This article was first published on Hyperallergic on Sept. 26.
The world officially has a new largest contemporary artwork in Michael Heizer’s City (1972–2022), a work of land art so massive it strains the mind’s capacity to contain its full scale and dimension. The imagination is where the work will live for most people, anyway. City is not only difficult to visit — it’s about three hours northwest of Las Vegas, near the center of the sparsely populated Basin and Range National Monument — but visitation, for now, is limited to six people a day who care to part with upwards of $150 for a short tour.
In vast desert landscapes like the misleadingly named Garden Valley in Nevada, where City’s undulating slopes of gravel and metallic beams emerge like a ruin of a once and future android civilization, Americans tend to see a blank slate, a land unburdened by the weight of human history. Despite Indigenous settlement in the region for thousands of years, this vision remains stubbornly endemic to the American imagination. In a certain light, this can be understandable — in Nevada, where most of Heizer’s works sit, a punishing climate has resulted in 90% of the state’s residents living in two cities near its outer bounds. In fact, there has been so little historical demand for these lands by American settlers that the federal government still holds 88% of all land in the state, the highest percentage by far of any territory in the continental US. Even the Basin and Range National Monument itself has been billed as “one of the emptiest spaces in a state famous for its emptiness.”
Beyond the region’s abundance of cheap land and dearth of government oversight, it’s this quality of emptiness that would appear to situate Western land as an ideal neutral backdrop for Heizer’s work — the environmental equivalent of a white wall or concrete floor. But outside of the metrics of population per square mile or agricultural productivity, it’s a mistake to view this region as anything other than full. In and out of US courtrooms for over 150 years, the Western Shoshone people still press their claim to Newe Segobia, the land where many of Heizer’s works, including City, sit. When we reckon with the reality of this region’s decidedly not empty history, Heizer’s masterwork feels less like a civilization to come than a memorial to a once-prevalent view of the West, Native lands, and our national story.
Despite his reportedly encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s geologic and mineral makeup, Heizer has tended to display a baffling incuriousness about the larger story of the land he digs, cuts, and plows. He has insisted over the years that not only is he immune to the romantic enchantment of this region, but that his sites offer him no meaning outside of their practical utility to the project (Do they offer enough space? Can the rocks on-site be used for concrete?). This indifference isn’t difficult to divine: In City, steep, concrete walls and earthen slopes block all traces of this landscape from the viewer’s sight — all traces, that is, except the sky — that most difficult to localize aspect of the outdoors. We see this move in his iconic “Double Negative” (1969), too, a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep channel that envelops visitors in two massive earthen trenches that hug the outer rim of Mormon Mesa. As the artist related to curator Julia Brown in a rare interview from 1984, constructing his work is “like making a room; the sculpture makes its own area, it’s completely isolated. The only thing you can see [of the landscape] is the sky. It stops the idea that this is a form of landscape art, to be seen in some beautiful part of the world … You see nothing except the art.” Later, when asked whether it’s important for his work to feel self-contained, Heizer replied, “In the case of [City’s] ‘Complex One,’ it’s not a question of focus but that there isn’t anything else there in the first place.” No other land artist seems more resistant to the notion that the landscape that surrounds him may have its own constellation of meanings worth contending with.
With the prosthetic assistance of earthmovers, dynamite, and other construction equipment, Heizer, like many of those working at the tenuous borders of minimalism in the 20th century, takes a rather untroubled view of the American military-industrial complex which has so radically remade the West, uncritically appropriating its materials, means of construction, and scales into his monumental works. A descendant of a mining executive and an archaeological anthropologist, Heizer’s land art evokes a mining site without resource extraction, an archeological dig without an artifact. And while their elemental forms may evoke the symbolism of Indigenous earthworks at times, the shapes of Heizer’s City are better understood as creations dictated by the presets of industrial-grade construction machinery. As author Ilka Becker once remarked, the negation of an artist’s hand is still a kind of handwriting. And the marks Heizer repeatedly scrawls into the desert floor compose a long love letter to the American technological hegemon.
The artist’s earthen voids seem to unintentionally analogize the absence of the land’s Native peoples by echoing the forms of mass graves and mines, two sides of the same extractive process of colonization that fueled so much of the settlement of Nevada and other western territories and created the conditions of emptiness which Heizer is so fond of. That is almost comically obvious to us today and made all the more damning for the apparent absence of any indication that such an idea ever passed into Heizer’s artistic imagination. City is undoubtedly a monumental formal achievement, a testament to one man’s immense and unbreaking will, but it is a strange fit to a time of national reckoning and a pervasive reconsideration of the fundamental terms of our relationship to our history, legal system, and environment. Ultimately, City offers us the worst of our present and past: an immersive environment for selfie-taking and exclusive art tourism, a generational unwillingness to grapple with the complex legacies of colonization, and a willful ignorance of the interconnection of self and land.
Cover photo: © Michael Heizer. Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Ben Blackwell