Rhythm as Form, Rhythm as Place
In her site-specific artwork, Athena Tacha has explored a distinctive vocabulary of forms in great depth.
By Regina M. Flanagan, Associate ASLA
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, a revolution in art
occurred with profound implications and lessons for landscape architects.
Seeking new challenges and direct dialogue with the public, artists turned away
from traditional venues and struck out to experiment with landscapes and public
spaces. Athena Tacha created her best-known work during this era and attracted
the attention of landscape architects. While earth artists such as Robert
Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Nancy Holt investigated degraded industrial
landscapes and remote wilderness areas, Tacha’s group—including Mary Miss, Jody
Pinto, and Alan Sonfist—produced site-specific installations for more
accessible locations such as sculpture parks and urban parcels. Their work took
advantage of the unique physical and social characteristics of sites to offer
engaging spatial experiences that bridged the gap between art and audience and
launched the contemporary public art movement.
Forty years later, it is difficult to appreciate how radical
site-specific environmental art was at the time. While the earth art movement
is embraced and analyzed by art critics and historians, the history of
site-specific art has received little attention. The recent addition of Tacha’s
work to the archive of Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Center and a solo
exhibition at the Katzen Arts Center at the American University Art Museum in
Washington, D.C., afforded an opportunity to reexamine this influential site
artist’s long career and also connect with her current work. Landscape Architecture visited with
Tacha, a diminutive woman who radiates intellectual curiosity and warmth, at
her home and studio in Washington, D.C.
Tacha’s work does not develop in neat phases or a linear
progression but loops back upon itself in cycles. She has explored a
distinctive vocabulary of forms in great depth, refining and advancing them in
each successive artwork. But her public work cannot be considered without
acknowledging its dialogue with the studio work. In the “Small Wonders”
exhibition at the Katzen Arts Center last fall, natural phenomena that Tacha
has visited around the globe, including volcanoes, glaciers, mud boils, and
water-eroded canyons, are translated into small sculptures that play with scale
and viewpoint. Photo works depict patterns of snow, sand, water, rock, and tree
bark from extreme close-ups to views from the air; videos concerned with time
and gravity record viscous liquids being poured or water crashing over a falls.
The scientific theories that underlie nature and explain forces like gravity
and fluid dynamics fascinate Tacha.
“There is no inanimate nature,” she said during a tour of
the exhibition. “I am made of the same materials [as the rocks, water, and
trees] and they communicate with me; they feel to me like my own body.”
Experiencing nature and landscape with the senses and the
body is at the core of Tacha’s work. In her manifesto “Rhythm as Form” in the
May 1978 issue of Landscape Architecture,
Tacha wrote that walking is one of our prime relationships with the environment
and that her work is most fully experienced through “body locomotion.” She said
that her work aims to “transform the body-rhythm of walking into a receiver of
artistic expression, a sensor of a new kind of form...re-attuning our
sensitivity to kinesthetic experiences.” These intentions resonated with
landscape architects who first became acquainted with Tacha’s work through a
January 1977 article in Landscape
Architecture, “New Directions in Environmental Art,” by Catherine Howett,
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