Michael Heizer's 'City' plays with the idea of urbanism and ecology

Fifty years in the making, American artist Michael Heizer’s land art sculpture City in the US state of Nevada is a rare diamond in the rough.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Jan 25, 2023

The deserts in Southwestern United States have captivated the imagination of many. From being scenic backdrops to Hollywood movies, a popular destination for UFO sightings, to even being home to the Burning Man festival. One could argue that these are pop culture versions of what is an important ecological and indigenous basin, but at the same time, it would be difficult to disconnect the two identities. An expansive arid land, cut across by a four-lane highway, is what the American southwestern desert means to most people. But for a few, it becomes a canvas. Lending itself as an open playing field to the conceptual art movement of the 60s and 70s, the desert of California and Nevada is home to Land Art. Of the many conceptual art movements of this period, Land Art was perhaps one of the most monumental. What started off as an exploration of the earth as an artistic material, soon outgrew—in both scale and ambition—the confines of the white cube galleries of Los Angeles and New York.

45°, 90°, 180°, City by Michael Heizer (arieal view) | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
45°, 90°, 180°, City. © Michael Heizer (aerial view) Image: Joe Rome; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

Nearly 50 years in the making, American artist Michael Heizer’s City is by far one of the largest land art, or Earthworks, sculptures today. It is about 2.5 kilometres long and 0.8 kilometres wide and inspired by immemorial cultures. The work is created largely by material found in its surroundings, shaped mounds and depressions made of compacted dirt, rock, and concrete. Making references to ancient monuments, Heizer’s City is inspired by pre-Columbian complex or Egyptian ceremonial structures. While not directly referenced, some might find value in drawing a parallel between discourse around Heizer's City and the 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Vegas as a 'non-city' versus Heizer's sculpture. Similarly, structures that Venturi and Brown identify as decorated sheds as opposed to Heizer's earth forms, do share a formal analytical thread.

Complex One, City by Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
Complex One, City. © Michael Heizer Image: Mary Converse; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

It is important to create a distinction here, that while the artwork is called City, at no point is it meant actually to be one. Rather the sculpture is meant to indicate the very lack of a city in the middle of a desert. Perhaps a clue to better understand this lies in one of Heizer's earlier works, titled the Double Negative. Completed in 1969, the sculpture consists of two trenches on either side of a natural canyon. In this particular work, Heizer excavated over 244,000 tons of rock to create these two negative spaces, hence the name. The geometric extraction has an architectural quality to them, as an aspect that continues to be a part of Heizer’s work. With both works, the common trend—other than scale—is the reference to what is not there. It is either an empty oasis or a corporeal mirage.

City, 1970 – 2022 by Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
City, 1970 – 2022. © Michael Heizer Image: Eric Piasecki; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

The idea of building in the absence or creating an absence also speaks to Heizer’s inspiration. Noted to be looking at merging his interests in non-inhabited forms in native American traditions of mound-building, the pre-Columbian cities and his studies of Egyptian construction, Heizer is taking cues from cities or city-like spaces that lay empty and vacant. From referencing ancient cities and complexes to the modern-day city there is a very strange understanding of urbanism and time captured in this sculpture. What defined a city five decades ago is very different from what defines a city now. Did Heizer evolve or make adjustments to his City as time progressed? Heizer, like many other Earthwork artists, left cities and the “ruthless commercialisation” of art to create art that cannot be placed in any museum or gallery. Heizer himself left New York to create art in the Nevada desert, only to then recreate the city in the desert.

Complex Two, City by Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
Complex Two, City. © Michael Heizer Image: Ben Blackwell; Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

Virginia Dwan, a patron of Heizer’s work and a gallerist, had once said, "Michael Heizer is one of the greatest innovators of our time and I still believe today what I thought when Heizer began the City, that this work demanded to be built. It is extraordinary that he has completed one of the most important artworks of this century, over decades in the making, and I have been fortunate enough to witness this transformative sculptural intervention from the very beginning." Dwan, along with the Dia Art Foundation, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Lannan Foundation, was one of the first to support the construction of Heizer's City. The Triple Aught Foundation was established in 1998 to help complete the work and is charged with its long-term preservation.

Complex One and Complex Two, City. © Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
Complex One and Complex Two, City. © Michael Heizer Image: Joe Rome; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

While Heizer's City might have already opened to the public, one would be hard-pressed to ignore the timing of its completion. While the American desert hosts a conceptual sculpture, the desert in Northwest Saudi Arabia has already begun construction on its own mirages. Heizer's work is clearly a commentary on the nature of our metropolis. While in contrast, the megastructures of Neom are being built for a future whose veracity is questionable. Two deserts on opposite ends of the world are offering two visions of what a “city” is. Perhaps they both learnt very different things from Las Vegas…

City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer Image: Eric Piasecki; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer Image: Eric Piasecki; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer Image: Eric Piasecki; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer | Triple Aught Foundation | Michael Heizer’s City | STIRworld
City, 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer Image: Eric Piasecki; Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation; © Michael Heizer

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