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.
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