Australian sculptor Andrew Rogers has rocks in his head. "I talk about rocks in the morning," he admits, "and I talk about rocks when I go to bed." He also does a good bit of heaving them about, for rocks are his chosen material in building 32 monumental land-art works on five continents over the past 10 years.
Lilly Wei, curator of "Odysseys and Sitings," an exhibition of photographs of Rogers's projects running until May 13 at the nonprofit gallery White Box, says, "Andrew – well, he thinks large."
"Large" is an understatement. Rogers makes geoglyphs, piling up tens of thousands of tons of stones up to 14 feet high to outline stylized shapes. His forms cover 430,000 square feet, the largest contemporary land-art project in
the world. The sculptor uses walls of rock to "draw" a spread-wing eagle the size of a football field in Australia, a lion in Sri Lanka, a llama in Bolivia, a labyrinth in Nepal, and a Celtic horse in Slovakia. To what end? "I want these to become a fulcrum for contemplation about what's important," he says, specifying "the values we need to take forward to have a wholesome society."
"Andrew's projects are appealingly, profoundly quixotic, a combination of life and art, installation and performance, altruism and self-fulfillment," according to Ms. Wei, writing in a new book on the work, "Andrew Rogers: Geoglyphs, Rhythms of Life."
Public-art expert Eleanor Heartney, who contributed an essay to the book, says: "What interested me was the sheer ambition of the project and the way it connects to the larger context of human history and art history."
Earthworks go back to prehistory with Ohio's bulging Great Serpent Mound and Peru's Nazca lines, an inspiration for Rogers, incised into the earth in the shape of animals, visible only from high above. Then 40 years ago, American artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson (known for his "Spiral Jetty" at Utah's Great Salt Lake) bulldozed and gouged forms on the Western landscape using earth and boulders.
Rogers differs from these artists in the collaborative nature of his work, involving crews of 5,000 local workers. Wei calls the geoglyphs not only "a real public art project" but "a public works project," which changes the lives of the employees. "It's a temporary micro-industry. These are poor places, and the work made an extreme difference."
Rogers hires an equal number of men and women, paying twice the going rate, feeding the crews, and even providing medical care. Since the sites are so isolated – in scorching deserts and high plains in the Andes and Himalayas, in deep gorges and near the Arctic Circle in Iceland – conditions are challenging. He's fended off scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlesnakes in the Mojave Desert, worked through monsoons and floods in Sri Lanka, and made peace between warring ethnic groups like Slovaks and Romany Gypsies in Slovakia.
He's used elephants in his work crews, painted stones with cactus juice to lighten their color, and mixed bird guano and clay to make mortar.
But his preferred tactic is the human chain, with local people attired in colorful costumes passing stones from hand to hand up a steep mountainside. "It's all about getting a message out there," he says. "The message is just as important as the process, which is as important as the product." And the message is...? "You can do anything if you set your mind to it."
He hopes his collaborators learn more than the value of teamwork. Since the symbols are based on tradition and mythology, chosen in consultation with tribal elders, Rogers hopes participants "will come to have an extra feeling of pride in their history and heritage." Rogers feels such pride when he photographs the finished works from a helicopter and sees them in satellite photos taken from 280 miles up. But he insists, "I'm not interested in immortality. I don't sign these works." Funded by anonymous donors (and undoubtedly from commissions for his bronze sculptures), he receives no pay for the geoglyphs. "My pay is the joy and pleasure of doing it," he says. "This is my sandbox."
A slender, energetic man given to bounding about steep slopes like a mountain goat, Rogers seems almost too selfless to be a contemporary artist, a species prone to irony and not known for unalloyed optimism.
"Andrew Rogers does not have a cynical bone in his body," Ms. Heartney says. "There is no hidden agenda."
He does, however, always include at the sites, along with archetypal symbols of local significance, the outline of his own abstract sculpture called "The Rhythms of Life." This sculpture was the spark that ignited his passion to pepper the world's most breathtaking sites with huge geoglyphs.
"It's about life and regeneration, memory, history, and heritage," Rogers says. It's also about preserving the pristine environment. "If we don't look after our world and preserve our history now," he says, "it's finished."
Although the stones trace meandering trails on the earth, they're more accurately bridges from past to future.
"The whole project is about the future," Rogers says. The content and symbolic meaning of the forms are as important to him as their form and aesthetic qualities. "I'm not building structures. I'm trying to create an idea."
One idea confirmed for him in the course of working with such diverse people all over the globe is that "In every society, there's a normal bell [curve] distribution of intelligence, but some lack opportunity. In the West, if you work hard and have some intelligence you can get somewhere. Life's a matter of choice. But there [in remote regions], destiny's a matter of chance."
Rogers's own choice is, through art, to give others a chance. •