Land-art, can it provide healing?

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

With excerpts from the book Lost Landscapes by Anna Pelgrim

Photo: Siebe Swart

We have known for a while that nature has a positive effect on our wellbeing and health. By now, it is common knowledge. Especially during this pandemic, which has disrupted many lives and ways of living, greenery has become an even more sought after escape. Parks, green public spaces, and nature reserves have become invaluable and their worth, both personal and economical, have undeniably increased.

What part does land-art play in this story?

Land-art is an art form focused on landscape and often uses materials from its surroundings. It is inherently bound to its location, topography, and native ecosystem. It is a public space and one connected to nature.

Nature is an aspect that can provide a sense of calm and aid in reducing stress. A connection to one’s senses and a mindfulness approach to connecting to the body is another aspect that can do the same. I believe land-art is able to play with these two aspects and even create a personal connection that can even go as far as providing a space for healing emotional trauma.

The Celestial Vault

If you live in The Hague, the Netherlands like I do, you have most likely visited Kijkduin once. Kijkduin is an up and coming but generally average beach town mostly used by elderly and families. Hidden between the tall grass and sandy dunes, however, lies a unique site. This 30-meter wide and 40-meter long crater with 5-meter high walls of earth will catch you off guard if you did not expect to find it. James Turrell, a famous American land-artist who has created outstanding land-art sculptures around the world, made his mark on Dutch sand in 1996 when he built the Celestial Vault.

The Celestial Vault is made to be a ‘tool to look at light and color’ as written on the information board before you enter the tunnel. Yet, the uniqueness of this land-art piece especially in relation to its surroundings drove me to also interpret it in another way.

The Dutch landscape is famous for its flatness. When I moved back to the Netherlands from having lived in a mountainous landscape for a large chunk of my life, it was not long before I came to deal with what I call ‘landscape shock’. ‘Landscape shock’ is what I refer to as a deep disorientation experienced when someone is subjected to an unfamiliar or contrasting landscape or topography. In other words, I missed mountains. When I serendipitously stumbled across the Celestial Vault, I was captivated by the undulating mounds sculpted from the earth. It became a landmark; a place I could visit when I missed home and where the sensations I had felt on the mountains could be slightly mimicked. The visits to this and other land-art works had a big part to play in my readjustment process.

It became a landmark; a place I could visit when I missed home and where the sensations I had felt on the mountains could be slightly mimicked.

Which way have you chosen? There are six. You begin the journey at the bottom of the long staircase embedded within the dunes. The higher you go, the more your feet angle upwards. After a hundred steps up, you reach the top and turn your gaze towards the ocean. Seagulls squawk above you and the breeze bounces in your ears. Breathing in the fresh air. You turn around to face the large concrete tunnel dug within the crater.

Walking through, your eyes fix on the stone bench ahead. The grassy bowl you are now standing in allows you to feel enclosed, shaded from the wind. Approaching the stone bench, you gently place your head towards the sky and observe the doming clouds above you.

The hidden steps take you up to walk on the walls of the crater, more of the ocean and the town to see here. While going to the down steps of the crater and exiting the tunnel, you hear the cracks of the seashells and crunching gravel beneath your feet. Around the crater and up the hill is another stone bench. This time, the view is panoramic and deep.

A family comes from the other side of the hill. You follow their earlier

steps down the hill. The stairs are steep again. Down you go. Trees and bushes cover the slopes. Where are you? You decide to go around the hill and back up, following more paths and stairs back towards the stone bench.

Land-art and the senses

As an experience, the Celestial Vault highlights the importance of sensory stimulation within a landscape and simultaneously within land-art. Engaging with the environment using multiple senses reminds people of their sense of self -their humanness [1]- and helps people understand and navigate through their environment. With the dominance of visual form specifically in Western culture, ‘a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings’ is often experienced ‘leading to feelings of alienation and isolation.[1]

To help overcome this lack of sensory activation, a design method has been developed to create a ‘more body-centered, holistic approach that aims to positively contribute to the human experience...’[1] Sensory design, a practice focused on designing embracing all the senses, sets this as its goal and is therefore a valuable method for building experiences that connect others to their humanness. In an essay written for the Smithsonian Design Museum, Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps write ‘sensory design tweaks our skin, bones, and muscles. It tickles, pinches, and pops. It plays rough. It touches us, and we touch back’.[2]

‘Sensory design tweaks our skin, bones, and muscles. It tickles, pinches, and pops. It plays rough. It touches us, and we touch back’.[2]

The Celestial Vault, I believe, is an example of such a sensory experience that can connect people to their humanness. Since it does not force an interaction, but rather encourages a gentle experience with many dimensions, it connects visitors to not only the landscape, but also to an expression of something more emotional or abstract. The Celestial Vault, in turn, due to its location and form, highlights the role nature can play in public art and its effect on wellbeing. The fact that a visitor is able to breathe in the ocean, experience a change in view, relax in the midst of nature, and physically interact with the dunes while simultaneously engaging with art as an expressive from, makes it a strong case for land-artworks.

How does nature reduce stress?

Natural landscapes have been proven to have therapeutic effects on emotional wellbeing. Based on research from environmental psychology, natural landscapes offer unique restorative qualities due to their ability to restore attention fatigue, a temporary condition caused by the overstimulation of the senses.[3]

This condition, often found in people living in tense environments, leads to ‘irritability, anxiety, stress, lack of perception, and lack of interest in human beings’.[3] The Attention Restoration Theory developed by Kaplan and Kaplan suggests that ‘we can better concentrate and restore our directed attention after experiencing nature, since during that experience we are attracted by an involuntary attention or fascination’.[3] Likewise, a landscape can become an ‘external regulator for emotional states’.[4] For instance, a participant of Morgan’s study ‘used his time [as a child] wandering the farm each weekend to recover from his negative experience of school and create a sense of calm self-belief ’.4 Landscapes can therefore become meaningful for their restorative qualities, regardless of age.

It is the feeling of being away and being in another world that allows our focus to be restored and our senses to be soothed.

It is the feeling of being away and being in another world that allows our focus to be restored and our senses to be soothed. Time spent within natural landscapes can consequently offer restoration and can become meaningful for this reason.

Up, up, up we go!

Although land-art is focused on using materials from the landscape, it could be argued that forest towers are also considered a form of land-art. Forest towers serve to observe a landscape from a unique point while simultaneously playfully engaging the senses. Nowadays, these structures have become attractions rather than serve as their previous functional roles and hence have also changed their definition and purpose. Architectural firms such as __ and __ have become famous for their playful and inclusive designs of forest towers. They have become tourist attractions and have even become places for raising awareness of the value of nature and landscape.

The various land-art works at Fort De Roovere became interesting highlights for me during my explorations of forest towers in The Netherlands. Within this historic site, visitors can find the Moses Bridge, a wooden trench bridge that allows them to walk below the water level. After walking at this low level, visitors can visit the watchtower nearby. The Pompejus Uitkijktoren, an architectural pleasure, gives stunning views into the distance and over the Dutch landscape.

Another forest tower that takes movement and even playfulness to the next level (pun intended) is the Bostoren in Putten, The Netherlands. Built in 2009 with a height of forty meters, this tower offers a multi-sensory experience. Set in the midst of a forest in the national park of Veluwe, its structure offers a playful experience with nature and with elevation.

During the climb of this tower, multiple interaction points are offered, for example: bird watching boxes, benches with framed views, and almost at the top, a hanging net with a view almost 30 meters below that leaves you begging for the ground. At the very top, a planted tree garden blends in with the trees around and, on a clear day, the view into the distance is infinite. Forest towers provide unique sensory interactions that are rarely experienced within the Dutch landscape. They became meaningful to me because, as with the Celestial Vault, they are able to recreate sensations that resemble a landscape that I connect strongly with.

The power of nature, art, and landscapes

Outside of The Netherlands, Alan Sonfist’s land-art work Time Landscape (1965) brings the themes of healing and landscape even closer together. The work consists of plants that were native to the New York City area in pre-colonial times. Planted in 1978, the plot was ‘seeded with native flora, from wildflowers to witch hazels to beech tree saplings carried from a favorite of Sonfist’s childhood parks in the Bronx.’[5] Sonfist’s intention was to create a natural memorial similar to war memorials. It became ‘a functioning oasis of an ancient forest.’[6]

Landscapes can heal us. Art is able to connect to something higher than ourselves. Put them together and you get a rare combination of a restorative and existential experience all in one.

Healing comes in many forms. It takes time, (self)love, (self)expression, and sometimes a certain place to feel a sense of peace and empowerment.

Landscapes can heal us. Art is able to connect to something higher than ourselves. Put them together and you get a rare combination of a restorative and existential experience all in one. Whether you connect to a land-artwork on a personal level like I did or find a sense of humanness from the stimulation of your senses, land-art can provide healing in one form or another. For me, they have become places I look to for an escape, a new and different world, and for playfulness and mindfulness. They have also been a part of my healing process for emotional

Are there any land-art locations you visit for a sense of calm and serenity? Or even places that have become vital to your healing process? I’d love to hear about them. Share them down below!

Want to read more about my story of landscape and memory? Here you can read Lost Landscapes, a book written about my personal journey through my past landscape, about migration, and grief.


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