Robert Morris: Observatory (1977)

Observatorium (1977), Robert Morris. Foto: Jordi Huisman
Observatorium (1977), Robert Morris. Foto: Jordi Huisman

Zhana Ivanova gave a performance in the Observatory on 14 September 2014 as part of the program Land Art Live. Read more about Predictions

The Observatory was previously realized in Velsen in the frame of the large exhibition Sonsbeek Buiten de Perken (1971), but had to make way for a new construction project. In collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, it was decided to recreate it in Lelystad, in the then vast, empty landscape. The artwork references prehistoric sites that were used for the observation of the sun and the planets, such as Stonehenge in England.

Robert Morris’ Observatory consists of two concentric earthen ramparts. Three V-shaped incisions made in the circles offer a view on the polder landscape. At the beginning of spring and autumn, when day and night are equally long, the middle steel visor is perfectly aligned with the rising sun. The stone wedges on both sides are in turn aligned with the rising sun on June 21st and December 21st, the summer and winter solstices.


Ambassador Margriet Schavemaker

Margriet Schavemaker. Foto: Sjoerd van Leeuwen
Margriet Schavemaker. Foto: Sjoerd van Leeuwen

Margriet Schavemaker makes exhibitions and writes about modern and contemporary art. She is associated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam as Manager Education, Interpretation and Publications. She contacted Robert Morris about a re-enactment of his work at the Stedelijk Museum.

“I work at a museum, but I also really like to experience art outside of the museum walls. There you may encounter a tension between the work of art and nature. This is certainly the case for the land art works in Flevoland and the Observatorium by Robert Morris. But Morris also realised, along with many other artists in the sixties, that you can also bring nature to the museum. And the nice thing is that this also happened at the Stedelijk Museum.

At the end of the sixties Wim Beeren, who would later be director of the Stedelijk Museum, organised the exhibition ‘Op losse schroeven.’ This legendary exhibition gave an international overview of conceptual and performative art at the Stedelijk Museum. During the exhibition Marinus Boezem hung white sheets from the windows and Jan Dibbets dug holes around the museum. Robert Morris realised his Amsterdam Project at this exhibition. This work was based on a sort of script for the museum staff that stated that every other day a heap of flammable materials, collected outside, was to be created in the museum space: whether these were leafs or earth. Eventually the staff had to light these heaps outside of the museum. In 2011, I made the exhibition ‘Recollections - Op losse schroeven’ about this exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum. I also contacted Morris for a re-enactment of his work. We ended up collecting ourselves combustible materials to bring into the museum space. Afterwards we brought the heaps outside and set them to fire. The whole thing was quite ritualistic.

Beeren was nevertheless convinced that most works from the ‘Op losse schroeven’ exhibition had actually failed. The whole idea was that the object didn’t matter, but the works were eagerly collected afterwards. There is no exhibition that had a greater impact on the collection of the Stedelijk Museum than ‘Op losse schroeven.’ This was a big paradox, and Beeren felt it. He decided the museum was stuck and he wanted to work outside of the institute. That’s why he left the museum and organised the open-air exhibition 'Sonsbeek buiten de perken’ in 1971. Beeren invited Morris again and this time he made the Observatorium in the dunes of Velsen. This first version of drift-sand was not meant to exist forever. Nonetheless Beeren asked if they work could be replaced to a more permanent location in 1973. This permanent location was Swifterbant in the Flevopolder, where the Observatorium reopened in 1977. By moving the Observatorium to a permanent place in the polder, it soon became monumental heritage. In a way this is almost inevitable in the highly urbanised Dutch landscape. Not unlike the Afsluitdijk and the Noordoostpolder, which are part of the proto-Dutch landscape, the Observatorium is now fully integrated in the polder.”

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Observatorium (1977), Robert Morris. Foto: Gert Schutte
Observatorium (1977), Robert Morris. Foto: Gert Schutte

Just outside Lelystad, the American artist Robert Morris (Kansas City, United States, 1931) created the first Land Art project in Flevoland. Originally, Morris designed the Observatorium for the open air exhibition Sonsbeek buiten de perken (Sonsbeek out of bounds) in 1971. This manifestation, which was curated by former Stedelijk Museum director Wim Beeren, showed the international trends in sculpture.

In 1971, leading Land Art artists from the Netherlands and the United States were invited to create site specific works throughout the Netherlands. Morris realised his artwork in the dunes near Velsen. After this exhibition the work was dismantled and a year later a new location was found in Flevoland. The new, vast polder landscape was an extremely suitable spot for large-scale, monumental Land Art projects. For this reason the engineers of the Rijksdienst IJsselmeerpolders (RIJP), the predecessor to Rijkswaterstaat, made available a plot of land for Morris' Observatorium in 1977. (1)

Observatorium consists of two concentric earth walls. Within these circles three V-span openings were made casting a view at the endless, open polder landscape. Through the middle steel visor one can see the sun rise at the beginning of spring and autumn, when day and night are equally long. On both sides of this visor, on the northeast and southeast sides of the circles, there are two stone wedges. Through the wedges on the east side you can see the sun rise on 21 June, the longest day. The sunrise seen through the visor on the west side, signals winter and the longest night on 21 December. Although relatively little time has passed on the land of Flevoland's newly created polders, the subject of Morris' Land Art project is the passing of time. (2)

Just like other artists in the seventies, Morris was fascinated by prehistoric monuments. In the period that Morris designed the Observatorium, Stonehenge (Wiltshire, Great Britain) became an important place of pilgrimage. The Observatorium evokes spirituality and mystery. By creating a modern version of the prehistoric megalithic monument of Stonehenge, Morris offers Lelystad a place for new rituals with age-old and universal associations. (3) Robert Morris is an important and versatile artist and art critic. In the sixties he abandoned the traditional media and began working with more ephemeral materials such as mirrors, textile, waste matter, steam and earth. (4) Morris specialised in performance art, installations and Land Art. He is considered to be one of the main theoreticians of Minimalism but also has made an important contribution to the Land Art movement that originated in America in the 1960s and '70s.

Works by Robert Morris in the MoMA collectionWatch Omroep Flevoland's episode with Jord den Hollander about the Observatory (Dutch only).

Location: Swifterringweg (corner Houtribweg, approach from Klokbekerweg or Edelhertweg), Lelystad Materials: earth, water, grass, shells, steel, Bavarian granite, wood Dimensions: circumference of 91 metres Observatory is located on the grounds owned and maintained by Het Flevo-landschap.

An impression of the Sunsation Festival from 2008:

(1) Martine Spanjers & Annick Kleizen (ed.), (2007), De Collectie Flevoland (The Flevoland Collection), p. 457-459. Museum De Paviljoens.
(2) Amy Dempsey, (2006), Destination Art, p. 114-115
(3) Each year on a Saturday morning around 21 June the Stichting Zonnewende Flevoland (Solstice Flevoland Foundation) organises the Sunsation Festival at the Observatorium of Robert Morris. During the festival the summer solstice is celebrated through poetry, music, theatre and visual arts. For more information:
(4) Jeffrey Kastner & Brian Wallis, (1998), Land and Environmental Art, p. 292