The timeless beauty of ephemeral artworks in nature over four seasons
Sculpting This Earth follows internationally acclaimed artist Strijdom van der Merwe over four consecutive seasons as he travels to remote locations in the southern African interior to make beautiful land art works in a striking range of spectacular natural settings.
Featuring 25 fleeting artworks, the film shows the artist at work in the landscape and sharing his thoughts as he finds his canvases in nature – in verdant valleys and forests, on the shore of a lagoon, in the vast expanses of the arid semi-desert. With stunning cinematography and an extraordinary soundtrack including 11 pieces of music composed for the film, Sculpting This Earth is meditative, powerful and moving.
Shot over more than a year, from December 2020 to April 2022, the new film from award-winning director Victor van Aswegen is the world’s first feature documentary about land art from the southern hemisphere. Sculpting This Earth premiered on 26 August 2022 and will be released internationally in 2023.
“A sublime experience in every sense”
“A complex and nuanced film – an artwork in itself”
The Cape Robyn
The first from the southern hemisphere
Land art 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, only a handful of documentary feature films have been made about land art, all of them dealing with the work of artists in the northern hemisphere. Sculpting This Earth is the latest contribution to this sparsely populated genre, and the first feature-length film about land art from the southern hemisphere.
Africa’s foremost land artist
Artist Strijdom van der Merwe works internationally and has made land art works on invitation in more than twenty countries, from Australia and Japan to Lithuania, Switzerland, Finland and the United States.
He was born in 1961, studied in South Africa, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, and is the recipient of many awards, including a medal of honour from the South African Academy for Science and Art.
Ephemeral artworks in nature
Strijdom van der Merwe’s land art is characterised by sensitivity and humility in the face of the scales and cycles of nature – 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.
Sculpting This Earth offers a sense of reconnection to nature and the natural world in an age 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.
A body of work spanning four seasons
Sculpting This Earth follows the primordial cycle of the seasons, with new materials and fresh opportunities for land art works in each. The film starts in midsummer, when Stellenbosch’s hot wind-blown days dissolve into lingering warm evenings, then modulates into autumn with its abundance of colours in the many forests on the hills and in the valleys on the outskirts of the town.
Winter brings the rains in this Mediterranean climate, but only cold to the cloudless skies over the arid Karoo. With the arrival of spring and the return of summer at the end of the film we have seen the artist at work in nature during all four seasons over the course of a year – sharing a body of work produced in the year he turned sixty.
A journey into the southern African interior
Starting with works made in and around his home base in the university town of Stellenbosch in the Cape winelands, the artist travels to increasingly remote locations to work in the harsh uninhabited landscapes and vast open spaces of the southern African interior.
In fertile valleys and verdant forests, on pristine lagoon beaches, in the semi-desert of the Karoo, the film shows Strijdom working with materials he finds on the sites to make ephemeral artworks in natural settings over four consecutive seasons, from summer to summer.
Filmed over sixteen months
Principal photography on Sculpting This Earth commenced on 15 December 2020 in the Jonkershoek valley outside Stellenbosch. Shooting continued through the summer and autumn months of January to May 2021 in and around Stellenbosch and at Churchhaven on the Langebaan lagoon in the West Coast National Park.
Filming during winter, spring and the return of summer, from June to November 2021, took place in the greater Stellenbosch area, including the beaches of nearby Gordon’s Bay, and in the distant Tankwa Karoo – completing the cycle of the making of artworks over the course of the four seasons. From December 2021 to April 2022 filming continued for footage of the artist talking and walking in the landscape, and additional recording of ambient sounds and foley was completed in May.
The cinematography for Sculpting This Earth was done by director Victor van Aswegen, braving the weather and the elements with the artist for an exhilarating and rewarding journey through all the seasons and a large variety of far-flung landscapes to get the images and record the sounds needed for a film set entirely outdoors.
Working with the Skyhook aerial cinematography team of Timothee Ferreira and Joshua Branquinho, he directed the drone shooting in the film, necessary for a sense of scale in the vast open landscape of the Tankwa Karoo. He was also responsible for post-production, colour-grading and editing.
Original music composed for the film
The soundscape of the film was designed by director Victor van Aswegen and filled with the sounds of nature and Strijdom’s voice he recorded and music tracks he selected, including an extract from Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and a Paganini Caprice for violin masterfully performed by the young Korean virtuoso In Mo Yang.
But the soundtrack is lifted to a different level altogether by 11 outstanding pieces of music written for the film by the gifted classically trained composer Kristi Boonzaaier. Forged over many months of close collaboration between director and composer to match the edited sequences, these expressive and atmospheric tracks contribute powerfully to the emotional impact of the film as a whole.
A reflection on life and transience
Much more than just another film about art, Sculpting This Earth is meditative and moving. The artist’s works, voice and thoughts, the passage of the seasons, the range of landscapes traversed, the arc traced by the sequence of artworks, and the emotional journey through unforgettable pieces of music all combine to create a space where the viewer can sit with his or her own thoughts and emotions for 95 minutes.
It is in the nature of most of the artworks and the way they are presented in the film that they are minimal, suggesting rather than imposing interpretation, leaving the decision as to meaning largely to the viewer. But for those willing and able to bring their thoughts, interpretations and feelings to the works, Sculpting This Earth can speak powerfully about our relation to the natural world, the cycles of nature and of life, the transience of our lives, growth, decline, creation, destruction, beauty, death – and much more besides.