The desert doesn’t need this “City”

 

When President Obama announced central Nevada's new Basin and Range National Monument July 10, the White House described the area as "one the most undisturbed corners of the broader Great Basin region." That's ironic, given that the monument includes a parcel of private ranchland where, for more than four decades, a man named Michael Heizer has been carving a giant earth sculpture out of the desert with heavy equipment.

The work, known as "City," sits in Garden Valley, at the heart of the 704,000-acre national monument. The project is reportedly backed by $25 million in private money, and its size is frequently compared with that of the National Mall.

Heizer has long bridled at being slighted by the New York art world, which, he claims, thinks too small. In the standard telling of the tale, Heizer decamped to the Nevada desert in the 1970s, renouncing the gallery crowd in single-minded pursuit of his art. In 1999, when the New York Times' architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, saw "City," he called it Heizer's "own Chichen Itza in the desert," a nod to the monumental Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.

The project, like Heizer himself, leaves a lot of people puzzled. Harry Reid, the warhorse senator from Nevada who will retire next year after more than three decades in Congress, was the driving force behind the creation of the national monument. Yet even he doesn't seem to be able to make much sense of "City."

"It's magnificent, but difficult to describe," Reid told the Los Angeles Times. "When the president asked me to explain it, I said, 'I can't!' "

In fact, Heizer is a master of the meticulously constructed enigma whose real purpose is to draw attention to himself. In 2011, he convinced benefactors to pony up more than $10 million so he could buy a 340-ton boulder that caught his fancy. Then he trucked it to the L.A. County Museum of Art, stuck it atop a concrete trench and called it "Levitated Mass." The boulder's 105-mile journey to the museum — which took 11 days, passed through nearly two dozen cities and required a 196-wheel transporter and an escort by the California Highway Patrol — generated considerably more attention than the so-called sculpture itself.

"I make static art, not dynamic art," a seemingly exasperated Heizer told the Los Angeles Times. But it's hard to imagine what more Heizer could have done to draw attention to "Levitated Mass." The boulder's slow promenade through the Southland was an event made for mass rubbernecking — a kind of slapstick performance art in a place known for its love of celebrity spectacles and televised car chases. (A big rock! With a police escort! Only in L.A.!)

With "City," Heizer has pulled off a similar sleight of hand. He built an imposing gate across the road to the site, and opened it for just a handful of people. He demanded absolute discretion from the workers he hired, and cultivated a slightly menacing aspect that kept the curious at bay — thereby fueling the buzz about his secret project in the desert.

Somewhere along the way, Heizer adopted the habit of wearing a cowboy hat. He began running a few cattle. And his admirers consecrated "City" as an emblem of the New West. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle recently, Jon Christensen gushed that the art and surrounding landscape was "an inspiring tribute to humans' encounter with the grandeur of nature in the American West."

Yet Heizer himself has always insisted otherwise. "I'd have built this thing in New Jersey if it had been possible," he told Kimmelman in 1999.  "All these so-called experts try to say my work is about the West, that it's about the view. They don't know what they're talking about. I came for the space and because it was cheap land."

It was a mistake to include "City" in the new national monument. The project is a symbol not of harmony between man and nature, but of egotism and a deeply flawed attitude toward the land. What the Nevada desert — which was seen for so many years as a place to be mined, bombed and nuked — needs is understanding, not transformation.

Heizer, like Burning Man's mindless artistic dilettantes, refuses to just be in the desert. Like the Burners, he's unable to engage with the place on its own terms: To him, the desert is simply a stage upon which to realize personal ambition.

That's not a new story in Nevada or anywhere in the West. It's certainly not an inspiring one. And ultimately, when all the hype about "City" is stripped away, Heizer is not a rebel, a visionary or an enlightened hermit — he's just a jerk in the desert with a bulldozer.

Matt Jenkins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a longtime western environmental journalist.

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