Cosmological Shadows: A Conversation with Bill Vazan

Mirages (Delta de Métis), 2002. Granite, 5 boulders, 15 ft. high. Site-specific work at the juncture of the Mitis and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Physically imprinted on the land surfaces of five continents over the past 30 years, Bill Vazan’s land art projects originated in the conceptual and Minimalist art tendencies of the 1960s. Many of his projects from the ’60s and ’70s were ephemeral and survive only through documentation: photographs, books, catalogues, films, and videos. Among the early works were Worldline Project and Canada in Parentheses. The latter was created simultaneously on both coasts of Canada in collaboration with Ian Wallace in August 1969. Each artist created a crescent-shaped form—Wallace on the west coast at Spanish Banks in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vazan on the east coast at Paul’s Bluff on Prince Edward Island. The parallels between land art’s ephemeral yet conceptual approach to the land surface and the conceptual gridding and labeling of geo-forms found in mapping became evident in the photo sequences brought together from this initiative. Vazan’s Worldline Project (1971) established imaginary lines that criss-crossed the globe. Actually set down simultaneously as taped lines at 25 locations in 18 countries, they joined the respective latitudinal and longitudinal positions of each site to the others as imaginary lines. As a performance/event Worldline made evident how disconnected from real life “objective” standards of measurement really are, rationalizing and segregating human culture from nature, quantifying the global environment.

Vazan’s most controversial projects include Pressure/Presence (1979) installed on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, a site that decided the future of Canadian history; large-scale land art drawings created on the Nazca plains in Peru (1984–86); Mag Wheel #3 (1993) in Utah and Nevada; and Socle Circulaire (1997) in Gotland, Sweden. He has undertaken other projects, which he calls Stands for a Parallel World, amid the limestone monoliths of the Mingan Archipelago on the lower Saint Lawrence River (2000) and in the mountains of Thebes in Egypt (2001).

Vazan is interested in cosmological models and the way all cultures adhere to systems that enable them to rationalize the universe. The geological aspect of each site (and the human history that has taken place there) plays a role in his land art. By circumscribing each place and siting it in our imagination, re-creating quasi-mythological land forms and engraved stone sculptures (whose markings resemble Aztec, Mayan, or Celtic carvings), Vazan makes us all the more aware of the geo-specificity of a site and in so doing helps us to recognize aspects of the universal and cosmological. Born in Toronto in 1933, Vazan now lives in Montreal and is one of Canada’s best known sculptors.

John Grande: As early as 1963 you were involved in earth art projects. Was this a move to get art out of the galleries, as was the case for Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and others?

Bill Vazan: No. I had never had any gallery experience so it was not a reaction to anything, just what interested me. I was not in an art milieu and came to it from another viewpoint. My system, my guts, my intestines were telling me I had to work as an artist. I had come down with ulcerated colitis and started to make art again while recovering in hospital. I had two lives. Doing my art and a regular life. It allowed to me to be much more open to many things. To go up north to the cottage country and arrange stones, to play around with tide levels, or to try making a mix of concrete and stone into a mass was not a big aberration. It was fun.

JG: By 1968 you were doing low-tide sand forms on Prince Edward Island and then the Snow Walk Maze in Montreal (1973–74), followed by chalk line drawings in Toronto and Quebec City. These works were ephemeral. Do you feel a contradiction between these ephemeral works and your more recent stone landscape/assemblage pieces?

BV: It depends how you look at it. I now find it kind of absurd for me to have done this sort of work. To find I have done something that has a permanence of thousands of years is another thing. Artists are contrary—contradictions on contradictions. Whether the work lasts minutes or many years, it is all ephemeral. Time, by definition, is ephemeral. If you want to do a land piece when you don’t have access to the land, which is often the case, you have to think of an interior thing. One way for me to make a land piece is to make maquettes via engravings on small stone surfaces. These become like sketches for possible large-scale land pieces.

Outlikan Meskina (Map for Caribou Hunt), 1980. Permanent, site-specific work, City of Chicoutimi, Quebec. Photo: Courtesy Marcel Clouter.

JG: The engravings on your stones sometimes have cosmological references—constellations, Celtic interlacing motifs, aboriginal song lines. Do you feel any contradiction between the ancient and the contemporary? Are these forms an appropriation, an adaptation, a re-creation?

BV: I enjoy seeing and would like to celebrate, even propagandize, this art form. It doesn’t get much exposure, and when it does it’s always put down to a secondary or tertiary level. So I develop it into my own kind of work. It’s a way of expressing what underlies our basic reality, which is that we are not permanent. The reality is our non-permanence and that is something I want to put into my art.

JG: Shibagau Shard (1989), now re-sited at the McMichael Collection in Ontario, references the proto-history of the natives of North America. Early native mythology is generally something we know little about.

BV: I was intrigued by the Peterborough petroglyphs at Stoney Lake and the Lake Mazinaw pictographs in southern Ontario. We don’t know what tribe created them. The images I engraved reference these and other petroglyphs I saw along the Columbia river in Oregon, as well as the Australian aboriginal dream time. “Shibagau” is probably a French term originally used to describe the native tribe there. For me, this piece is like a fragment of the Canadian Shield—rather like a shard of pottery, but a natural, geological, contextual one.

JG: Outlikan Meskina is re-creates in rock form the cracks in a caribou shoulder plate bone, the traditional tool that native shamans used to read the best places to hunt caribou. Is there such a thing as indigenous culture in its original context anymore? Are we largely re-creating religious, archaic, or even modern motifs in art?

BV: When you have been around long enough you eventually come to see that everything is pretty well the same. It just comes in a different package. I guess what makes it of value is the way it is restructured and reformed in a contemporary way. When I get a stone from the land, it’s like bringing the land to me in a reduced form. I keep the patina—to keep its natural history—and create a miniature land piece on it.

Raven’s Nest, 2002. Granite, 6 boulders, 11 x 13 x 30 ft. Site-specific work at Riverside Park, Kamloops, British Columbia.

JG: Are the drawings preparations for larger works? What is the relationship between your drawings and land art pieces? I don’t want to call it land art. Let’s call it earth investigation.

BV: What is a drawing? It is a two-dimensional rendering. Where do I work? On the surface of the earth. It’s a two-dimensional rendering. Usually I don’t go high, and I don’t go deep. I may go down a foot. I may go up a foot. In the end, it has the basic physical form of a drawing but on a bigger scale.

JG: Like the Uffington Horse, or the Cerne Abbas Giant, land art from Roman times in England…

BV: Yes. These Iron Age people made drawings on their land. What that entailed was digging into the turf to expose the white chalk rock mass. What you had was white on green. You can see this in the Ghostings (1979) piece I made next to the waterfront, at the site of the former baseball stadium in Toronto. It was a white-on-green, two-dimensional line work. The chalk outlines were of native long houses and the circular palisades around these tribal villages, those of the Neutral tribe, in southern Ontario. I included straight lines that suggested the direction of glacial scrapings during the last Ice Age. Those lines were based on actual scrape lines found in the bedrock during the original subway excavations in Toronto. The scrapes were under a foot long—I exploded them to hundreds of feet long in chalk, the kind that sports stadiums use.

Pressure/Presence, 1979. Chalk on turf, 1,400 ft. diameter. Site-specific work, Plains of Abraham, Quebec City.

JG: Was the process for Pressure/Presence (1979) in Quebec City the same? The markings reflect the geological history of the St. Lawrence Valley, while the actual place is of great historical significance as the site of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, where the English defeated the French in 1763.

BV: It was done by the very same process and was inscribed with a non-toxic, chalk-based paint on the grass. It even showed up the following spring after the snow had gone. I liked the idea of the white taking out the white. When the snow melted, the white came back in very pale green tones. When the grass grew it disappeared. I incorporated the concentric circles seismologists use to indicate such things as earth movement because the St. Lawrence valley is on a major fault line. I interspersed the concentric circles with spiral lines, which were like giant fingerprint whorls and evidence of the human or cultural presence of the artist—identity marks. It was very massive, measuring 1,500 feet in diameter. The configuration is also a bull’s-eye, a target, that references history. The problems that instigated the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1763 are still with us today. You still have an ongoing cultural tension between the English and the French. The “presence” is of the artist, the “pressure” is the release because of this land movement, and thirdly, this bull’s eye, a pointer toward our cultural history, which is actually bi-cultural—English and French.

JG: In 1996, at the L’Ilot Fleurie in St. Roch, Bas Ville in Quebec, a place reclaimed by the local community and now a site for ongoing sculpture projects, you engraved a sculpture that attracted a lot of attention. Why the title Prédateur?

BV: The image looks very much like an extraterrestrial, something you would not readily recognize. The lines I engraved on it flow here and there, bulging, then collapsing like the limbic system of the brain, and there are two deep holes at one end like eyes. There was talk of microscopic traces of life found on a meteorite from Mars in the news so it became a kind of joke. Could this piece have fallen down to earth from Mars? This kind of stone is glacial debris from the Laurentian field and has a frosted surface with glances or slag marks all over from rolling about in the last Ice Age. You don’t see the true colors on them until they’re worked on.

Prédateur, 1996. Engraved stone, site-specific work at the L’Ilot Fleurie, St. Roch, Bas Ville, Quebec.

JG: Landscape has been a subject throughout art history. It recorded property, established geographic contexts, and provided the viewer with an image of nature’s unbridled wealth in the case of the early colonial painters. Do you envision land art interventions as a way of getting away from representation, from sculpture as object, a way of integrating your work in the landscape?

BV: I think I get into deeper issues than talking about wealth and representing landscape. I titled a recent show at the Musée du Quebec “Cosmological Shadows” (2001) because from prehistoric times right up to now, despite trying to understand what’s around us, we’ve never come to the end. We only see the surface of things, which is constantly changing. When I try to do something on the land dealing with what has been on that land, whether its cultural or natural history, I use today’s language, which is as a two-dimensional plane, to interpret it. What fascinates me is how science, with all its beautiful constructions that deal with essential reality, is hypothetical. Contemporary science and theory never come up with a final answer. They keep changing it around. I like to deal with these scientific models when making art forms on the land and in these engraved stones.

JG: Writers such as Rosalind Krauss have referred to land art as de-centered in that it is less object-based or formal than sculpture. It may be de-centered as formal art, but it is also integrated, with a strong sense of place. It’s integrated into life. Isn’t that more centered?

BV: It’s more centered when it represents a group thinking or identity, and it is de-centered when it is not one individual doing the work, because it takes other people to wander in and think of it. This is the kind of art many primitive or early societies created. They invited their shaman or their artist to re-create a common identity with nature about them.

Hindu Sign, 1994. Sumeet bricks, .5 x 15 x 15 meters. Site-specific work in India.

JG: Your photoworks stretch and expand our sense of time and space; they have developed over the years to become entirely independent from your land art projects.

BV: My photoworks are a direct outcome of my need to document my land pieces. Working in the field—whether making lines in the sand on a beach or in the snow, using a machine to dig trenches, or assembling a rock configuration—involves a context so far from the art context that you want to bring it back into a sort of framing or box. The artist needs and wants to show. The scale and concept can be so vast that you can’t capture it in a single photo, so I investigate the manipulation of space and time through my photoworks in a panoramic grid-sequential fashion.

JG: Ancient civilizations such as the Nasca and First Nations sought to communicate with the gods by way of land art. El Dios de los Aires (The God of the Winds), a work you made in Peru, communicates this sensibility.

BV: Yes. I hired crews to shovel and sweep clear lines to create configurations in an area adjacent to the actual archaeological sites where these earth markings existed—the cultural history of the area. We created two abstract god or wind forms derived from images on ancient Nasca pottery. It’s a kind of engraving practiced by the early Nasca 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. Researching the Nasca landmarks, I found the most convincing theory to be the idea of getting water. The Peruvian coast there is mostly desert. Only in the valley run-offs from the Andes do you have green belts of streams coming into the Pacific. So the Nasca went to these dry desert areas and made configurations mainly directed to the summits of the Andes where the gods were supposed to dwell. The supposition was that ritual, walking on these lines, would get the Gods to bring more water down the mountain sides to the coastal irrigation systems.

JG: The serpent-like piece you created in Sri Lanka in 1997 uses brick as a principal element but creates a kind of ontological drawn form. You were effectively drawing with bricks.

BV: That was fortunate. When I got to Colombo, the man who took me to all the sites was living in a brick yard. Some of the images I saw on the Hindu temples had a three-headed, hooded cobra, so I decided I would focus on that imagery when I got to making some land pieces there. Time is very short on these trips, but fortunately my guide had enough people in his brickyard to give me a hand. That is why it is quite a wide spread.

JG: Water is so important in determining solid and liquid shapes and forms in nature.

BV: I am actually working on a piece called Soundings from the Water Planet, part of what I call my ongoing World Works. One series is The Antipodes, and then there’s The Stands, and the third one is SoundingsSoundings is going to be a major visual thing, because it involves material I have picked up from the earth’s surface over the past 40 years or so in Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America.

Antipodes Focus—Pacific Ocean #2, 2000. Desert stones, 1 x 40 x 45 ft. Site-specific work, West Aswan summit, Egypt.

JG: Will it be a configuration based on these materials?

BV: No. It’s not going to be one figure. Exhibition arrangements will vary and evolve. Actually, it incorporates the material I picked up—usually earth or sand—and suspends it in an acrylic medium. I just pour the acrylic on to bring out color and an expansive texture. The visual emphasizes liquidity—the essence of our existence. Sometimes there’s a bit of scatter. I am putting earth and various elements such as shells into it. There will be many of them. I’m up to 151 now.

JG:And the Antipodes project?

BV: To show how we have collapsed our range on this planet to be almost like a grain of sand. Whenever I go to a site, I ask the question, What is on the other side of the world from where I am? Then I represent what is on the opposite side of the world in reversed form. When I was at the pyramids of Giza, for instance, I made zig-zag forms, engraving by scooping sand with hands and feet, that represent the Pacific Ocean on the other side and allude to mirage refractions of the nearby pyramid silhouettes.

Antipodes Focus—Pacific Ocean #1, 2000. Furrowings in sand, .75 x 69 x 99 ft. Site-specific work, near pyramids, Giza plateau, Egypt.

JG: You’re an endless explorer, innovator, and seeker. Do you ever feel you are trying to communicate with or express some greater transcendent force through your art?

BV: I’m fascinated with how people, no matter where, have tried to communicate with something other than themselves—the other. I guess my way of making contact with the other is by taking a parallel position with what these people have done. Of course, I’m only in one time and place. Is there a connection with God? We all want to connect with God, whether or not we deny his or her existence. We eventually realize, one way or another, that we did not bring ourselves here, and we have no control of how we’re going to get out of here.

John Grande is an art critic and author of Art, Nature, Dialogue (forthcoming from SUNY Press, 1998). He lives in Montreal.