Once, someone asked Mark Brest van Kempen, “What is art?” This question stuck with him, and his search for the answer is pushing the boundaries of what most people think an artist is.
Van Kempen, who spoke at the U’s Gould Auditorium in the Marriott Library on Feb. 9, is an environmental artist, meaning he uses the actual earth and landscapes as sculptures. A graduate from the U in 1980, Van Kempen spoke about how the land art around the U, such as the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake and the Sun Tunnels in the Bonneville Salt Flats, inspired him to change his focus from painting to using the earth itself.
He said that after viewing this art, he thought his work in painting was flat and wasn’t doing enough. He said he realized a work of art must have a deeper meaning behind it.
“Context in art makes the piece important,” Van Kempen said.
One of his most famous projects is titled “Free Speech Monument,” installed in 1991 at the University of California at Berkeley. Instead of creating a cliché bronze statue to represent free speech, he instead opted to sculpt a six-inch column of land that is legally not a part of any nation, state or city. This free space represents a focal point where people can express their freedom of speech.
This project won a national public art competition and to this day remains popular, regularly visited and decorated.
Van Kempen said artwork, especially environmental artwork such as this “Free Speech Monument,” benefits our society. Moving more into the natural world, Van Kempen told a story about a time when 600 homes were going to be built on a piece of land with a creek. He and some fellow artists decided they weren’t going to allow this wilderness to be touched by developers.
A few lawsuits later, the city decided to go through with their plan, but they left a large chunk untouched, leaving the space open for future generations to enjoy.
Van Kempen said if people let artwork have a say in environmental decision-making, then they can achieve success.
“If you incorporate art before the plan, your work will go further,” Van Kempen said.
His works also include the small scale “Filtration Unit” and “Drinking Fountain for People and Plants,” as well as larger projects like the “Ravenna Creek Project” and “The Marsh Zone,” a project that showed the tension between space for humans versus a space for nature.
The Department of Art and Art History and “ArtLandish,” the UMFA’s series of talks, films and meetups surrounding environmental art in Utah hosted Van Kempen’s lecture.