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Disappearing into land

Bryony Gillard on Lucy Lippard and Marie Yates.

In 1977, Lucy R. Lippard spent a year near Dartmoor as a period of reflection and retreat from her life in New York 1). From her time spent walking and thinking in the landscape came the foundations of her survey publication, Overlay, which draws together prehistoric monuments with land art practices of the 1960s and 70s 2). Lippard describes the text as “an overlay of my concern with new art on my fascination with these very ancient sites” 3). Through this endeavour, Lippard creates a process of layering, overlapping and colliding: Minimalist art practices and ancient landscapes — layered, multifaceted histories in flux.

In an interview in 2010, Lippard alludes to a short story also written in Devon during 1977, which could be considered both a symptom of, and reaction to, her on going enquiry into connection with place:

“I got so obsessed about place whilst living on this farm in Devon that I wrote a short story which I never published about a woman who got so involved in a place that she disappeared into it (laughs). She went into the land and never reappeared.”4)

For some time I have found myself returning to this anecdote, searching for some trace of the story’s existence, but it appears that this text, like its protagonist, has disappeared into landscape.

Six years prior, Marie Yates was making work (or, one could say, ‘thought experiments’) with similar concerns in the same landscape. The Field Workings exist as documents of experiences, assemblages or performances made on journeys in the South West between 1971-74 5). Many of The Field Workings took place on Dartmoor, a site of remote, open space, simultaneously vivid with corporeal connections to past civilisations. Constellations of standing stones, quoits, cairns and menhirs stand in for human acts, layers of collaboration with the land; temporal distance folded into physical space.

Lippard cites Yates’ The Field Workings in Overlay, describing their construction of “an attitude of awareness of the basic components of our universe, mostly disregarded unremembered or ignored” 6). Yates’ drive to avoid hierarchising the cerebral, sensual and political experience of place remains central to her practice, finding meaning in the disregarded or unremembered or, in her own words, “attempting the unrepresentable”7).

The events chronicled by The Field Workings retreated back into the landscape or the imagination. The tension between fictional provocations and factual record is antagonised, just as Yates prods at the binaries of nature/culture in her 1978 bookwork, A critical re-evaluation of a proposed publication, which explores how the “appropriation of nature has been politicised into the mystification of the relationships between people.”8)

Lippard’s lost story and the notion of disappearing into place seem pertinent to Yates’ practice and wider discourse around female land-based practices. Just as Overlay performs the function of its title, overlaying histories and practices, perhaps the lost story could be read in the same way — layers of the manifold interpretations and meanings of disappearance into landscape.

Although some ground breaking women artists are credited historically within the canon of land art, there is an unsurprising gender (and race) imbalance in discussion around practices from this era. However, like many modernist movements, it appears there were many female practitioners, but most have been overlooked or forgotten by the dominant narratives. This disappearance of the female voice is another layer to the lost story: these women went into the land, but have not reappeared.

It is quite possible, however, that many female artists found the mantle of land art too constrictive, preferring to align themselves to more open or transgressive fields such as ecofeminism. Indeed, the act of disappearance itself could also be considered a form of resistance, retreat or active withdrawal in order to overcome or circumnavigate a male-dominated canon. As a phallocentric construct, many feminists advocated an active withdrawal from canonisation — to remain outside, resisting attempts at the categorisation of their work.9) In the case of Lippard and Yates, there is also a relationship between the outside of the canon and the outside of the landscape — with both women choosing Dartmoor as a site for their thinking, its remoteness (and wildness) playing an important function in their ability to carry out this work — a space in which to experiment, reflect, explore and respond.

Equally, disappearing into land could be read as an absorption or assimilation: landscape as a powerful force, taking over the body, body returning to the land, woman as earth element, the destruction of nature/human oppositions and binaries. In Yates’ Sound Placements I-IV (1970) there is a drive to both record, but also become, the aural quality of the landscape. Natural sounds are combined with percussion or subtle musical accompaniment, a blurring of land and body through sound, experience and performance. This notion of disappearance-as-assimilation could be seen as a type of return, re-joining with the land, a becoming.

Perhaps what links all these layers of disappearance is the notion of a continuous movement – a journey, but also a state of flux. In a recent video work entitled Distance: On Not Going Home (2015) Yates explores the notion of exile and her experiences of living in Crete during a time of profoundly troubling political change. In revisiting her earlier work, this piece moves through decades, images, texts and landscapes, layers of history, memory and description. 10)

Yates' own position of self-imposed exile (from her country of birth and to some extent from her earlier works) enables her to use her own practice as a canon against which to react – to reposition, revise and re-read past work through the lens of her contemporary concerns. Suddenly, through this act of disappearance, everything becomes wonderfully unfixed, the artist disappearing and reappearing in different landscapes, modes of thought and times.

As with her wider practice, Yates avoids dichotomy but does however make an important distinction between enforced and self-imposed exile: referencing Edward Said - "the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever" 11) — against shots of Cretan ports, alluding to the violence and irreversibility of enforced exile.

The territory around disappearance and disappearing practices is unstable and in some cases treacherous. Represented in a contemporary context, these works risk the possibility of fetishisation: the overlooked (or disappeared) now rediscovered and claimed by institutions and curators, archived and positioned in retrospect into genres they may have resisted or else been originally excluded from.

In order to navigate the land around these historical practices, we need to understand better why the work of these artists disappeared, and how they can be celebrated in meaningful and sensitive ways. Turning again to Yates' bookwork, A critical re-evaluation, perhaps we can start by not making binary distinctions between enforced and self-imposed disappearance, but by reflecting upon the range of implications and motivations behind this act.

Exploring the contemporary works of these artists could be a useful way in which to understand disappearance — to consider it as a state of movement or flux, a position that is continually shifting, and one that is reflected in the title of Yates’ recent video work: tracing distances, differences, belonging and withdrawal.


1) Interestingly, Lippard initially came to the remote South West to concentrate on a novel, but quickly became fascinated with the numerous megalithic sites in the landscape. Lippard, L.R. (1983). Overlay. New York: The New Press, p.1
2)  Ibid
3) Ibid, p.1
4) White, R. (2010). Lucy Lippard on place, places and conceptual art (interview). Art Cornwall. [online] Available at:
http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Lucy_Lippard.htm [Accessed 19 Dec 2014]
5)This refers to the series Field Workings 1971-73 (1971-73) and the Durgan Field Working (1974)
made for the Arts Council exhibition An Element of Landscape. The initial project lasted for three years and was based on journeys made by Marie Yates, starting out from London accompanied by David Toop.
6) Lippard, L.R. (1983). Overlay. New York: The New Press, p.37
7) Yates, M. (2015). On Not Going Home. [online] Available at: http://www.users.otenet.gr/~myates/onnotgoinghome20.html
[Accessed 12 Nov 2015]
8) Crichton, F. Marie Yates. Studio International 3/1977, p. 184
9) In her 1989 essay, Illiterations, the experimental writer and academic Christine Brooke-Rose wrote about the impossibility of women writers (and artists) to enter a cultural canon. Brooke-Rose suggests this is because the notion of a canon is a male construct, and if female practitioners are fortunate enough to gain recognition by the establishment, it is as a means to categorise their work and align it to a male genre. Brooke-Rose adds that canonisation serves the purpose of promotion of the individual artist genius (a male pursuit) and to enable the establishment (critics, etc.) to label authors: “women are rarely considered seriously part of a movement when it is ‘in vogue’; and they are damned with a label when it no longer is, when they can safely be considered as minor elements of it.” Brooke-Rose advocates “more withdrawal and less belonging” for women writers/artists – to resist categorisation/canonisation and remain outside.
Brooke-Rose, C. Illiterations In Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction (New Jersey: Princetown University Press, 1989). p. 55 – 71                                                                                                                              10) Yates, M. (2015). On Not Going Home. [online] Available at: http://www.users.otenet.gr/~myates/onnotgoinghome20.html
[Accessed 12 Nov 2015]
11) Ibid


Bryony Gillard is an artist who works across writing, performance, installation and music. Originally presented at 'Throwing Stones', Arnolfini (October 2015), this extended essay was later commissioned for publication to accompany 'The Sun Went In, The Fire Went Out' at Chelsea Art Space. Also see http://www.artcornwall.org/interviews/Marie_Yates.htm