A Google Earth Perspective on Land Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on April 1, 2014

Michael Heizer's "Double Negative," as seen in Google Earth

Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” as seen in Google Earth (all screenshots by the author)

Earlier today @museumnerd tweeted out a link to a view of Michael Heizer’s land work “Double Negative” (1969) in Google Earth. Viewed in satellite, from high above, Heizer’s 1,500-foot-long trenches looks almost incidental, like cuts made with scissors into the skin of the earth. It’s an incredible — and incredibly different — way to view a work that, until the invention of online maps and the proliferation of satellite imagery, would mostly be viewed on foot (if at all). Surely anyone who had the hubris to carve that kind of mark into the land envisioned it being seen from above, but he might not have imagined the process of doing so would become so casual.

Looking at “Double Negative” this way set me off on a quest to find other land works in satellite. It turns out someone’s already done some of the work and made a “Land Art of the West” Google Map, while the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, took up the idea for its 2012 exhibition Ends of the Earth, although many of the artworks listed there were temporary, meaning their maps are now mundane monuments to what once was. An artist named Don Seeley has devoted a section of his website to “Monumental Land Art,” which is a wonderful aid for Google Maps explorers. And there’s a Google Earth Tour of geoglyphs around the world by Andrew Rogers.

Still, I found myself returning to North America, probably because it’s the terrain I’m most familiar with. And perhaps predictably, some of the most famous projects are also the most stunning, including Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) in Utah, which, from the bird’s-eye vantage, looks like a cryptic signal sent from our civilization to some future one.

Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" in Google Earth

Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Google Earth

And then there’s James Turrell’s ongoing transformation of an extinct volcanic cylinder cone, “Roden Crater” (1979–) in Arizona. Honestly, the crater itself is stunning, without any need for help from Turrell; in the Google satellite image, it looks like an abstract painting, the rusty red of its center giving way to a white wash of brush marks and steel blue.

James Turrell's "Roden Crater" in Google Earth

James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” in Google Earth

Meanwhile, Richard Serra’s “Shift” (1972) in Canada looks like a strange lost form of writing, the hashing out of a kind of code into a brilliant green field.

Richard Serra's "Shift" in Google Earth

Richard Serra’s “Shift” in Google Earth

And Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” (1977) in New Mexico looks like a smattering of ants gathered around an anthill. is barely visible, lost in a plain of heavy earth accentuated by black dots that look like swarms of ants.

Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field" in Google Earth

Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” in Google Earth

As everyone who’s done this knows, there’s an inherent strangeness in using technology to view these artworks, which are so deeply embedded in the idea and physicality of place, from the comfort of my Brooklyn office, Google Maps’ navigation tools waiting at the ready. On the one hand, it’s quite literally awesome; on the other, it inspires profound uncertainty — to see layer upon layer of human engagement with the Earth, technological prowess overlaid with artistic, and to think about the unrelenting human tendency to shape the planet to our will.

Editorial note: The previous image of Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” was incorrect. It has been updated, thanks to commenters.

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  • Madhava Verma Dantuluri

    Nice pics.

  • Jeff Schroer

    I’m fascinated by this post, but can confirm that the “smattering of ants gathered around an anthill” is not an overhead of the Lightening Field. What you are referring to must be a ranch house with cattle, water and a windmill that may be nearby. The actual piece sits well off of any roads and does not have any water or windmills visible from the simple cabin on-site. Also, with the 1 mile by 1 kilometer scale, you should be able to see something of the actual work, which we don’t see here. (or I’m missing it because of my semi-colorblindness, which is also possible)

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    Hmmm. Do you think Google Maps is IDing the location wrong, or do you think I zoomed in the wrong direction/on the wrong thing? Here’s where Google Maps thinks the Lightening Field is:,-108.1071,7022m/data=!3m1!1e3

  • Jeff Schroer

    Think it may be Google coordinates. The lone ranch house / cabin just south of the the pic you posted looks much closer, but still feels too big. And the thing that always strikes me about visiting there is the precision and symmetry at such scale. I feel like we should see some hint of that from the aerial view.

  • ohwow

    If I’m not mistaken, the ranch house is visible on the other side of the road opposite the cow pond and windmill–recognizable by the wrap around deck. Still hard to make out the actual work though…

  • JosephYoung

    wow, Shift is beautiful.

  • Joseph Smolinski

    Don’t forget Nancy Holt! 41.303501, -113.863831

  • emdub1985

    My hometown had a land art piece by Robert Morris.. you prompted me to find it on Google maps. Here it is…
    I remember hanging out there as a teenager and not knowing it was land art until much later.

  • Zach Alan

    jillian you’re very close – lightning field is on the other side of that dirt road ;-)

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      DOH. Thank you.

      • Zach Alan

        LOL. hey, it helps to have seen the CLUI photo first – you cannot see it on google at all.

  • Zach Alan

    jeff if you’re interested, I made the trek to spiral jetty, sun tunnels, complex city, double negative, roden crater and lightning field in 2012 – the CLUI LUDB does an EXCELLENT job detailing land art

    also, I’ve been placing all the photos I can find of Michael Heizer’s 40 year in the making, $25 million spent so far magnum opus “Complex City” into an account which feeds to google earth, so that we can all enjoy a “virtual tour” until such time as it opens

    • Jeff Schroer

      Thanks Zach. I was unaware of CLUI until now, what a fantastic resource for us Land Art nerds. (And that does seem to be the work just south of Jillian’s original coordinates)

      • Zach Alan

        saw a post on Facebook a few days ago that lightening field still has availability for this year, and was surprised how reasonable it is to stay there given the costs of maintaining it – they had to go in recently and do some structural work on the west end of the field as the poles has tilted some small amount from the wind. reservations can be made here

      • Zach Alan

        I’m thinking of going out to double negative again this Saturday, it’s not hard to get to if you have a vehicle with a bit of clearance (any small truck will do), just take the road from Overton NV between the airstrip and the cemetery up onto the mesa, cross the mesa until you hit the cattle grate and the road descends, back up 50 feet, turn left onto the most likely trace and go north – not too fast – the most likely road will take you right into it

  • Niki Tischler

    I’m surprised that Desert Breath by Danae Stratou isn’t featured in this post. Thought I would share!

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Beautiful. Thank you.

  • higgs merino
  • Jeffrey Turner

    I don’t see what the big deal is about this that would warrant an article in Hyperallergic, I guess it was a slow news day.
    The get stuff wrong all the time, I can find my house and studio on GE but it’s at least 10 miles away on their site from where it actually is!
    I live in Silver City NM, population 10-12,000 and the Google car with the roof mounted camera was through here last week. That did impress me! :)

  • Martin Steewart

    These pics are just so awesome.

  • Daniel Postellon

    You can see several works at the Pedvale Open Air Art Museum as well. Search for Pedvale, Latvia.

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