Synopsis

Over four consecutive seasons artist Strijdom van der Merwe makes land art works in a striking range of spectacular natural settings in southern Africa.

Sculpting This Earth is the first documentary feature film about land art from the southern hemisphere.

Land art – involving the making of artworks in nature using mostly natural materials found on the site – has been around since the 1960s and is today practised around the world. It was pioneered mainly in north America with the seminal works of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and Michael Heizer, and two of its best known current exponents are the British artists Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy.

To date, worldwide, even though land art has been in existence for more than half a century, only a handful of documentary feature films have been made about it, all of these dealing with the work of artists in the northern hemisphere. Mostly fragile and ephemeral, far removed from population centres and the commercial art market, these are works of art that rely on photography or cinematography to connect with an audience. Sculpting This Earth will be the latest contribution to a sparsely populated genre, and the first of its kind from the southern hemisphere, putting images of artworks that existed only fleetingly in uninhabited spaces in southern Africa in front of a global audience.

Strijdom van der Merwe, Africa’s foremost land artist, is prolific internationally, having made land art works on invitation in more than twenty countries, as diverse and far apart as Australia, Japan, Lithuania, Switzerland, Finland, Malta, Kenya, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United States.

The film shows him at work over four consecutive seasons, making land art works in remote and unspoilt settings in the vast open spaces of the southern African interior, using sticks, stones, leaves, rocks, grass, feathers, bamboo, water, and at times nothing more than the soil, sand and small stones on the ground – the earth itself.

Principal photography on the film started in the southern-hemisphere midsummer on 15 December 2020, in the Jonkershoek Valley outside the university town of Stellenbosch in South Africa’s Cape winelands, and continued throughout all four seasons in the greater Stellenbosch area, with its fertile valleys and verdant forests, and including the surrounding Boland and the beaches of nearby Gordon’s Bay.

Interspersed with the sequences shot in the Stellenbosch area, the film follows the artist as he travels to make artworks in increasingly distant locations in southern Africa. First, in the idyllic setting of Churchhaven on the pristine and peaceful Langebaan lagoon in the West Coast National Park. Second, further afield and in stark contrast, in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the semi-arid Tankwa Karoo. And finally, at the ancient petroglyph site of Driekopseiland near Kimberley, almost a thousand kilometres inland, where some of the non-figurative rock engravings from a distant, pre-industrial culture have been dated by archaeologists at more than 2,500 years old.

The viewer experiences the visible change of seasons over the course of the year in which the film is shot, from the long, light-filled days of high summer to the shifting colours of autumn foliage, through winter’s rest to the new leaves and wild flowers of springtime, and ending with the completion of the cycle in midsummer. At the same time, the audience has the opportunity to witness a body of creative work accumulating and being completed, made by the artist over the course of the year in which he turned sixty.

Strijdom’s land art is characterised by sensitivity and humility in the face of the scales and cycles of the natural world – the fragile, fleeting artworks reflecting the ephemerality of human markings on the land, and presenting the viewer with an opportunity to contemplate the nature of human existence on the planet. 

Set entirely outdoors and far away from the built environment, Sculpting This Earth offers a sense of reconnection to nature and the natural world at a time when many people globally feel cut off from nature, and there is a widespread and growing realisation that the natural world is under threat and in many places in rapid and terminal decline. The art, made of materials known to people everywhere from their daily lives and surroundings, speaks a deeply universal human language, transcending all boundaries of country and culture, moving people with meaning and emotion, regardless of where they are on the planet.

Shooting will complete in December 2021, and the film is scheduled for international release in early 2022.

  • Documentary

  • Feature-length

  • 2022: release date to be announced

  • English

  • UHD 4K

  • 16:9 aspect ratio

  • Director: Victor van Aswegen