City as moving stone in freeze frame  

The world’s largest artwork opened to the public last week, after half a century of work by earthworks exponent Michael Heizer

Published: 11th September 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th September 2022 04:16 PM   |  A+A-

Isolation and urbanisation became America’s 20th-century obsession as vast open spaces yielded to highways and suburbia after World War II. Large cities grew larger; massive shapes and sizes defined the American zeitgeist. Art reflects the times and translates reality into allegory.

In 1970, the Nevada desert witnessed construction taking shape on a truly spectacular scale, thought to be mega concrete hangars for fighter jets or modern versions of Teotihuacán and Angkor Wat. Half a century later, what has emerged from the ageless sand instead is a mile-long and half-a-mile-wide collection of mounds, geoglyphs and concrete pyramids. Its creator, the eminent earthworks artist Michael Heizer, has named it the ‘City’.

Constructed in the Basin and Range National Monument in central eastern Nevada, Heizer imagined it as a homage to the world’s lost cultures. The first visitors came by bus on September 2; only six people who had booked in advance could enter. Six reservations are allowed per day, costing $150 each, but now bookings are closed. The ‘City’ is considered the largest contemporary artwork on the planet, a testimonial to America’s lost ages segueing into relics of world cultures. The ‘City’ is not a modern urban complex in form, but a series of abstract structures that evoke Native American mounds, Mesoamerican metropolises and Egyptian devotional complexes. 

Probably travels with his archaeologist-anthropologist father to Mexico, Peru and Egypt led to Heizer’s preoccupation with the past. He became part of the Land art movement of the 70s, when earthworks, conceived from Conceptual and Minimalist art movements, fused art with nature. Land artists saw the earth as material, calling the art form ‘Earth art’. The movement inspired artists to create sculpture as part of the landscape and its elements, but were not immutable like their tabula rasa.

The birth of the Land art movement coincided with the environmental movement in America. The idea of the ‘City’ reveals itself in Heizer’s interpretation of the inevitable exchange between humans and land. Hence, his signature minimalist creations are erected in remote or arid landscapes. Heizer revels in controversy and understands its power; before the ‘City’, he authored Levitated Mass in 2012—he moved a 340-tonne boulder from East Los Angeles to the Los Angeles County Museum, as crowds lined the bridges and roads to watch. He explained that shifting massive stones is both a modern and prehistoric habit, although the artist himself has gathered no moss.

He built it in stages because there wasn’t enough money to complete such a gigantic project—the initial funding was his own. He dug, shifted and shaped huge mounds of earth. By the time the ‘City’ was finished, $40 million had been spent. First came ‘Complex One’ between 1972 and 1976—a raised form whose slanting slide recalls the stepped pyramid of Zoser, which impressed the artist on his visit to Luxor, Egypt. His bond with ancient cultures is apparent in ‘Complex Two’, which started in the 80s. The same is reflected in another part labelled ‘45°, 90°, 180°’. 

The undertaking was plagued by unforeseen challenges and controversies. In 2014-15, environmentalists feared that the Basin and Range would shrink, and the ‘City’ could be imperilled by developers. By law, the artwork cannot be destroyed. But there were concerns that Trump’s anti-environment policies could destroy it. The worry receded after he lost the presidency. Heizer sees his project as a challenge to such violators, who through the ages have looted the great cities of the Inca, Olmecs and Aztecs. Before building the ‘City’, Heizer removed 240,000 tons of rock from a Nevada mesa to create a 1,500 ft x 30 ft void called the ‘Double Negative’. “There is nothing there, 
yet it is still a sculpture,”  he had declared. 

Now that there is something in the Nevada desert, a site which alarmed US Department of Energy technicians, who first thought it was a secret military base, Heizer is leaving a legacy to the civilisational forces of creation and destruction, using the everlasting metaphor of the eternal metropolis.


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