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

by Jonathan Thompson

"Art erodes whatever seeks to contain it and inevitably seeps into the most contrary recesses, touches the most repressed nerve, finds and sustains the contradictory without effort." -- Robert Morris in a 1979 essay in which he suggested hiring land artists to reclaim spent industrial sites and open-pit mines.

When I first see them, fuzzy and burnished brown on the horizon, ambling among the creosote bushes, I freeze. Grizzlies? I think. In the southern Nevada desert? I've been walking for an hour, maybe two, my sense of time and distance distorted by solitude and a thick blanket of clouds that has kept the sun invisible and unmoving all day. They aren't grizzlies, you idiot, I tell myself. They're cows. I approach cautiously, anyway: They might be mad cows. Six million-year-old caliche, a sedimentary rock, crunches under my feet at every step.

But the brown fuzzy things aren't even cows; they turn out to be barrel cacti. I feel stupid and discouraged, not just because I can't tell a cow from a cactus, but also because I haven't found what I'm looking for: Double Negative, a land art icon made up of two huge trenches, separated by empty space. Michael Heizer blasted and bulldozed it into the edge of Mormon Mesa in 1970. Instead of following the directions, I decided to forge my own path -- always a temptation in the West, sometimes a mistake. I figured I could take Exit 100 off I-15, follow the road south until the rental car's oil pan got knocked around a bit, get out and just start walking south and east.

And that's what I've done. Still no artwork, though. I didn't think to print out the map, or calculate distances. The sculpture could be over the next subtle rise, or another 10 miles away. How would I know?

I continue, prodded by a fantasy in which I reach the sculpture and find it surrounded by a group of effete art-critic types straight out of The New Yorker -- drinking chardonnay and eating fancy little crackers. When they see me staggering toward them like some bedraggled desert hermit, they will not only pour me a glass, they'll succinctly explain Double Negative's meaning and significance.

Because, frankly, I don't get it.  Double Negative is well-known in the art world, and aficionados from everywhere pilgrimage out here to see it, along with some of the West's other famous land art -- Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels among them -- as though they were the Mona Lisa or Starry Night. Yet the photos I've seen of Double Negative look less like art than a pair of road cuts without a road. And the most succinct description I've found is this: "Double Negative presents the void, not by the failed strategy of abstraction but using ‘figure against figure to figure what cannot be figured.' " Good luck untangling that.

I think I've walked nine miles, maybe more, but the dark mountains on every horizon look the same as when I started. Then, just as I'm about to give up, a stark white post on Mormon Mesa's edge catches my eye, almost glowing in the eerie light. I race towards it.

But there is no giant trench, no negative space from which 240,000 tons of material have been removed. The concrete post marks the Old Spanish Trail, which crossed Mormon Mesa at this spot. In May 1844, John C. Fremont came through here and described the place thusly: "We left the Rio de los Angeles and continued our way through the same desolate and revolting country, where lizards were the only animal, and the tracks of the lizard-eaters the principal sign of human beings."

I have not encountered anyone out here, either, lizard-eater or not, but humanity haunts the landscape: a rusted iron grate with no discernible function, plants growing up through it. Wooden stakes poking up randomly from the earth, one with a small vial containing a document that claims this particular tract of land for Powerline Precious Metals of Reno. A cluster of deflated balloons that say "Babies R Us." The razor slice of a power line against the clouds, the stream of big rigs sliding down the distant interstate, and the ghost of that old trail where wagons once rolled.

I have yet to eat a lizard, but the sight of a huge, hairy, cross-eyed spider, puffing itself up to look even bigger, is strangely tempting. The thought is enough to break my spirit, and I trudge back to the car.

Despondency washes over me on the drive back. Not because I didn't find the sculpture, but because my sojourn on the mesa has ended. Being lost like that, wandering aimlessly through vast spaces, with every step one mystery solved and a brand-new one created, is as exhilarating as finding one's quarry, whatever it is. Is there a better way to see the terrible beauty of the Western landscape?

A MOVEMENT IS BORN

If there was a primordial soup from which land art emerged, it was the post-abstract-expressionist art scene of New York in the early 1960s. Carl Andre was making his "sculptures as place." Future land artists Heizer, Holt, Smithson and De Maria, along with Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt, were not only pushing the boundaries of what is considered art, but also challenging our conventional, Cartesian ways of thinking about space. They were even doing some small-scale land art. All they needed was a catalyst for the next evolutionary step. They found it in the West's big desert spaces.

"It was the most terrific experience of my life, experiencing the Great Plains and the Rockies, but especially the desert," De Maria said of first seeing the Interior on a trip from New York to the Bay Area, where he'd grown up. Heizer, who was born in California, had deep roots in the desert: His grandfather was a Nevada tungsten miner and his father an archaeologist who did important work in the Great Basin. New Jersey-ite Smithson developed his own fondness for the region after he embarked on a Kerouac-style hitchhiking trip in the 1950s, with life-changing stops in Hopi and Canyon de Chelly.

In 1968 -- the same year that Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire, his ranting love song to this abused and empty place -- Holt, Smithson and Heizer flew from New Jersey to Las Vegas. "As soon as I got to the desert, I connected with the place," Holt later wrote. "The openness, the expansiveness, was similar to the spaciousness I felt inside."

During that trip, the trio filmed their movie, Mono Lake. Smithson gathered rocks for his non-sites, collections of earth and rocks from specific places that were reconstructed as sculpture in galleries. Heizer did his first drawings and a series of trenches on dry lakebeds in the Mojave. He also did "dispersals," in which he'd fill a pickup with dirt and have someone drive it around really fast while he rode in the back, scooping dirt out onto his "canvas," which was the lakebed (the same method rural Westerners have been using for ages to dispose of their garbage). Holt embarked on a photographic study of Western graveyards because "they reflect how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness." Also in 1968, De Maria made his Mile Long Drawing -- actually two parallel lines, drawn in chalk -- on a Mojave lakebed.

The following year, Heizer moved huge rocks from the Sierra Nevada and put them in depressions he had carved in Silver Springs Lake bed near Reno (reversing the glacial transport of the same rocks millions of years earlier) to create Displaced-Replaced Mass. De Maria made his Las Vegas Piece, a bulldozer-etched, half-mile square in a valley about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. Then New York art patron Virginia Dwan commissioned Heizer to do a piece of his choosing. He disappeared into the desert, and in 1970 unveiled Double Negative.

"When I finished, I laughed," Heizer told The New York Times Magazine in 2005. "I knew I'd done it. There was no precedent in the history of mankind."

Later in 1970, Smithson and a crew of earth-moving contractors completed Spiral Jetty in the red water in Rozel Point on the northern half of the Great Salt Lake. Few people actually visited it, but photographs were widely disseminated. During these early years, Holt (who had been married to Smithson since 1963) abstained from the large-scale, drunken-redneck-with-a-bulldozer-fetish stuff her male counterparts relished. Instead, she created her own sort of land art, writing and burying poems in places like Arches National Park, then providing maps to the poems, in a sort of low-tech geocaching.

As is always the case with major art-world shifts, it's difficult, in retrospect, to comprehend the significance of any particular work. Yet these pieces were groundbreaking, so to speak. At a time when artists were spouting rhetoric about breaking free of galleries and institutions, as well as de-commodifying their work, Heizer, Smithson and De Maria were pretty much bulldozing gallery walls along with the contemporary convention that important art only happened in New York City. And most of the work continues to defy commodification, by virtue of its scale, if nothing else. It sits in the desert as if abandoned, available to anyone who will seek it out.

Double Negative and Spiral Jetty were both part of, and a response to, vast societal shifts. The land-art movement arrived on the heels of the first moon landing, and some art historians see it as a sort of return to the Earth, an attempt to find solid ground in destabilizing times threatened by nuclear apocalypse. At the same time, too, the environmental movement was blossoming.

Land art's relationship to the green movement is complicated. New York Times art critic Alan Gussow wrote, in the early ‘70s, that land artists "cut and gouge the land like Army engineers." Allen Carlson, an environmental philosopher, famously called most land art "an aesthetic affront to nature." And Suzaan Boettger, an art historian and author of Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, writes that Heizer's works "manifest no connection to the idea of nature or of the earth as a source of living being. Instead, the land was viewed as a flat, hard surface on which to boldly make one's mark."

Nor did the land artists' philosophy mesh with the ‘60s green Zeitgeist as embodied in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Smithson and company, while concerned for the land, were less interested in "untrammeled" spaces than they were in the interaction between man and nature. Smithson bashed "modern day ecologists with a metaphysical turn of mind who still see the operations of industry as Satan's work," he wrote. "The image of the lost paradise garden leaves one without a solid dialectic, and causes one to suffer an ecological despair. Nature, like a person, is not one-sided."

Such writings anticipate the Anthropocene theory, which has gained a lot of ground recently and posits that we have entered a new geologic epoch, in which every inch of the earth has been altered by humankind. Smithson often referred to humans as "geologic agents," a label confirmed by his and Heizer's blasting and bulldozing tons of earth around in the Western desert.

Smithson died in a 1973 plane crash in Texas while he was surveying his unfinished Amarillo Ramp, a ramped circle of earth and rock nearly 200 feet in diameter. His compatriots, however, kept the movement going. Holt built Sun Tunnels on a sparse piece of land West of the Great Salt Lake, completing it in 1976. De Maria's Lightning Field -- a one-kilometer-by-one-mile grid of 20-foot-tall stainless steel spikes near Quemado, N.M. -- was finished in 1977. Christo, with his huge pieces of fabric draped across buildings and landscapes, was also active in the West in the ‘70s, and is currently -- and controversially -- trying to drape a section of Colorado's Arkansas River. Since his works are designed to be ephemeral, however, they are seldom formally categorized as land art.

The most monumental land art dreams of the ‘70s remain unfulfilled, testament to the amount of time, energy and money they require. Heizer's been working on his massive City Complex in Nevada for more than three decades, but it's still not finished. The same goes for James Turrell's greatly anticipated Roden Crater in Arizona and Charles Ross' Star Axis in New Mexico. Land art is anything but dormant, however. This spring, Heizer oversaw the epic transport of a 340-ton rock from an inland quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it's perched over a big concrete trench. Levitated Mass, as it's called, opens June 24.

SPIRAL JETTY

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us.” -- R.M. Rilke, Duino Elegies

Two days after my negative Double Negative trip, I stand on a concrete platform at the edge of the three-quarters-of-a-mile-deep pit of the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine near Salt Lake City. Trucks the size of houses rumble along the terraces that line the pit's slanted, snow-dazzled slopes, and the after-springtime-storm sunlight imbues everything with a sort of fuzzy softness.

Many of us are drawn to such weird places. Some 40,000 people per year pay the $5 entry fee to see the Bingham Pit. The Center for Land Use Interpretation leads tour groups into landscapes like this one, onto nearby bombing ranges -- even to oilfields in Los Angeles. The day before, I had marveled at the way a hazardous waste incinerator's smoke plume reached up and touched the tempestuous sky. Is our attraction to ruined landscapes similar to that of a passerby gawking at the steaming, blood-strewn remains of a car crash? I wonder. Or is it just a variation on the classic nature lover, entranced by the play of evening light on a rugged mountain peak?

Joseph Imorde, a German expert in Baroque art and a visiting scholar at Los Angeles' Getty Museum, stands next to me on the platform, here with a group of about 20 Swiss art historians and architecture students. This is their first stop on a weeklong tour entitled "Art, War and Energy in the American West." I've stowed away for a couple days, including this stop at the mine. "Sublime," mutters Imorde, gazing out at the pit. Then he says it again, his face overcome by what appears to be reverence. It's the same word John Wesley Powell used to describe the Grand Canyon during his 1869 expedition.

Philosophers have long tangled over the definition of "the sublime," but they generally agree that it is something that both attracts and repels us, that is beautiful but somehow terrifying. The light playing on the snow-covered terraces of the gaping Bingham Pit is, indeed, beautiful. It's also scary, an instance of human-caused geological change occurring in real time. Even back in 1974, a mining executive estimated it would take $7 billion and 66 years, at the rate of 400,000 tons per day, to fill in the pit -- if, that is, anyone ever tries to "reclaim" this landscape. The Anthropocene, indeed.

"We find ourselves simultaneously awed and disgusted; impressed and depressed" by sites such as these, writes Jonathan Maskit in Line of Wreckage: Towards a Postindustrial Environmental Aesthetics. "The power of technological culture to transform nature is made manifest here in its starkest form. And yet, we do not turn away. We both rue what is no more and are smitten by what is." Maskit proposes that we formally classify such sites as the "Interesting," or "that characteristic of an object of aesthetic appreciation that leads us to think otherwise."

Land artist Smithson was a devotee of the Bingham Pit, drawn as he was to "low-profile landscapes ... the quarry or the mining area which we call an entropic landscape, a kind of backwater or fringe area." He wanted to build a revolving disk in the base of the spent Bingham Pit that would monitor and record nature's long reclamation of the site. Kennecott wanted nothing to do with it, and anyway, it wasn't done mining: Even now, the company has plans to expand operations. A mining company in Creede, Colo., did offer its tailings piles to Smithson for reclamation art back in 1973, but the artist died before he could do the project.

Six years after Smithson's death, Robert Morris, a conceptual artist with his own notable "portfolio" of land art, tried to resurrect Smithson's mine-reclamation dreams, seeing such work as a great way both to restore spent industrial sites and fund art.

"What ... could be done for the Kennecott Bingham site, the ultimate site-specific work of such raging, ambiguous energy, so redolent with formal power and social threat, that no existing earthwork should even be compared to it?" Morris said. "It should stand unregenerate as a powerful monument to a one-day nonexistent resource ... the mines ... the Four Corners Power Complex, the dams of the ‘30s. ... All of these structures are testimony to faith in science and technology, the practice of which has brought the world to a point of crisis which nobody knows how to resolve.

"Every large strip mine could support an artist in residence. Flattened mountain tops await the aesthetic touch ... Bottomless industrial pits yawn for creative filling -- or deepening."

Though Morris' concerns lined up with those of the mainstream environmental movement -- he even spoke about climate change in the aforementioned speech -- his approach did not. The generally accepted way to clean up a mine is to try to return it to its "natural" state in the hope that observers, if not the landscape itself, will forget that it was ever disturbed. Turning strip mines and waste dumps into art, on the other hand, monumentalizes, perhaps even consecrates, the harm they inflict upon nature.

Spiral Jetty is not reclamation art, but it is a direct engagement with the industrialized landscape of the Great Salt Lake. It's about a three-hour drive from Bingham Canyon, past Salt Lake City and clusters of housing developments, what Smithson referred to as "slurbs." Robert Adams -- another artist of the Anthropocene -- photographed Denver's slurbs in the 1970s in all their stark and soulless beauty.

Turning away from the slurbs toward the Lake, one encounters the great paradox of places like this: The further you get from "humanity" and into "emptiness," the more likely you are to encounter the types of human intervention that we'd rather not witness on a daily basis. Among farm fields, still muddy from winter, sits a giant Walmart distribution center, rows of tractor trailers getting loaded with goods. We pass bucolic bovines grazing golden grassy hills and see signs on a low fence warning of grievous danger. The Thiokol Promontory Complex, now owned by ATK, tests its rockets here, in reportedly spectacular events that scorch entire hillsides. Farther up the road, the rocket facility itself sits in the middle of "nowhere," with a surreal-looking "rocket garden" out front.

Beyond that is the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific branches of the Transcontinental Railroad were joined in May 1869. It's yet another reminder that this landscape has been prodded and poked and bulldozed and grazed and even blown up for decades, maybe millennia. In the theory of the Anthropocene, no one is really sure when the epoch begins. Was it when humans started fire to manage game, when they first cultivated crops or at the dawn of the industrial age? Whatever the starting point was, we are now deep into it.

"The lesson here," says Philip Ursprung, the leader of the Swiss expedition, as we stare at the rockets, "is that there are no neutral landscapes." Or natural landscapes, for that matter, the distinction between trammeled and untrammeled having been wiped away long ago.

As many as 40 people a day visit Spiral Jetty. Given the proliferation of academic papers, blog posts and even a sort of Eat, Pray, Love of land-art tourism known as Spiral Jetta -- it seems that more people are writing not just about the art, but about the journey they make to see it. Perhaps that's because the trip is part of the artwork; Smithson's own account of searching for and then discovering the site is more than context, it is an actual extension of the Jetty.

The travel accounts, often narrated by non-Western urbanites unaccustomed to this sort of emptiness, not to mention washboard roads, tend to become a bit effusive. Philosopher of art Stephanie Ross called the work of Smithson and Heizer "masculine gestures in the environment" because of their scale and because "traveling to see them requires braving wilderness, rattlesnakes and the desert's climatic extremes" -- the worst being automobile air-conditioning. One blogger spends several sentences earnestly describing cattle guards and warning readers not to trespass on ranches "if you are at all fond of your current good state of health and approximate proper count and localization of body parts."

Mysterious cattle guards and murderous ranchers aside, the final stretches of the gravel road to Spiral Jetty are smooth and easily traveled in mid-March. At road's end, we see the same reddish water that so inspired Smithson and experience the same "crushing light" he did. Like Smithson, we see detritus from earlier oil drilling, though the old truck and amphibious vehicle that fascinated the artist have since been hauled away. And, just like Smithson, we see the big empty place where Spiral Jetty is supposed to be. We don't, however, see Spiral Jetty.

Just a year after Smithson completed his colossal sculpture, it was inundated by the rising lake. It reappeared in 1993 and re-entered the art world's collective consciousness more forcefully than when it was first built. Then it disappeared, and then re-emerged. Today, it's completely submerged, invisible except for the white foam piled up where it connects to the land. A couple of the people I'm with, determined to experience it, wade out into the water, getting their shoes wet and foamy and salty.

The rest of us listen to Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew who drove the dump trucks and earthmovers that actually constructed the Jetty more than four decades ago. Phillips remembers everything and relishes recounting his own journey from dumbfounded skeptic to full-on Smithson convert. "He (Smithson) wore very dark clothes, dark horn-rimmed glasses, black hair that kept getting in his eyes. He was completely different than me. I was blond, short crewcut. I was prepared to tell him, ‘I can't do that.' " Smithson showed Phillips pictures of his work, including his Asphalt Rundown in Rome and a box filled with rocks. He told him of his plans to turn the Bingham Pit and the empty spaces around various airport runways into art. While that didn't inspire Phillips, Smithson's intensity and intellect did.

"He kind of convinced me he was on the up and up," says Phillips, "though I couldn't possibly see how he could make a living doing that."

Phillips described the site as "a really crummy-looking place," what with the abandoned vehicles, scattered oil barrels and an actual oil seep oozing into the water. But after a lot of rocks and dirt had been moved, "It was just a beautiful piece of art."

SUN TUNNELS

“As in nature itself, everything connects with everything else.” -Lucy Lippard, activist and writer known for her work on contemporary art (and neighbor of Holt’s in Galisteo, N.M.), in an essay about Holt.

Nancy Holt once said that it was the "dialectic between human-made elements and raw nature that drove her creative process and introduced an exhilarating tension into the work." That tension is palpable in the first leg of the drive between Salt Lake City and Holt's most famous work, Sun Tunnels, which sits near the Utah-Nevada border. Here there is a wilderness of sorts, mostly void of humanity but irrevocably trammeled. You name it, it's happened: salt mining, hazardous waste incinerators, a chemical weapons dump, even bombing ranges on both sides of Interstate 80.

With a Swiss student and an artist as my passengers, I turn north at Wendover, where the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation -- which is devoted to the "exhilarating tension" Holt spoke of -- has its major field station. We venture onto an empty washboard road across the flats, driving way too quickly in hopes of smoothing out the bumps. (It doesn't work.) A series of straight lines, not unlike the Bingham Pit's benches, etch the slopes of the mountains that rise up from the plain. They mark the drop, over thousands of years, of the ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered this whole expanse. We encounter a flock of sheep, but their big white canine minders chase us away. Finally, we find what we're looking for, a jumble of what looks like culverts out on the flats.

Holt began work on Sun Tunnels in 1975, on 40 acres that she bought the year before. It consists of four 22-ton concrete tunnels arranged in a big X, in what at first appears to be an utterly random location and configuration. It is both sculpture and observatory: Each tunnel has holes drilled into it that line up with the constellations, and each pair of tunnels respectively aligns with sunrise and sunset on the summer and winter solstices. The work is a descendant of the ancestral Puebloan solstice markers in Hovenweep and on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon (both of which mark the sunrise with spirals), as well as the more sophisticated observatory at southwestern Colorado's Chimney Rock, which pinpoints the moon's maximum declination every 18 years. There are plenty of other ancient precedents, from Stonehenge in England to the Southwest's Chacoan "roads."

Your first impulse at Spiral Jetty is to seek out a higher vantage point in the landscape in order to better see the work. At Sun Tunnels, you want to climb inside the sculpture and peer through its holes from the inside, in order to better see the surrounding landscape -- exactly as Holt intended.

"I wanted to bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale," wrote Holt in 1977. "The panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points." It's like a super-sized version of Holt's earlier "locater" works, one of which she built near Missoula, Mont., in 1972 -- metal poles topped with tubes through which one could look and "locate" something on the landscape.

There are no somber museum guards here, snipping at us for standing too close to the art. A Cézanne or a Caravaggio can be comprehended from a reasonable distance, even from a good print or photo of the work. Land art demands that the viewer physically interact with it, even clambering on or through the sculpture. The old subject-object relationship that exists with more traditional art is demolished, and the boundary between the artwork and its surroundings is also lost. The empty space between Double Negative's two trenches is as much a part of the sculpture as the trenches themselves, as are the field, the sky and the lightning at Walter De Maria's Lightning Field. When oil companies considered drilling within view of Spiral Jetty and then Sun Tunnels, art lovers worldwide rose up in protest: Drilling nearby was essentially the same as drilling the artwork itself. After all, who can say where Spiral Jetty begins and ends?

In this way, successful land art serves as a bridge between human beings and the landscape. At its best, it repeats and shares the experience Holt had when she first ventured West, and realized that "inside and outside were the same. I was the land and sky and the land and sky was me."

DOUBLE NEGATIVE POSITIVE

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

© High Country News