Exploring the West's land sculptures -- made by artists and industry

  • Spiral Jetty: Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't.

    Steven R. Harris
  • The Roden Crater by James Turrell (under construction since 1979 in the Arizona desert).

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Workmen stand near the draped 340-ton granite rock that would become the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's newest installation, Levitated Mass. Heizer conceived of the work in the 1960s -- around the time of his Double Negative -- but wouldn't find the right rock until decades later

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Stills from the 1968 film Mono Lake, shot by Smithson, Heizer and Holt on a trip West.

  • Benches and dump trucks at the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, which fascinated Robert Smithson.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • ATK rocket garden on the route to Spiral Jetty.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew that actually built the Spiral Jetty, tells his story to a group of art historians and architects from Switzerland.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Approaching Sun Tunnels, by Nancy Holt.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A highway underpass on a back route to Michael Heizer's Double Negative mirrors the sculpture.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Double Negative as it appears today.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Spider encountered while the author was searching for Double Negative.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Industrial West salt flats gas station

    Jonathan Thompson


Page 5


From I-15, Mormon Mesa appears just another bland, scrub-covered chunk of desert, a handy place to shoot at refrigerators or dump an inconvenient body. But it's much more than that.

It was on Mormon Mesa that Truman Bethurum conversed with beings from the planet Clarion back in 1952. Perhaps the Clarionites were drawn to the mesa by its remarkably flat top, covered with a calcified soil that took 2 million years to form, or by the fact that, from space, Mormon Mesa looks like the beak of a crazy bird.

The day after my failed attempt to find Double Negative, I return to that terrestrial bird beak, this time following the directions right up to the sculpture's edge. It's not marked in any way, and is barely visible from most angles. That no one has plummeted into this man-made gorge while on a motorized midnight bender seems miraculous. Erosion has rounded its once-squared edges and even taken a huge chunk or two out of the walls. I enter carefully.

In the depths, it is calm and cool. It still reminds me of a road cut, but that's not a bad thing. I know of two road cuts, parallel to one another and about 10 miles apart, in southeastern Utah. They slice through the burgeoning sandstone wave of Comb Ridge in such a way that the westward traveler passing through them feels as if he's slipped through a portal, into another time or reality behind the Slickrock Curtain. One of them was even a villain in Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang. I think they are wonderful.

Then again, I'm not particularly upset that Bright Source Energy has asked the BLM for permission to build a glimmering concentrated solar thermal plant on Mormon Mesa not far from Double Negative. It seems like a part of the bigger story -- a land sculpture that just keeps growing.

The sky is outrageous today, with big clouds flying across the blue like the "skows" that Bethurum saw so long ago. When the Clarionites return in 2052, what will they think of Double Negative? Will they see it as art or as a mass grave -- an abandoned road cut or another piece of the landscape? Will they ponder its dimensions and note that it is almost perfectly aligned with true North? Or will they even notice it, dwarfed as it may be by a huge array of mirrors directing sunlight into a turbine on top of a tower, a circle of shiny worshippers channeling the sun's power toward a 200-foot-tall phallic deity. Clearly a cultural and religious site: a cathedral, perhaps, of the Anthropocene.

Maybe the alien visitors will see the artwork as signposts of sorts, guiding visitors to see this landscape with all its intrusions in another way. That's what Robert Adams said he hoped to do with his photographs: Show us "a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly."

For more information and directions to land art:
diacenter.org | clui.org | lacma.org | moca.org | doublenegative.tarasen.net