Hard Core by Walter De Maria
by Antoine Thirion

Hard Core results from a commission by the San Francisco TV station KQED, which the Dilexi Foundation — directed by James Newman and associated with the gallery of the same name — had partnered with to produce a series of works for the small screen. With the channel’s technicians and materials available to the artists, it allowed for shooting in conditions equivalent to those of a movie production, and for airing during primetime. The Dilexi series included twelve films, directed by Julian Beck, Walter De Maria, Kenneth Dewey, Robert Frank, Ann Halperin, Philip Makanna, Robert Nelson and William Wiley, Yvonne Rainer, Terry Riley and Arlo Acton, Edwin Schlossberg, Andy Warhol, and Frank Zappa [1].

Walter De Maria has the idea to make a western shootout, stretched over half an hour, and diluted in the desert landscapes of Black Rock in Northern Nevada. Michael Heizer accompanies him. It is 1969 and De Maria is thirty-four years old. Born in California, and trained as a musician, he studies political science, then art history at Berkeley before settling in New York in 1960. Also a native Californian, and nine years his junior, Heizer makes the same choice several years later, convinced at the time that there is really nowhere other than New York to become an artist.

De Maria and Heizer become friends in 1967. They are both represented by the Dwan Gallery and remain close for the following five years, until Heizer returns West in 1972. Neighbors, they spend their evenings imagining possible artworks, like two scientists attempting to resolve a problem with a set of given circumstances, as De Maria later recounts. They find in New York, like in Europe, where they exhibit often in the second half of the decade, intrinsic limitations that can be overcome by going back West. Together, they leave the city and survey the desert, where they project to realize their future works.

The different practices Walter De Maria devoted himself to throughout the first decade of his artistic career converge in Hard Core. It is conceived from a pre-existing soundtrack in which De Maria merged two of his existing compositions to date, Cricket Music (1964) and Ocean Music (1968) [2]. Since childhood, De Maria played drums, first in marching bands, then in jazz ensembles. At Berkeley, he collaborated with La Monte Young. In New York, he forms The Primitives with John Cale, Lou Reed, and Tony Conrad. When Conrad and De Maria are replaced by Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, the group takes on the name Velvet Underground. Each time, De Maria rejects not so much music as the way of life it implies.

Lasting around twenty minutes, Cricket and Ocean Music bring together recordings of natural sounds with a drum solo in a progressive transition. The former lets a heavy octant spread across the chants of crickets; the latter sweeps away the sound of waves into a storm of percussions. In 1970, Irving Teibel, the producer leading Syntoninc Research, launches a series of field recordings that are met with great public success. For the very first record in the series Environments, Psychologically, Ultimate Seashore [3], Teibel commissions a recording of the ocean from Tony Conrad, who credits De Maria with giving him the idea. 

De Maria’s work evolves with the idea of expanding its spatial and temporal field of action. He does so, for instance, by assigning his work, as reductive as its visible surface may be, the mission to suggest a hidden immensity; or by augmenting its dimensions to the point of requiring several hours to be apprehended in its totality. In a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, he chooses, as early as his years at Berkeley, to privilege elementary and static forms such as boxes, simple sculptures built from light carpentry, or instructions for interminable action (Boxes for Meaningless Work, 1961). De Maria is in fact at this time close to Robert Morris (whose Box with the Sound of Its Own Making also dates from 1961), and takes pleasure in the coincidence which has him working as an archivist for Joseph Cornell, who conceived of many Surrealist-inspired works contained in boxes, and collected boxes of photographs and photograms of films.

To remove art from the aesthetic judgements reinforced by confines of the gallery, as much as from the limited perfection of his previous boxes and metallic sculptures, De Maria fills the Friedrich Gallery with earth, goes to the Sahara, and, brought along by Heizer to the Mojave Desert in California, traces in chalk his first earthwork in 1968: Mile Long Drawing (Two Chalk Lines), two parallels lines running a mile long. It is also in the late 1960s that De Maria lays the ground for what will become his most famous work, The Lightning Field (1977), forty stainless steel poles attracting lightning in the middle of the desert for a a few visitors spending the night in an isolated cabin.

This willingness to replace aesthetic judgment with durational experience logically leads him to cinema. A few months before Hard Core, De Maria conceives of a segment in a collective film, initiated by the German director Gerry Schum for his Fernsehgalerie project — which, like the Dilexi Series, saw television as a medium to extend the audience of contemporary art. The first of two resulting films, Land Art (1969), brought together eight actions by four Americans (De Maria, Heizer, Oppenheim, and Smithson) and four Europeans (Boezem, Dibbets, Flanagan, and Long), each director of a film for which Schum was the cameraman. Executed in the Mojave desert, De Maria’s segment is titled Two Lines Three Circles on the Desert and shows him tracing and walking alongside two parallel lines on the ground. The camera follows him, and after about twenty feet revolves on itself three times as the artist drifts away into the distance and finally disappears from the frame.

Produced a few months later, Hard Core takes up similar procedures. The scarcity of spatial points of reference and the fixity of the landscape promote an experience of duration. The association of panoramic movement with the repetitive themes of the sound track extend the limits of perceived space and contribute to the emergence of an oceanic feeling. De Maria adds to this a dramatic element. Seven 360° degrees panoramas set up in different points of the Black Rock desert are connected and interrupted by very briefs inserts of two cowboys — one of whom is Michael Heizer — ready to draw. The temporal dilution of this scene, and the very nature of the insert, meant to attract the attention of the viewer to certain details necessary to the comprehension of an action invisible to the eye in a long shot, accumulate into a tension by which the violence of the final shootout is increased. The construction of the film is musical, built on a principle of progressive buildup, and sudden drop.

Walter de Maria says not to have known, at the time, the work of Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow, whose Wavelength shook up the landscape of experimental cinema in 1968. In several time frames, at different moments of the day and night, unified by the movement of a zoom that retracts progressively in an apartment to focus in on an image of the ocean pinned to a wall, Wavelength creates the same effect of spatial transcendence as Hard Core by shooting in an interior space. In 1972, with La Région centrale, Snow even seems to increase the scope of this effect: with a specially conceived tripod, the camera, perched on a plateau in a Canadian mountain range, explores all the possibilities of circular movement. By accentuating, over the course of more than three hours, the mechanical and inhuman qualities of the movement of the camera, he succeeds in rendering them imperceptible, to the point of letting the viewer think that it is the landscape itself that is flying off.

Hard Core introduces a similar ambiguity in the perception of space. It is no longer the eye that turns, but perhaps the earth itself, almost echoing the famous earthrise photographed by William Anders on the occasion of the Apollo 8 mission and widely circulated in 1969, where the Earth discovers itself from outside, a planet among others. In its particular dynamic, Hard Core puts two energies into competition. The revolutions of the camera and the undulations of the waves form a closed circuit, which the western scenes come to disrupt. Their function is to break open the isolation of the circuit and deregulate its stability. They unsettle the inertia of the camera’s point of view on the landscape by briefly imposing on it accelerations, in order to create the impression of a centrifugal force, or even a sensation of ejection. Till where does the desert extend? Where will the eager-to-burst bullets from the shootout get lost?

Barely a cinephile, and employing cinema only as the opportunity arrises, seeing in it a way to extend the great opening to which his sculptural practice aspires, De Maria’s uses figures from westerns in a profane manner. Cowboys appear too briefly to allow them to take on the heroic character they usually inhabit, or to feed some form of attachment or melancholy. Besides, nothing suggests that they are not our contemporaries — no more than those Monte Hellman filmed at the same moment in The Shooting (1966), cowboys taken back to the truth of the landscape and to their own human perversity.

These cowboys are for Walter De Maria nothing but human types associated with landscapes. "There is nothing romantic about the West for me, that’s where I’m from": Heizer’s phrase could hold up as well for De Maria. This does not mean that the figures are neutral. Stemming from the desert landscapes that pioneers had to brave in order to conquer the American West, it is probable that they hark back to "manifest destiny," a national ideology coined by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1844 to justify the annexation of Texas and the expansion of the United States to the Pacific as a divine mission.

We know who the victims of this ideology were. All art which is seriously attached to the idea of the landscape cannot afford to avoid exhuming the vestiges buried by the violence of history. It is by unearthing, for instance, the tip of a Native American arrow that Michael Heizer decides on the location of Complex One (1972). More recently, and to return to the field of cinema, James Benning recovers a popular history under the great narrative of the American conquest; minor stories and images marginalized by the great tale of modernity, from Native American petroglyphs to paintings by black slaves, to texts by men who broke away from society. Any landscape is obviously something other than an object for romantic contemplation or new age reverie: it is the manifest result of historical sedimentation, perceptible through the conditions of sustained attention.

Hard Core is not a film with costumes. Its use of archetypes of American history is bait to introduce ambiguities in the dating of the work and render the last image of the film as logical as it is unexpected. It is indeed a contemporary film. By introducing figures associated with the violence of conquest and by working to extend the perception of the landscape beyond geographical limitations, De Maria prepares, unbeknownst to us, the apparition in plain sight of what is unfurling, at the same time, on the other side of the Pacific. Not a saloon shootout, which miraculously leaves its protagonists unharmed, but the Vietnam War.

Antoine Thirion, 2015


Translated from the French by Rachel Valinsky

[2]: These two compositions were later collected on a cd titled Drums and Nature.

picture : Hard Core, still, 1969 © Walter De Maria