Review: M. Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth

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Date: Sun, 22 Jun 1997 05:13:34 -0700
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From: sholmes@PACIFICNET.NET
Subject: Review: M. Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth
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There are areas on the earth recognizable as important, even powerful. They have been spoken of as sacred by some, "resonating" by others. Many years and several careers ago, while waiting for my Masters Thesis on a Quaternary topic to be signed off, I played around with studies of environmental perception. I did not, however, find an objective explanation for this phenomena of "sacred" landscapes.

My own experiments consisted of tachistoscopic viewing of a large number of photographic slides. I asked fellow grad students to rate each slide, 1 to 10, as it was projected. I had previously measured each of the photos for percentages of color as well as features such as water, sky, vegetation, etc. The photos were, for the most part, of natural landscapes. I don't recall getting any meaningful results and the professor suggested that all I really wanted to do was show off my photography.

Maureen Korp has done a much better job than I of analyzing such landscapes. In her new book, _Sacred Art of the Earth, Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks_ (Continuum, 1997 ISBN 0-8264-0883-4), she presents criteria for recognizing locations of "power" through analysis of a particular type of art, earthworks.

For those of you unwilling to approach religious topics, don't be misled by the title. This is not a theological text. If you wish, think in terms of aesthetics rather than religion. Feelings of awe and wonder associated with "sacred sites" can and are experienced by atheists, agnostics and the devout; only the words used to describe such experiences vary. In the book, such dichotomies are discussed in terms of sacred and profane, cultural perceptions of art, the concept of "Mother Earth" and more.

It took quite a while for me to get a copy of this book, but I finally did through a Barnes and Noble outlet (Amazon has it cheaper). My first reaction was that Maureen Korp has an excellent command of written language and if I wasn't careful I'd gulp it down in a single sitting (it's only 146 pages less the notes). After reading the first two chapters I'd realized there was much I needed to ponder in detail. Since then, I worked through the book in small bites. An analogy to fine whiskey may be appropriate here, it can be taken in a shot (at the risk of being overwhelmed) or sipped.

One of the first points that made me pause was some terminology. I'd been with the US Army Corps of Engineers for some years and came to associate "earthworks" not with art but with such things as rivetments, canals and dams. She states: "...the earthwork. It marks the landscape, shapes our perception of the earth as a landscape. It creates a geography".(p19) This is not inconsistent with those engineered items I was familiar with albeit they were/are rarely considered aesthetic (except perhaps by engineers). Next, this use of the word geography. "Geography" has always been, for me, an abstract noun. During my graduate days, the definition I came to prefer was actually a verb, "geography is what geographers do". These are not particularly important points except that they helped cause me to read much slower.

What I believe is central to this book is the idea that people have, from the earliest times to the present, recognized places that are somehow special. Different cultures in different times and places mark these areas in a variety of ways, denoting their power and significance. I thought one of the more intriguing points dealt with the variation between cultures with open horizons as opposed to those indigenous to closed or forested areas.

Maureen Korp has this to say about the commonality of sacred sites: "..., like all other ancient sacred sites, share a set of common physical attributes that comprise the descriptors needed for a morphology of sacred place."(p102)

The question then is what are these attributes.

After the introduction, she takes us on a tour of European gardens. These gardens are seen through the eyes of Jennifer Dickson, an artist who interprets "sacred sites" with a camera. I pondered the applicability of this chapter in reference to the overall stated purpose of the book and was constantly drawn to an Ansel Adams print I have on my wall. Dickson takes photos of physically constructed landscapes whereas Adams' photo (this particular one is the 1944 _Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California) is a natural landscape. I was long puzzled by what appeared to me to be an incompatibility in definition of "sacred" landscapes. I could not accept that an artifactual garden could be sacred but the naturally majestic Sierra Nevada were not. The answer lies in Korp's view that the landscape is not naturally sacred, it is the combination of the artist's vision, the execution or realization of that vision along with the natural characteristics of the site that create sacredness. Photography is thus an appropriate medium for creating sacredness.

I would still maintain, however, that such art as Adams' and Dickson's are not strictly speaking "earthworks". The inclusion of Dickson's work in this book thus becomes somewhat problematic. I do think, however, that such inclusion is justifiable in that examination of this art helps illustrate just what characteristics of landscapes are to be considered as significant.

Discussion shifts to other, what could be termed, physical installations or "proper" earthworks. Korp discusses the siting of these works, the materials of their construction, reactions of visitors and a host of other factors pertinant to each. Leaving it to the reader to decide which if any of these works should be considered sacred. She states:

"By no means are all contemporary earthworks sacred endeavors. Some fail. The artist may lack talent, or talent equal to the artist's vision. The artist may lack the simple opportunity to do the work. Some earthworks are just what their sponsors claim them to be - land reclamation projects, gardens, parks, playgrounds, or other sorts of outdoor sculptural installations." (p129)

Further on, she provides this synopsis:

"The sacred place is described generally as an architectonic space that is enclosed or set aside in some way; it is a place that has a point of entry, requiring the visitor to go from here to there along some directed path. The sacred place is animated: it is a site where something important happens, where our everyday sense of time and place collapses." (p130)

Included in this book are examples of ancient New World sculptures: the serpent mounds near Cincinnati, Ohio and at Rice Lake, Ontario; various petroglyph sites; and ancient astronomical observatories. She takes us on a visit to the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel, in Saskatchewan. She has drawn extensively from the writings of Mircea Eliade and a wealth of others. There is an extensive bibliography provided and the book is indexed. The single most significant omission that comes to mind is the lack of discussion of Frederick Law Olmstead, perhaps America's most important landscape artist. Many of his works, I feel, fulfill the requirements. There is a point along the road from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, named after this man, that is well known for creating feelings of awe and wonder.

Finally, Maureen Korp has provided us with a work of art, in its own right. This is a book about a form of art, a book about cultural expression, a book about the dicotomy of religion and aesthetics. It is also an important book about living with as well as on the earth.

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Scott Holmes
Informix Applications
4GL -- SQL -- New Era
---- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, ----
---- Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ----
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From: (Nold Egenter)
Subject: Re: Review: M. Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth

Dear Scott Holmes,

thank you for your review of this book, which sounds very interesting. I will certainly read it. Maybe you have a look at the following sites, which deal with similar ideas around the 'Japanese Garden' and the 'Japanee House', also essentially relating esthetics to religion and tradition.

Warm regards

Nold Egenter

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Date: Wed, 2 Jul 1997 16:38:11 -0700
Subject: Re: Review: M. Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth
Mime-Version: 1.0

Thank you for taking the time to read my review of maureen's book. I hope you don't mind that I forwarded a copy of your message to her. I think she has produced an important book and I was really hoping for a bit more response from Anthro-L readers.

I will look up your pages as soon as I can. I've long been intrigued by the deliberatness and subtlety of Zen gardens as well as Japanese architectural styles, in general.

I do hope you get the chance to read Maureen's book and be sure to let her know what you think. She's the same mkorp that posts fairly frequently to Anthro-L.

Thanks ...

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Scott Holmes
Informix Applications
4GL -- SQL -- New Era
---- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, ----
---- Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ----
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Mime-Version: 1.0
Date: Fri, 4 Jul 1997 23:05:57 +0900
Reply-To: John McCreery
Sender: Anthro-L
From: John McCreery
Subject: Sacred Art of the Earth

Alright, already. Scott Holmes has already reviewed it.But Wade is right. It is fun to think an occasional thought about something besides business and the the tragic state of the world we inhabit. Miki's a friend, and it is a good book. Permission is freely granted to publish these thoughts far and wide.


Maureen Korp, 1997, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.

Reviewed by John McCreery, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan.

"In his classic essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,' Walter Benjamin maintained that when a painting or other work of art is reproduced, and made generally, available, it loses something. It loses, 'its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.'" (Quoted in Steward Ewen, 1988, All Consuming Images:The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books. p. 93. In Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks, Maureen Korp examines the work of modern North American artists who, it might be said, deliberately attempt to reverse this process, by creating works that could, they feel, occupy no other sites than those in which they are built. She relates their works to those of the ancient North American artists whose earthworks recall a world in which art and religion were not distinct fields of endeavor but fused in a practice of cosmological siting that affirmed their makers bonds to the earth, and not just to the earth as a whole but particular places within it. Korp closes the circle by noting, at the very start of her book, how modern artists whose works she describes also perceive their practice in religious and cosmological terms and, indeed, as an effort to heal the rupture of art from life in particular times and places to which Benjamin draws our attention.

But Korp does not stop here. She proposes to take seriously the artists' claim that the works they create are located in sites with a power of their own, a magic which the work only quickens, and to offer a grammar of the features on which that magic depends. Wherever we find these places, she says, we find "boundary, approach, point of entry, angle of vision, center and domain." Boundaries delimit sites and make them particular places. Approaches are limited and direct our movements to the point of entry, where our vision is captured and directed to the path which leads to the center. Anthropologists know these features well; they are characteristic of sacred spaces the world over.

One thinks, for example, of the ideal site for a house or grave as described by a Chinese master of feng-shui (the art of location in relation to "winds and waters"to enhance the fortunes of those to whom the house or grave belong). The ideal site is open to the south, facing the warmth of the sun. On the sides and rear are gently rounded mountains, slightly higher on the East than the West. They are gently rounded because sharp, jagged peaks would be threatening, and the Dragon of the East who embodies vitality should be stronger than the Tiger of the West who represents decline and death. Water, the symbol of wealth and good fortune, should flow in from East and gather in a pool in front of the site and only slowly trickle away to one side. The approach is from the south, the point of entry where the path which leads to the house or grave crosses the boundary which delimits its domain. Here the angle of vision should be upward, projecting the veneration of those who revere their predecessors.

When I first read Korp's description, however, the image that popped into my mind was, of all things, a football stadium. Here, too, we find the boundary, approaches and points of entry where the angle of our vision directs our attention to the mystic center, the field below, where potent forces are quickened to life. Then I was moved to think further. Here the approaches and points of entry are multiple. The eye directed to the field may also stare across it, to where the day's enemy sit, cheering for the team that "our" side opposes. One side will leave the arena invigorated, charged up with victory. For the other the day will end in defeat. Whether player, fan or member of the band, the place and what we take away from it is the product of human action. The game sanctifies the space; not vice-versa.

I think, then, of a project described as a grammar of magical spaces and find myself reflecting that the power of particular sites is, perhaps, like the power of particular poems, something more than grammar alone can encompass. I want to know more about that grammar, but I also wonder about the numen that eludes its rules. This may be a criticism, but a book that makes us think such thoughts is certainly worth reading.

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Mime-Version: 1.0
Date: Sat, 5 Jul 1997 03:51:18 +0100
Reply-To: Nold Egenter
Sender: Anthro-L
From: Nold Egenter
Subject: Re: Review of Sacred Art of the Earth (Revised)


>Maureen Korp, 1997, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary
>Earthworks. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.
>Reviewed by John McCreery, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan.

Dear John McCreery,

since you write from Japan: I am not so happy with your football stadium comparison, there would have been a nicer example - the ceremonially dressed Shinto-priests playing with a small wickerwork-football at one of the cult festivals in front of the Shimogamo-shrine in Kyoto. It is closer to what Benjamin meant and what Korp very likely implies with her sources (I have not read the book yet, but got the strong impulse to do so by the former review). Not just quantitative fan-magics, but being related to some highest values of a worldview, or ontology.

In regard to this particular environment, where place, art and ontology, are inseparably intermingled and 'create' a deeply rooted meaning, you might be interested in a documentation of rural ujigami Shintorites performed annually in about 100 villages of central Japan. The 'sacred seats' built at these rites with fibrous materials like reed and bamboo as temporary manifestations of local deities already show from their making, that we face a rather early type of human settlement conditions, a traditional survival of agrarian, and maybe earlier prehistory. See 'SSA' in the following site:

That such places convey feelings of magic may be explained by the fact that our analytically trained scientific mind has lost the capacity to 'read' these pre-scientific, or pre-analytical arrangements. In regard to logics, they operate on the lower level of categories, uniting them in contradictions to form harmonious relational units. Science is not aware of this 'other', 'entirely different' system of cognition, because it is antithetic to its own basic definitions. Science defends its insular existence naively by attributing such phenomena to the irrational. Thus, in the present case we simply put the phenomenon scientifically offside and call it 'magic' without really understanding its immanent structure.

This, I think, is, essentially, what these 'mysterious' things might teach us: we have to become open for relational systems of cognition. They might have to tell us a lot! See the homepage-diagram in:

Best regards,

Nold Egenter

See our INTERNET-Homepage:

Nold Egenter
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CH-8001 Zuerich, Switzerland
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