While surveying the Nevada landscape to plan an underground nuclear waste repository, the US Department of Energy noticed a place so strange that technicians decided it must be a secret military base. Their theory made sense given the proximity of their flight path to Area 51. They were wrong. In reality, they were looking at a colossal work of art.
Almost as inaccessible as high-security Air Force facilities in the desert, the artwork has been jealously guarded by artist Michael Heiser since construction began on an acreage he acquired in the early 1970s. The few people he allowed to see it – and those who managed to spy on it from above without his consent – spoke of concrete megastructures that could easily support a fighter jet, while comparing it to ancient sites such as Teotihuacan and Angkor Wat .
It will be open to the public this month. cityas Heiser called his sprawling masterpiece, would finally be inhabited.
Not that the population will greatly exceed the number of workers allowed to build it. As to who crosses the city limits, city will remain almost as confined as Area 51. The artwork will accommodate six people per day, who will have a few hours to walk around the one-and-a-half-mile-long, half-mile-wide expanse of mostly empty land. In other words, similar to the distant earthy art of Walter De Maria and James Turrell – and at odds with its massive physicality – city will remain tentative for most people. The world’s largest work of art will be primarily conceptual.
Paradox is nothing new to Michael Heiser. His most famous work before city was made by removing 240,000 tons of mesa rock in Nevada. The void he created, measuring fifteen hundred feet long and thirty feet wide, was the substance of Double negative. “There’s nothing there, but it’s still a sculpture,” he famously declared.
Completed in 1969, Double negative was not only an artistic paradox and a conceptual one tour de force, but also a declaration of independence from a studio tradition that inhibited even self-proclaimed con men like Jackson Pollock. Along with Robert Smithson’s near contemporaries Spiral pierHeizer’s earthly work set the standard for the artist as a testosterone-driven force of nature creating art on a geological scale.
city can be seen as a more extended version of Double negative: earthwork, working with more earth, similar to Pollock’s sprinkling over ever-larger areas of canvas. The difference is this city it imitates cultural processes rather than natural phenomena. Double negative was sculptural geomorphology. with cityHeizer makes sculpture on the scale of a civilization.
Much has been made of the fact that Heiser is the son of an archaeologist and that his father took him on digs in Peru and Bolivia when he was a teenager. Art critics seek to decode city by referencing sites he encountered while growing up. Some of them seem plausible. At least it helps explain the unusual quality of citywhich appears to be an ancient place of the future.
To create city, Heiser has mastered the visual language of collective human activity just as he mastered the visual language of tectonic forces in his earlier work. By mastering this visual language, he was able to abstract it, to derive his artistic vocabulary from the activities that make real cities look the way they do. There is an act of negation, a negation of function. The traces of effort are as purely formal as the gestures of an abstract artist. Even if the references are real, the meaning of city is entirely sculptural.
Over time, even with the best efforts of Heizer and supporting institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, city it will deteriorate, gradually becoming the archeology it currently emulates. Gaps in the historical record may eventually lead to the excavation of city without any context. Scientists who study it will have many questions and may even reach false conclusions like the Department of Energy surveyors. The information chasm could become larger than any logistical obstacle Heiser could imagine. As conceptual art, city will go beyond the conceptual qualities of physically unavailable.
But those who aren’t so eager to explain the site, who value the awe of information, will be the first to see city in their full glory, as they will not be distracted by functional matters, including Heizer’s own sense of purpose, his determination to create a great work of art. The paradox of making art in the manner of geological or social forces is that the ego required to make it is a vice. Claims of authorship harm formal purity, the aesthetic experience of matter in space. Total denial of purpose leads to denial of the artist.
city it took half a century to build. Many thousands of years remain before the work is completed.