A land art megasculpture built on stolen Nevada land
About three hours north of Las Vegas, Nevada is the largest piece of contemporary art on the planet. The one-and-a-half-mile-wide sculpture, Town, by land artist Michael Heizer is a “vast complex of shaped mounds and depressions of compacted earth, rock and concrete”, according to the work’s website with “very low-lying allusions to Maya and Inca sites and interstate highways,” writes the New York Times. Only six visitors are allowed to Town daily, and visits for 2022 are already closed.
Fifty years in the making, Heizer’s megasculpture Town, which officially opened last week, is known as land art – an art movement that emerged internationally in the 1960s and 1970s and is notable for the development of 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 play Double negative, in which 240,000 tons of rock were blasted from a mesa in Nevada, on land that once housed the Southern Paiute, to create a trench, is fundamental. But you may be more familiar with the work of Robert Smithson spiral jetty, perhaps the best-known example of the movement, which consists of a 1,500-foot-long coil of black basalt, on the northeast 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 art in a museum is valued.
Value, of course, is at the heart of the land in the United States. Or to be more precise, it is at the heart of the land conflict in the United States. In general, the value (and aesthetic) of land in America revolves around notions of lush oases, such as the national park system, urban communities, or very well-kept farms. These ideas find their way into American art, and perhaps most aggressively (and beautifully) into the images made popular during the Great Depression through the New Deal public art projects that captured the “American scene” and projected new visions of nationalism.
These are more or less fantasies based on the patriotic painting of John Gast American progress – an allegory from Manifest Destiny which features the figure of “Progress” clad in flowing white robes, crowned with the star of empire, fluttering west as Indians and buffaloes recoil before his light in the corners of the canvas.
These 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-twentieth century, these American land artists began to see the value of land differently. Unlike their grandparents who heeded the call of Manifest Destiny and rode into Indian Territory with horse and plow to redeem and remake the land, the earth artists saw the land as an empty canvas to cut, sanded and reshaped as they please. Instead of cultivating the land for agriculture, land artists like Heizer physically transformed the landscape into something of cultural value, turning colonization into an art form and making it monumental.
Judging by the pictures, Town is an incredibly impressive sculpture. “A monumental architectural work, comparable in size to the National Mall in Washington, DC,” wrote the New Yorker in 2016. “A layout inspired by pre-Columbian ritual cities like Teotihuacan.”
Built on Paiute land, seized from the tribe on February 12, 1874, by decree, Town benefits from lands obtained without treaties and without a single payment ever being made by the federal government or the residents to its native custodians. Triple Augh Foundation, the nonprofit responsible for overseeing Town“respectfully acknowledges that Town was created in the ancestral territories of the Nuwu (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshoni)”, but does not say more about the links between the art, the land and the people from whom it was stolen.
Instead, Heizer says the land is in his blood and points to his grandfather’s arrival in Nevada in the 1880s to operate a tungsten mine as proof of his claim. Never mind that nearly the entire state was seized from the tribes without a single treaty or agreement between 1863 and 1874, allowing Heizer’s grandfather to settle there safely and live off the land with the full support of the American army.
And how time flies: Only two generations later, Heizer, whose work draws on Native American mound-building traditions and pre-Columbian ritual cities of Central and South America, built Town right in the middle of stolen Indian territory.
“I’ve come to think of ‘City’ as Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam,” New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman wrote. “It’s bravado, genius and madness, a testament to a certain type of American can-do-ism.”
What is important to note about land art is that it has a long history. Think of Stonehenge, or the Sphinx; the Nazca geoglyphs or the mounds of Ho-Chunk effigies. “Land art has been around since humans have existed, and humans in the past, when they did land art, it was to celebrate the land they live on or come from or to try to harmonize with this land,” said the Navajo artist. Raven Chacon in the 2017 documentary Through the Repulsive Fence: A Land Art Film.
Mount Rushmore, that testament to “American can-do-ism,” offers another example of the form. Blown into the Black Hills, on land illegally taken from the Lakota in 1876 (and recognized as such by the United States Supreme Court in 1980 and ordered returned to the Nation by the United Nations in 2012), the colossal faces of the presidents were carved facing Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, the Six Grandfathers, between 1927 and 1941 – a mountain of cultural and religious significance to the Lakota. For the Times, Mount Rushmore and Town offer fantastic examples of land art as an exercise in ultra-patriotism, but for indigenous peoples these monuments offer different and more challenging experiences.
“I think what these guys in the ’60s, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer tried to do was destroy the earth,” Chacon said in Through the repelling fence. ” It’s my opinion. This is why they are recognized, because they continued to destroy the earth and continued to go and colonize different places that they considered their own.
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Among tribes that still have a land base, those lands are on average more exposed to climate change, including extreme heat and less rain, while tribal-run environmental or land buyback programs are consistently under-resourced. funded. Town, on the other hand, cost $40 million over five decades and required thousands of tons of concrete, rock and other materials to build. What could the tribes whose lands Town is built on funding to this air? Buying back stolen land is, of course, an option, but that privilege is fast disappearing – in 2015, after years of petitions from art moguls, President Obama returned the surrounding land Town into a national monument, effectively protecting the area from development, oil and gas exploration and, of course, Indians.
“I’m only comparing him to himself,” Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Triple Aught Foundation board member, told Smithsonian Magazine. “It is a work of art aware of our primary impulses to construct and organize space, but it incorporates our modernity, our consciousness and our reflection on the subjectivity of our human experience of time and space as well as the many stories of the civilizations we have built.”
In The Times’ servile criticism of Town, Heizer described his finished work as “democratic art, art for the ages,” adding, “I’m not here to tell people what all this means. You can find out for yourself. That’s a petulant comment from a man who’s spent his whole life building the thing, and one would be right to say that Town is a landmark for his own ego. But it’s more than that: the key to Heizer’s Town it is to understand that art, at the $40 million level, is supposed to be the status quo and that artists are agents – for the bourgeoisie, for difficult concepts, for patriotism, for revolution – working to condition places and communities. In some cases it prepares the art market for the next investment, in others it raises questions and opens up ideas and conversations you never considered before. As an agent of the land art movement, Heizer’s monumental creation revealed that land art is perhaps the most American form of art, entirely dependent on a history of violence and dispossession to exist.
But take a deeper look at the American land artist as a stasis agent: Town reinserts the values of colonialism into the landscape and regenerates the unseen/invisible power structures that made creation possible. At the end, Town is not art: it is a monument to the power of violence.