Human-nonhuman becoming--Jim Denevan’s sand drawings
Ranging in scale from a couple of meters square to the size of cities, the drawings produced by Jim Denevan on sand, soil, ice, or--occasionally--other materials seem to smoothly merge with the setting in which they are created. The artist uses his own body as both a tool and an active corporeal entity cooperating responsively with the surrounding landscape. For smaller projects Denevan uses brooms, sticks, and his own feet and fingers to draw on the surface of the terrain. For bigger projects his artistic activity is aided with a number of technological devices, such as cars, trucks, or even bulldozers. In his recent projects (like those effectuated in 2015 Miami Beach, FL, USA [see the project here] and Sharjah, United Arab Emirates [see the project here]) he also made use of solar lights, so that the projects were more responsive to the landscape (or rather capitalist cityscape) in which they emerged.
The gigantic drawings, made rhythmically by Denevan using his own body and tools come into being in the process of “intra-acting” with the local geophysical situation and a variety of natural-cultural forces present on site. There is a diversity of different material phenomena involved in the creative activity. The environment--whether a dessert, or a frozen lake, or a noisy city, or a seashore--operates as an agent dynamically involved in the practices of artistic creation. It contributes to the emergence of the drawings/installations as well as to their gradual (sometimes violent) vanishing. The process of creating the works of art is therefore simultaneously about making and unmaking of the drawings. They appear and disappear at the same time, there is no stasis, no moment of them being frozen in nonactivity. In concord with the principles of geoart, even when Denevan finishes his intervention, his works of art remain dynamically active--gradually modified by the surrounding environment, they get eventually erased as a result of the gusts of wind, the workings of weathering, the undulating waves and tides, the processes of melting, erosion, etc. Even though stamped on the surface and visible from great altitudes, the drawings are ephemeral and delicate, vulnerable to the operating forces and movements, and susceptible to changes and modifications. They are always responsive to the setting in which they emerged and in which they become, inviting responses from the processes and movements that surround them.
Based in Santa Cruz, CA (United States), Denevan is a former surfer. Worth noticing, surfing is an activity demanding a harmonious cooperation with the natural environment, the ability to flexibly respond to the movements of the waves and wind, to merge with the natural forces. A successful surfer becomes a part of the surfing setting, getting merged with the waving circumstances. These archives of experience seem to be important for Denevan’s artistic creation wherein he attempts at synchronizing his moving body and his tools with the sometimes-imperceptible movements of the landscape. The idea is to artistically respond to the rhythm of a particular site, to listen to its dynamism and specificity, to feel the natural-cultural forces indigenous for the place and trigger artistic becomings of the artist-site assemblage. The work of art emerges (and vanishes) in this complexity of movements--both the wind or the waving sea in the natural settings and the noises or lights of the busy cities and agglomerations. It seems that in a material-semiotic merger with these settings the artist rehearses the site’s sensations and turn them into inventive creation. The movements of the artist’s body, often enhanced with advanced technological equipment (enabled by complex scientific and technological apparatus, often made possible by an invasive petro-fuel industry), seem to serve as a vehicle for the melody of the site: its shapes, forms, materialities, ambiances, rhythms, forces, and noises. These sensations elude processes of straightforward representation; they can only be felt. And these feelings are bodily. It does not mean, however, that Denevan’s works are not representational. Obviously, they are so, too, especially when they are encountered by the audiences. They are also visually mediated when encountered in the form of high-quality digital photographs capturing the fleeting moment of the installations’ visual exitence. Material-semiotic in its character, the form of the drawings is co-determined by the activity of the material tools that the artist employs in the process--they contribute to the emergence of circles and lines, interacting with the matter(s) of the natural landscape. All actors involved have important agential capacities--the agency is not exclusively Denevan’s. Tools, materialities of the place, physical forces, movements of air, water, temperature, and ice (that is, all physical processes) all contribute to the geoartistic practices as involved agents active in the production. Typically also for other land art or earth art installation so ephemeral in their nature, the knowledge of these works of art is circulated via photography, enabled by complex technological equipment (including helicopters and planes, sophisticated cameras, lenses, or software necessary to process the visual data). Another mediation, and another bundle of material-semiotic entanglements. This set of procedures is necessary to make wider public acquainted with the artist’s creations--either in the galleries displaying pictures documenting the becomings of the project or via the artist’s website containing visual record of his artistic installations. The agency is dispersed and no longer understood solely in terms of an intentional human activity. It belongs to all forces present on site--both human and nonhuman. Worth noticing is also the fact that the artistic pattern drawn by Denevan and his team is never fully designed in advance. Rather, it emerges as a constant flow of responsive and engaged creation reenacting the sense of the site and remaining in metamorphous flux stimulated by different relational forces and agents.