The art world and the outdoor community don’t overlap much. Serenely rubbing elbows with beautiful people drinking rosé at a gallery feels worlds apart from chatting up a stranger on a chairlift or at the top of a peak with goofy smiles plastered across both your faces. Artists, gallerists, curators, and critics tend to gather where the opportunities are densest: that is, in bustling urban cultural centers with good arts infrastructure and a strong, productive community of likeminded people. Outdoorspeople do the same, only their priorities bring them to places like Telluride, Aspen, and Santa Fe: generally slower-paced, more rural places with plenty of wilderness access.
Though divergent on the surface, these communities share a passion for beautiful things–sights, experiences–that transcends the mundane and speaks to a greater truth about what it means to be alive. So when they do overlap, it can be pretty amazing. Museums are cool and all, but stumbling across a work of art on a morning run in San Francisco (and we’re not talking the sunrise over the ocean, here) or on a long drive into the desert is way cooler than quietly shuffling around white-walled galleries. And even though the great outdoors are perfectly awe-inspiring without a bit of human interference, here are ten works of art that play on and inform our human experience of wild places.
Swirling out into the shallows of the Great Salt Lake from the town of Corinne, Utah, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is only truly visible in times of drought. Submerged for decades after its construction, it became visible again in 2014, with salt crystals encrusting the basalt used to construct the jetty. Though there have been talks of restoring the work, considered the seminal piece of Smithson’s career, Smithson was fascinated by erosion. A part of the Land Art movement in the 1960s and 70s, which focused on creating work in natural spaces from natural materials, natural decay was as necessary to the artwork as the installation itself–and, were he alive, Smithson would likely elect to leave the jetty to crumble.
Eagle’s Point Labyrinth
Constructed in secret, San Francisco’s Eagle’s Point Labyrinth flew under the radar until enough unsuspecting hikers stumbled across it in Land’s End Park at the northwestern tip of the city. Eduardo Aguilera, a San Francisco artist, built the labyrinth in 2004. With small stones, he traced the pattern of a traditional seven-circuit Chartres labyrinth atop a sheer outcropping overlooking the Marin headlands, the Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. Initially hoping to keep the work anonymous, Aguilera eventually came forward, twice to light the work up with candles and to help rebuild after vandals dismantled it–a remarkably frequent occurrence that draws together many San Francisco residents eager to help rebuild the beloved landmark.
Also in San Francisco, Andy Goldsworthy’s 90-foot long Wood Line and Spire make their home in a forest in the Presidio. Wood Line, a winding, continuous line painstakingly constructed out of fallen eucalyptus trunks, snakes through a tranquil path lined with eucalyptus trees. Dappled sunlight and the heady, sweet smell of eucalyptus make the place beautiful and mysterious even without the subtle, whimsical artwork. Spire is more blatant: a 100-foot tall spire constructed of eucalyptus meant to reference forest rejuvenation. The sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist has two other works in the woodsy Presidio, Tree Fall and Earth Wall, making the Presidio home to the largest public display of Goldsworthy pieces in North America.
In the remote high desert of western New Mexico, American sculptor Walter De Maria assembled 400 20-foot-tall stainless steel poles in a grid pattern measuring one-by-one kilometer. Eerie, serene, and simple, the Lightning Field is meant to be experienced over a long period of time. Dia, the art foundation that maintains the work, offers overnight stays in a small cabin from May through October to give visitors a chance to experience the wild changes of light and color that make the desert such a magical place (and, if you’re lucky, to increase the chance of catching a lightning storm).
All the aforementioned artworks and the entire movement of “Land Art” claims to be environmentally conscious and aware, but Jason deCaires Taylor takes things just a little further. An artist and passionate scuba diver, Taylor has found a way to help maintain a healthy underwater ecosystem with sculpture. He creates a variety of sculptures above-ground–a crowd of people standing, a VW bug, a man eating a hamburger and watching TV–carefully cleans and treats them to ensure they contain no harmful chemicals, and submerges them four to nine meters underwater to serve as artificial reefs. You can find his work, which now comprises hundreds of underwater statues, near Manchones Reef or off Punta Nizuc in Mexico, in the Bahamas at Musha Cay, and off the coast of Grenada.
The Isla del Coco is possibly the only place on the planet where treasure hunting is explicitly illegal. Which is weird, considering how brutally hard it is to get there: a two-day sail and a treacherous swim through shark-infested waters. Only truly priceless treasure could compel such a journey, and that’s precisely what’s buried there: the fabled Treasure of Lima, rumored to be worth over $200 million. Well, that, and a futuristic, vacuum-sealed treasure chest full of artworks by today’s greatest artists: Ed Ruscha, Marina Abramovic, Raymond Pettibon, and 37 others. The “owner” of the artwork has an identical chest, holding an encrypted treasure map to the clandestine location of the artworks. The whole stunt isn’t really about inspiring a mad-cap treasure hunt, though. All proceeds from the “sale” of the collection go to a shark conservation non-profit, and the map doesn’t come with the rights to hunt for treasure in this environmental sanctuary. It presents a moral quandary, one which necessarily devalues art as less important and sacred than the health of wild places.
Though the other works in this list are modern, the Blythe Intaglios are an ancient mystery. Thought to date to prehistoric times, the origins of these massive figures in the Colorado desert near the border between Arizona and California have yet to be determined. Though native groups in the area have claimed to have used the figures in the past–which are among 200 intaglios in the Colorado desert–none have claimed to have created them. The intaglios, which include a spiral, three humanoid figures, and two four-legged animals, were created by removing surface layers of dirt and rock to reveal the lighter layers beneath (similar to how one might etch a figure into a rock wall). Located 15 miles north of Blythe, California, the intaglios can be seen by foot, but are best viewed by air.
After a hike through dense Puerto Rican jungle, you’ll come across a cave with a impossibly blue pool of water near its entrance. Home to boa constrictors, bats, and countless other creatures, the cave is now also home to a mysterious solar-powered art installation–no photography allowed–titled Puerto Rican Light. Located in Guayanilla-Peñuelas, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) is a collaboration between artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, the Dia Art Foundation, and Para La Naturaleza, and it will be installed and available for viewing to six guests a day through September 2017.