One of the more harrowing experiences of my life involved having to thumb a ride outside the Cottontail Ranch in central Nevada in order to catch a plane out of Las Vegas that night. I’d missed my bus, the one daily that stopped at the little house of ill repute’s parking lot, leaving me standing along an interstate in the middle of our country’s most godforsaken land, hoping that someone wouldn’t know any better than to pick up a stranger outside a whorehouse.
Fortunately, a German tourist came by; she was apparently so dazzled by the desert landscape that it didn’t occur to her that I could have been a psycho killer (I am not). It amazed her that she could drive almost four hours, a trip that in her home country could take her through a parade of history and cultures, and see nothing but the occasional gas station. I did point out that the occasional world-changing event did occur in what looked like dry nothingness, such as all the atomic bombs we set off just east of the interstate, and the mountain we’re hollowing out to stick a bunch of nuclear waste in.
About this time I got interested in the work of the great American “land artist” Michael Heizer, who has been working on his masterpiece, City, out in that same desert for the past 30 years. It’s not yet complete — it’s supposed to be done in the next few years — nor is it open to the public. But Heizer has occasionally allowed journalists in, and from the pictures it looks like it will fulfill the promise of the decades he’s spent working on it.
Perhaps it’s more meaningful if you’ve spent a lot of time in the west. Heizer’s father was a prominent anthropologist, and his grandfather a geologist, so he spent his childhood immersed in harsh landscapes and ancient cultures. City is directly influenced by Native American mound building, but its sharp, clinical lines and hard angles refer to a newer tradition of epic building, the Nevada of the nuclear age, from the bomb tests of the 40s and 50s to the Yucca Mountain waste repository of today. It’s a region of epic beauty and world-historical terror, and Heizer seems to have conceived a work that pulls all of that together.
Less famous is Heizer’s 1983-1985 work Effigy Tumuli, located in Ottawa, about 80 miles from Chicago. As Nick Tarasen, who curates a great site on Heizer, points out, it’s his only representational work, and (to me at least) it doesn’t have quite the same sense of wonder as City, though perhaps comparisons to a masterpiece like City are unfair. Heizer reinvented an old mining plot as animal-shaped mounds designed to reflect on Native American mound building, but with the subtle midwestern landscape as his canvas it doesn’t quite have the majesty that City promises. Still, it plays an important role in the creation of his finest effort and is convenient to Chicago, so a trip is recommended between now and whenever City is done.