Monstrosity in the Nevada Desert: Michael Heizer’s “City”

Photograph Source: Wikipedia, photo by Tom Vinetz – CC BY 2.0

Everything about the pose is affected. That’s true of any photographic portrait but is especially so when the subject is artist Michael Heizer. Even more true when Heizer is staged within his massive—some would say monstrous—land art project, “City.”

In advance of the site’s early September opening, the New York Times devoted almost as much real estate to Heizer and his work as “City” consumes of the Nevada desert. Its Arts & Leisure section of August 21, with a front and back wraparound cover photo of the megastructure, contains six glossy illustrated pages devoted to the $40 million art project and its “exquisitely groomed dirt mounds, roads, buttes, and depressions.”

The artist is as well turned-out in the portrait that accompanies the text. Dressed in rumpled jeans and a denim shirt, Heizer stands beneath an azure sky, soft clouds scudding overhead. With his head bent slightly forward of his hips, his eyes are shaded by a stiff, clean, wide-brimmed hat. The artist as visionary, a prophet who fifty years ago retreated to this vast, arid terrain and became one with it. Reads the photograph’s cutline: “This land is in my blood.”

The landscape is spectacular, now home to the Obama-era Basin and Range National Monument, a 704,000-acre, wind-swept, high desert site in southeastern Nevada. It protects, as the establishing language asserts, “one of the most undisturbed corners of the broader Great Basin region, which extends from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the west to the Colorado Plateau in the east,” an unusual pattern of “basin, fault, and range that…creates a dramatic topography that has inspired inhabitants for thousands of years.” Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the monument contains Indigenous Peoples’ sacred and cultural sites dating back thirteen thousand years and preserves a rich biota, from alpine heights to desert flora.

Folded into the monument is Heizer’s “City,” which he began to construct in 1972 on privately owned land in Garden Valley about three hours northwest of Las Vegas. Noting that the project is “one of the most ambitious examples of the distinctively American land art movement,” the Obama proclamation identifies its monumentality as the key to its significance:

Built into and out of the vast undeveloped expanse of Garden Valley, the work combines modern abstract architecture and engineering with ancient American aesthetic influences on a monumental scale, roughly the size of the National Mall, and evokes the architectural forms of ancient Mesoamerican ceremonial cities like Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá. The presence of City in this stark and silent landscape provides the visitor a distinctive lens through which to experience and interact with Garden Valley.

Here is where I balk. At more than a mile-and-a-half long and nearly a half-mile wide, with its abstract, monolithic structures said to resemble ancient urbanisms, and its reconfigured and hardened spaces of rock and concrete, “City” has profoundly altered the terrain and thoroughly damaged the biodiverse habitats that this portion of Garden Valley once sustained. Each spatial slashing, each architectonic design feature, has so thoroughly converted the desert into a built environment that it mocks the national monument’s protective purposes.

What makes its gashes and monumental structures, its concrete monoliths and smooth-graded mounds—not to say its staggering price tag—any less disturbing than, say, the neon-stripped, glass-and-steel towers of Las Vegas? (sidebar: did the New York Times have to fall into the trap of likening the southern Nevada metroplex to Sodom and Gomorrah set against the Edenic desert?).

And what of the uncritical pairing of Heizer’s “City” with much-referenced Chichén Itzá or other ancient ruins? That the references are appropriative almost goes without saying. What needs to be said is that these pairings are part of a settler-colonial turn. This is revealed, art critic Emily Eliza Scott argues, in the “fundamental maneuver of claiming territory by erecting borders. With its prototypical slashes into the desert’s surface.” Heizer’s art and that of his peers, “embodies and entrenches the logic of borders, moreover, doing so based upon the evacuation of Indigenous realities and imaginaries.” Artists like Heizer conceive of the desert, in Scott’s words, as “an unpeopled hinterland unturned and intact,” a conception that allows “City” to pave over the Western Shoshone and their ancestors.

“City” will be uninhabited in another sense. Only six people a day will be allowed to visit the site and it won’t be open daily; a ticket will be required for admission (to the tune of $150 per person) and while guests will be free to roam, they won’t have long to do so. Heizer’s worry? People will ruin the place by their very presence.

That, too, is its own critique: unlike the Mesoamerican city-states to which it putative refers, “City” will never be lived in, never be a place where people are born, create culture, make love, grow old, and die. It cannot be a ruin, in short; it’s too abstract, too bloodless.

Okay. I confess that I’m not enthusiastic about either the land art movement or Heizer’s contributions to it. His work first got under my skin in the fall of 2011 amid a gnawing recession, when well-heeled art patrons and donors kicked in more than $10 million to underwrite Heizer’s earth-moving project, dubbed “Levitated Mass.” It was installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a permanent, outdoor display. It already looks tired, awkward, and misplaced.

The installation’s name tells part of the story. Heizer suspended a massive 340-ton quartz boulder, the weight of a fully loaded jetliner, over a concrete slot four hundred fifty feet long, and fifteen feet deep. Its gargantuan size makes “massive” an understatement, which is also the artist’s point. To construct something so large as to defy the imagination, so large that it took eight days to haul this very heavy load from the Stone Valley Quarry in Riverside, California to its destination more than fifty miles away in downtown Los Angeles, pushes (crushes may be a better term) the boundaries of what is thought possible. A minimalist Heizer has never been.

Yet his maximalist impulse is paired with an imperial reach, a chest-thumping sense of conquest—nature, from which this imposing rock has been ripped, is passive, acted upon, and manipulable. Heizer’s art, as “City” and his other projects demonstrate, is what he can forge out of the earth’s raw materials, bending them to his will—or, in this case, hanging it in mid-air, a triumph of technology and engineering. Nature is held in suspension.

This has been the leitmotif of his career. A key player in a movement known as land or earth art, which grew out of the cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, Heizer is among those for whom the grand gesture of manipulating vast earthen forms has served as a protest against the spatial constraints galleries and museums by definition impose. However big their walls, they remain walls; however open-aired their structures, they remain structures.

These artists, including James Turrell and Robert Smithson, rejected what they perceived to be the commodification of art, its market and consumption, its price. If you could construct something so colossal it could not be housed in the usual way or sold in the normal manner, well, you had beaten the system.

Of course, you also would have to pummel the very landscape as a way to make your mark. In 1969, for instance, Heizer went to the eastern edge of the Mormon Mesa (Tumbi Karid, Southern Paiute), not far from Overton, Nevada. He used diesel-spewing, earth-moving machines, and a lot of dynamite, to blast and dig two deep trenches, fifty feet deep and thirty feet wide, each roughly seven hundred fifty feet long, that jutted out from the landform’s southern and northern flanks. The project is called “Double Negative,” a title and construct that led one of its admirers to enthuse:

In keeping with the mission of modern art, Double Negative blurs the distinction between sculpture (“art”) and normal objects such as rocks (“not art”), and encourage viewers to consider how the earth relates to art. The sheer size of Double Negative also invites contemplation of the scale of art, and the relation of the viewer the earth and to art itself. How does art change when it can’t fit in a museum? How does one observe an artwork that’s a quarter mile long?

Those are all good questions. But so, too, are these: How do the abstract purposes of these trenches account for the reality of two hundred forty thousand tons of rock, gravel, and sand displaced in their construction? How exactly does this earth relate to that art? Did Mormon Mesa—spare, arid, clean—require gross human intrusion to be more artful, more complete? Heizer’s sculpture gives new meaning to Double Negative.

“Levitated Mass” and now “City,” expose these concerns about the environmental impact of his oeuvre, about their masculinized monumentality. True, the enormous boulder of “Levitated Mass” was blasted out of a working quarry in the foothills of the Jurupa Mountains, hardly a pristine landscape. Yet its ultimate presentation at LACMA—trussed up, harnessed—only reinforces its decontextualized state, its uprootedness. With its geological referents obliterated, its integrity gone, the boulder has become a commodity whose sculptural value is that which Heizer grants it—levitation. Now a mass, no longer a rock.

Over the years, there has been “a backlash against the grandiosity and possibly destructive nature of these projects,” Ann Landi writes in ArtNews. She then rationalizes that the bulk of earth artists’ schemes, including “City” and “Double Negative,” was “underway or completed when environmental restraints were nonexistent and before the general consciousness about ecology had been raised.”

She gives Heizer and others too much cover. From Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain (1903) to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968) and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge (1991), American environmental culture has been infused with a compelling appreciation for the desert’s rawness, its power, its essential quiet and peaceful solitude, its dark skies. Its stunning otherness. These literary perceptions have found material expression in the establishment of three large desert parks in California in the early twentieth century: Death Valley National Park (1933), Joshua Tree National Park (1933), and California’s Anza Borrego State Park (1933). Heizer, for one, was well aware of this encompassing tradition, once confiding that in “the desert, I can find that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work.” I know, the irony in his words is chilling.

But Landi is correct in that one of the most troubling aspects of Heizer’s work is its hubristic, anachronistic impulse. In the early twenty-first century, a new generation of environmental artists carry none of the Great White Man’s Burden that Heizer and his peers hoisted onto their shoulders more than four decades ago. Instead, figures such as Alexsandra Mir and Andy Goldsworthy have been creating artworks made of found objects in nature, humble in scale, fragile, and ephemeral.

Had he really wanted to shock the art world, Heizer might have adopted their more modest affect. We are told, for example, that he sketched out the idea for “Levitated Mass” in 1968, and spent the succeeding years seeking the perfect boulder. Once located in that dust-choked wash in Riverside County, he would have startled us all had he simply, softly walked away, his project complete.

In Garden Valley, Nevada, Heizer could have made the same gesture, a generative pose.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College, Claremont CA. His recent books include West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement and Not So Golden State: Sustainability Vs. The California Dream. An earlier version of this essay appears in Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril, forthcoming this September.