Getting a good look at Andrew Rogers’s art can be tough.
It helps to have a satellite. Or a helicopter. Or a plane. The picture above was taken from a hot-air balloon drifting over central Turkey. Rogers used stone walls to sketch this horse across the rocky hills of Cappadocia.
The figure is enormous, almost 200 feet wide. It took 450 people to construct it. This horse is one of the dozens of pieces Rogers has scattered over all seven continents.
You’ve never heard of him, right? Not surprising.
Although he has been doing some of the largest artworks in the world, Andrew Rogers has not generated the kind of comment or respect accorded many others who use the planet as a canvas.
Perhaps that’s because this lean Australian is a bit of a maverick, an outlier. Perhaps it has to do with the quality of his art. Even his harshest critics — and he does have his critics — can’t deny that he’s made his mark on the planet.
In China, he laid the figure of a horseman across the hills of the Gobi Desert using 1,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army. In the high desert of Chile, Rogers employed 550 local people over two years to build three stone structures. The most striking looks like a flattened lizard from the air. It’s actually based on an image of a two-headed llama carved more than 1,000 years ago.
Near a 12th-century castle in Slovakia, he constructed ribbons of rock that form the outline of a spindly legged horse, a symbol from a 2,000-year-old coin found nearby. In the Mojave Desert, his crew of local workers and Mexican stone masons had to deal with 100-mph winds while building an abstract Native American hunting symbol, a circle with a line through it.
In the Antarctic, at the foot of the Dakshin Gangotri Glacier, he built a temporary “Rhythms of Life” image, using local gravel on a frozen lake.
Rogers, the restless spirit behind these Brobdingnagian projects, lives in Melbourne, on the southern coast of Australia. He recently had a kangaroo bang into his car while traveling home from his studio outside of town. A spare, intense man who works 80-hour weeks, he is described as a person who knows exactly what he wants. “He is one of the most goal-oriented people I’ve ever met,” says Golan Levi, an Israeli architect who has worked with Rogers for years.
Rogers, 65, is not a starving artist and never has been. Although he has been interested in art all his life, he had a successful career as a businessman, running an apparel company founded by his father. He says that’s part of the reason he is not interested in making a lot of money from his art. “You can only eat so much.”
When he was in the business world, he also taught logistics at a local university, expertise that came in handy when organizing projects involving hundreds of workers in spartan landscapes.
In 1979, he took a very bumpy plane ride across the desert of Southern Peru to look at the mysterious Nazca Lines, created on a dry, windless plain 1,500 years ago. Primitive people etched huge geometric figures as well as images of hummingbirds, sharks, monkeys, spiders and humans into surface of the Earth by scraping away the red soil to reveal white earth below.
Rogers eventually left the business world to become a full-time sculptor — “people thought I was crazy.” He produced both abstract and figurative pieces in metal. The memory of the ancient geoglyphs in Peru haunted him.
In 1999, Rogers began doing his own geoglyphs. He built the first — essentially stone walls laid out to a careful plan — in Israel’s Arava Desert. One of the designs is his signature “Rhythms of Life,” an abstract piece combining a circle, an arc and a calligraphic squiggle. Another work depicts the Hebrew letters for “chai”— or life.
Over the next 14 years, Rogers repeated the process all over the world. In each place, he etched his own Rhythms of Life design next to a symbol drawn from local culture. He says his message is “that we are all connected through time and space.” In the barren heights of Bolivia, concentric circles. In Nepal, a labyrinth. In Iceland, an ancient rune. In Kenya, a lion’s paw.
The most staggering collection of Rogers’s art lies in the rocky hills of central Turkey, near the town of Goreme, where Rogers has built one of the world’s largest sculpture parks. Stone walls, arches and pillars stretch for 1.25 miles. They were mostly hand-built by Turkish masons using 10,000 tons of stone. That’s 20 million pounds of rock.
In all, he has made 48 of these massive things in 13 countries employing 6,700 people. Typically, he brings in a small crew, then hires several hundred local workers. Huge “bucket brigades” are set up across the site to move rocks from hand to hand to stonemasons, who set them in place.
No detail is too small for the man who used to teach logistics, down to providing water, hundreds of pairs of gloves and first-aid stations on site. Rogers insists on giving women the same wages as men, though this has caused some grumbling on a couple of sites.
How does he pay for all this? Rogers is cagey on this point. He lines up corporate sponsors and pays some of the costs out of his own pocket, but he won’t go into details .
Rogers picks sites that have — in his view — historical significance and spends a long time — years, in some cases — persuading local officials to allow him to spread his massive artworks across their hills.
To develop a symbol from the local culture, he works with elders, cultural officials and museums to find a design that resonates with the community. Often, the works become tourist attractions. For that reason and because the images are meaningful to the people who live nearby, there’s a community effort to maintain them.
William Fox, a leading authority on art and the environment, says: “No one is really drawing on the planet like that, in that way, and certainly not at that scale and certainly not with this bimodal business: Here’s my mark, ‘Rhythms of Life.’ And it’s sort of a funny gesture. And . . . a unique gesture.”
Fox, author of 16 books on landscape art, directs the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Photos of Rogers’s work have been on display at his museum this spring and summer. Fox says visitors grasp and like what Rogers is doing. “They apprehend that they are striking projects in the landscape that are related to both his personal vocabulary and that of the region.”
In other quarters, reception has been mixed.
John McDonald, art critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, says Rogers is “without doubt” the country’s most successful living sculptor, but thinks he is “quite, quite cliched.” His view is that Rogers has taken advantage of his wealth to achieve prominence for his work.
Ron Robertson-Swann, arguably the country’s most highly regarded sculptor and a former assistant to the British artist Henry Moore, says Rogers’s work has “very little soul or innovation.” He says Rogers’s strongest suit may be in marketing himself, then adds: “That may sound a little like sour grapes.”
John Reid, a senior lecturer at the Environmental Art Studio of Australian National University in Canberra, says by e-mail. “There is, for me, something disconcerting about his Rhythm of Life project. Perhaps because it’s difficult to discern any rhythm in the totality of the global undertaking — except for the repetitive intonations of verbal spin. . . . Each geoglyph is presumably of deep significance to the locals (many of them were involved in both inception and production) but unsettling for everyone else with a discerning eye for fine art, a jarring intrusion on the mesmerizing pleasure of moving at any speed through a landscape otherwise devoid of blatant artifact.”
While the art world’s criticism may offer insight into Rogers work, it may offer insight into the art world, too.
Fox says Rogers is not doing what museums and art critics and art historians admire most: “Are you pushing forward the medium with which you’re working? The answer’s no. He’s not doing anything in terms of the actual earth or the arrangement of stones on the earth that we haven’ t seen before. He’s using pretty traditional technology, if you will. So that’s one thing.
“Another thing is he’s not pushing the envelope of sculptural forms. Those are things that make people stand up and pay attention in the art world, and Andrew has not done those because that’s not what he’s interested in doing.”
In his defense, Rogers says: “There are very few people in the art world who have actually observed my process and seen the finished structures. The viewing of it would reveal the effort and sensitivity I employ to ensure that the work sits properly in the landscape and that the process and resultant structures are embraced by the local community. I do this as I want the structures to have meaning for the community apart from being an object.”
Ken Scarlett, an authority on Australian sculpture who collaborated with Rogers on a book about the “Rhythms of Life” project, takes a more charitable view: “I think he has an incredible ability to work with people. I mean to go to China and to work your way through the bureaucracy and get permission to build a work in the Gobi Desert and then to have a thousand members of the Red Army allocated to assist you, that alone proves his extraordinary skill as an entrepreneur and organizer. It’s no mean feat to bring that off.”
But simply bringing that off doesn’t count for much in the art world, which doesn’t necessarily value accomplishing things on a grand scale these days. “Spectacle” has become a dirty word among purist culturati, who believe it comes with implications of conspicuous consumption.
Nor does today’s art world generally cotton to sunny optimism and idealism. Cynicism is the more fashionable mode. Rogers built a stone colonnade in Turkey emblazoned with words he considers important, including “truth,” “justice” and “responsibilities.” It’s hard to imagine Damian Hirst, who produced a diamond-crusted skull priced at $100 million, or Jeff Koons, famous for gigantic sculptures that look like dogs made of knotted balloons, doing something like that. At least not with a straight face.
Perhaps art world fashion will change someday. Perhaps someday the in-crowd will place a higher value on Rogers’s logistical wizardry and Boy Scout sincerity.
Perhaps Andrew Rogers is a global artist deserving of great renown. Perhaps he’s simply quixotic. But Rogers seems unfazed, and has no intention of slowing down. He has plans in the works for an even bigger geoglyph, something involving 20,000 people. He’s not ready to say where.
Scarlett, who lives near Rogers in Australia, says, “I joke a little bit that when Andrew looks up at the moon he probably just wonders how he could get enough people up there to build his next geoglyph.”
John Pancake was arts editor of The Washington Post from 1996 to 2008.