About three hours north of Las Vegas, Nevada, is the largest piece of contemporary art on the planet. The mile-and-a-half by half-mile-wide sculpture, City, by land artist Michael Heizer is a “vast complex of shaped mounds and depressions made of compacted dirt, rock, and concrete,” according to the work’s website with “high-low allusions to Mayan and Incan sites and interstate highways,” writes the New York Times. Only six visitors are allowed to City every day, and visitation for 2022 has already closed.
Fifty years in the making, Heizer’s megasculpture City, which officially opened last week, is known as land art – an art movement that emerged internationally in the 1960s and 70s and is notable for developing large-scale, sculpted earthwork projects directly on the landscape. They are designed to exist outside of museums and galleries and Heizer is one of the heavyweights of the movement. His 1969 piece Double Negative, in which 240,000 tons of rock were blasted from a Nevada mesa, on land that was once home to the Southern Paiute, to create a trench, is foundational. But you may be more familiar with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, perhaps the best known example of the movement, which consists of a coil of black basalt 1,500 feet long, on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. One of the ideas of the land art movement is to create value for landscapes in the same way that art in a museum is valued.
Value, of course, is at the heart of land in the United States. Or to be more precise, it’s at the heart of conflict over land in the U.S. Generally, land value (and aesthetics) in America gravitate to notions of lush oases, like the National Park system, urban communities, or highly manicured farms. Those ideas find footing in American art, and perhaps most aggressively (and beautifully) in imagery made popular during the Great Depression through New Deal public arts projects that captured the “American Scene” and projected new visions of nationalism.
These are more or less fantasies that build on John Gast’s patriotic painting American Progress – an allegory of Manifest Destiny that features the figure of “Progress” in flowing white robes, crowned with the star of empire, floating westword as Indians and buffalo shrink from her light in the corners of the canvas.
Those early artistic visions of the American canon likely had impacts on budding land artists who grew up in the wake of western expansion and the New Deal. In the mid-20th century, those American land artists began to see land value differently. Unlike their grandparents who heeded the call of Manifest Destiny and headed into Indian Territory with horse and plow to redeem and remake land, land artists viewed the terrain as an empty canvas to be cut, blasted and reshaped to their liking. Instead of cultivating the land for agriculture, land artists like Heizer physically altered the landscape into something with cultural value, alchemizing colonization into an art form and making it monumental.
Judging by photos, City is a stunningly impressive sculpture. “A monumental architectonic work, with dimensions comparable to those of the National Mall, in Washington, D.C.,” wrote the New Yorker in 2016. “A layout informed by pre-Columbian ritual cities like Teotihuacan.”
Built on Paiute land, seized from the tribe on February 12, 1874, by executive order, City benefits from land obtained without treaty and without a single payment ever being made by the federal government or residents to its Indigenous caretakers. Triple Aught Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with overseeing City, “respectfully acknowledges that City has been created within the ancestral territories of the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshoni),” but says no more of the connections between the the art, the land, and the people it was stolen from.
Instead, Heizer says that the land is in his blood, and points to his grandfather’s arrival in Nevada in the 1880’s to operate a tungsten mine as proof to his claim. Never mind that nearly the entire state was seized from tribes without a single treaty or agreement between 1863 and 1874, making it possible for Heizer’s grandfather to move there safely and carve a living from the land with the full backing of the U.S. military.
And how time flies: Only two generations later, Heizer, whose work is inspired by Native American traditions of mound building and the pre-Colombian ritual cities of Central and South America, has built City smack in the middle of stolen Indian territory.
“I have come to think of ‘City’ like Mount Rushmore and Hoover Dam,” wrote New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman. “It is bravado, awesome and nuts, a testament to a certain crusty kind of American can-do-ism.”
What’s important to note about land art is it has a long history. Think of Stonehenge, or the sphinx; the Nazca geoglyphs or the Ho-Chunk effigy mounds. “Land art has existed since humans have existed, and humans of the past when they made land art works it was to celebrate the land that they live on or that they’re from or try to harmonize themselves with that land,” said Navajo artist Raven Chacon in the 2017 documentary Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film.
Mount Rushmore, that testament to “America can-do-ism,” offers another example of the form. Blasted into the Black Hills, on land illegally taken from the Lakota in 1876 (and recognized as such by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and directed to be returned to the Nation by the United Nations in 2012) the colossal faces of U.S. presidents were carved into the face of Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, the Six Grandfathers, between 1927 and 1941 — a mountain of cultural and religious importance to the Lakota. For the Times, Mount Rushmore and City offer fantastic examples of land art as an exercise in ultra-patriotism, but for Indigenous people, these monuments offer different, harder, experiences.
“I think what those guys in the ’60s, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer tried to do was destroy the land,” said Chacon in Through the Repellent Fence. “That’s my opinion. So that’s why they’re recognized, because they just continued the destruction of the earth and continued to go and colonize different places they felt were theirs.”
Of tribes that still have a landbase, those lands, on average, are more exposed to climate change, including extreme heat and less rain while tribally-run environmental or land buy-back programs are consistently underfunded. City, on the other hand, cost $40 million to complete over a period of five decades and needed thousands of tons of concrete, rock, and other materials to be built. What could tribes whose land City is built on do with funding to that tune? Buying back stolen land is, of course, one option, but that privilege is rapidly disappearing – in 2015, after years of petitioning from art world magnates, President Obama made the land surrounding City into a national monument, effectively protecting the area from development, oil and gas exploration, and, of course, Indians.
“I only compare it to itself,” Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Triple Aught Foundation board member, told Smithsonian Magazine. “It’s an artwork aware of our primal impulses to build and organize space, but it incorporates our modernity, our awareness of and reflection upon the subjectivity of our human experience of time and space as well as the many histories of civilizations we have built.”
In the Times’ slavish review of City, Heizer described his completed work as “democratic art, art for the ages,” adding: “I am not here to tell people what it all means. You can figure it out for yourself.” It’s a petulant comment from a man who has spent his entire life building the thing, and one would be correct in saying that City is a landmark to his own ego. But it is more than that: The key to Heizer’s City is understanding that art, at the $40-million level, is meant to be status quo and that artists are agents – for the bourgeois, for difficult concepts, for patriotism, for the revolution – working to condition places and communities. In some cases, it’s priming the art market for the next investment, in others, it’s raising questions and opening ideas and conversations that you never considered before. As an agent of the land art movement, Heizer’s monumental creation has revealed that land art is perhaps the most American form of art, entirely reliant on a history of violence and dispossession to exist.
But look deeper at the American land artist as an agent for stasis: City reinscribes the values of colonialism on the landscape and regenerates the in/visible power structures that made the creation possible. In the end, City isn’t art: It’s a monument to the power of violence.