Since the early 1970s, Michael Heizer has been building City, a colossal sculpture in the middle of a desert in Nevada. Inspired by ancient cities, he erects monumental geometrical structures trying to represent a culture threatened by a post-apocalyptic future.
Sculpt the negative
Michael Heizer (born 1944) is an American land art artist who specialized in large sculptures. As a son of an eminent anthropologist, he was early inspired by his father’s travels and knowledge of Native American cultures in the West. This archaeological culture was combined, at the beginning of his artist career, with an interest in the great landscapes of the American West. Inspired by the land art movement and as a child of the “non-art” generation he made the natural landscape an integral part of his work. His career is marked from the beginning, by the experimentation of the positive linked to the negative. These opposing forms, when put together create a particular dynamic, one is present the other is absent, creating a privileged, sensible and harmonious relationship.
This is how he began to create so-called negative sculptures. He excavated in the desert soil and dug forms directly into the landscape. In 1969 this period reached a climax with the work Double Negative. He dug in the Nevada desert two large trenches of 15x9m over a length of 457m. His successive interventions encourage him to continue his work in the desert, on large scales and to explore the materiality of the rock.
Build the positive
In the early 1970s, Michael Heizer began building City, his most pharaonic project, in the rural desert of Lincoln County, Nevada. It is a land art sculpture on an even larger scale than any of his other projects and still in progress 50 years later. City‘s ambition is to be a monumental sculpture or group of sculptures covering a surface of 2km by 0.4km. The structures of the site are built by using the earth, rocks and sand present on site combined with concrete mined and mixed in the desert.
Michael Heizer was clearly inspired by pre-Columbian architecture, especially from influences he studied in Yucatan and Chichen Itza. His City aims to synthesize the archaeology of ancient monumental sites with minimalism and industrial culture. To do so the work consists of 5 parts, each one has a well-defined number of so-called “complexe” structures (a term used by archaeologists for buildings on ancient sites). The first phase consists for example of rectangular structures around a curved, sunken gravel-coated court. Another Complexe is rectangular in shape, inspired by Egyptian mastaba. These structures, wich can exceed 20m in height, are built in an arrangement of gravel pits that shape the landscape.
A mythological and monumental city
In the middle of nowhere, geometric structures are erected, trying to reappropriate the landscapes of Nevada. Michel Heizer builds there an artificial memory of the American civilization that he predicts, will be destroyed by a nuclear explosion. Indeed the comparison of these artifacts with military installations, bunkers or civil engineering buildings is encouraged by the sculptor. The influences of pre-Columbian monumental sites are also found in the ceremonial spaces of the site. This sanctity is reinforced by the absolute prohibition of all visits. Over the years, Michael Heizer has continued to grow his project. The sculpture of City evolves little by little in an architecture where the buildings are not made to live in and are not functional. The almost finished city is the aesthetic representation of a colossal and raw mythology, a mythology that accepts its impending condition of vanished civilization.
Images © Jamie Hawkesworth for the New Yorker