am seeing, the recording of Hearts in a Ring bleeds into the space, adding to the layers of sounds that fill the gallery.


cut me in half

send me right back to space

escape for a while

mine's both leather and lace


The three videos establish a dynamic relationship between the women, animals and land, in each location and across them. Seeing the earth in the video being used to create a ceramic bowl calls to mind the clay in Bridle and Receiver (which is the actual bowl that is being fired in the video), and brings up questions around craft(wo)manship and why ceramics are not considered land and earth art when they literally use materials from the earth. Some of the activities that are captured on video, such as a goat giving birth, or a horse being brushed, express FLAR's interest in reflecting on how certain behaviors, responsibilities and ways of being are coded as masculine or feminine, how these categories are constructed, and how they are sustained.

The word "fertile" and all of the associations that emerge when I think about it in relation to land, female animals and women makes me aware of the psychological associations between the three characters in the videos. I also think about how the aims of land and space exploration have been described historically and presently: to claim, take, or conquer land, paralleling the way women and their bodies have been seen as untouched, foreign, and wild places that need to be tamed and controlled.

Feminist Land Art Retreat, Transmissions, 2018. Installation view. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Outside the gallery, on a tri-vision billboard at the corner of Abbott Street and West Hastings Street, Transmissions (2018) is composed of a second set of three images. As the tri-vision pillars rotate, they reveal a horse's single eye blinking. The two triptychs, No Man's Land: A Trilogy and Transmissions, differentiate their intentions from the large-scale human interventions of the Land Art movement by shifting the way we perceive the environments around us, rather than altering the physical environments themselves. This strategy parallels the way that Nancy Holt approached Sun Tunnels (1974-96).

Instead of invasively cleaving and reshaping land, FLAR asks us to rethink how we relate to land and our rights and responsibilities to act on it. In a time where conversations around decolonization and land rights are on the minds of many, FLAR explores how these concepts are entangled with gender and nature. They bring attention to the parallels between how land and women are seen, spoken of and treated, by looking at the language, imagery and narratives that surround both. By helping us understand the reasons behind the way we have historically and continue to talk about, and relate to land, Free Rein gathers physical and digital memories of the world outside and brings them into the gallery, shifting the way we perceive the representations of the relationship between women and land, which we have been conditioned to learn and know. By emphasizing the representations within art and image making that have helped to create gendered associations and relationships, FLAR pushes us to be conscious of how these ways of seeing, processing and thinking, affect us in our everyday lives.


and how does my body move

it draw hearts in the ring

take me away from here

from these earthly things


For more information about Feminist Land Art Retreat: Free Rein, click here.