On November 19, the Republic of Zaqistan will celebrate its 10th year of independence. Not yet an officially recognized nation, the republic consists of two barren acres in an area northwest of Salt Lake City, has about 300 expatriate citizens, and is wholly uninhabitable. Although it is currently circulating a We the People petition to have the Obama Administration recognize its sovereignty and open up diplomatic relations, its founder, artist and art handler Zaq Landsberg, recognizes this impossibility and sees his country’s perpetually suspended statehood as a commentary on notions of nation-forming and citizenship.
“It offers this sense of belonging, and it’s deliberately vague about what that might mean,” Landsberg told Hyperallergic. “Zaqistan is a de facto sovereign nation, it’s a national identity, it’s a bunch of numbers written on a piece of paper, some arbitrary lines in a desert, it’s a decrepit sculpture garden.”
A Los Angeles native who now lives in Brooklyn, Landsberg first bought the land in 2005 off eBay for $610. Since then, he’s made multiple expeditions to Zaqistan, where he’s erected monuments, installed art pieces, planted a banderole, and built a customs booth. Initially motivated by his frustrations with the Bush administration and created as a place where he could control and create his own systems, Zaqistan has since grown into a shared community supported by people around the world who have chosen to apply for and receive citizenship. In exchange for a simple application, $40, or “goods, services, works of art, etc.” Landsberg issues printed and bound, official-looking passports; he has also designed a flag — a giant squid “representing the mystery and the might of Zaqistan” against a cog “representing the dawn of a new era” — coined a national motto — “Quispiam Ex Nusquam,” or “Something from Nothing” — and has established his nation’s physical boundaries — within which he’s plotted major geographical landmarks. In short, Zaqistan has all the characteristic markers of a country, but the fact that it isn’t recognized as one is an issue Landsberg finds especially relevant today and is one he is attempting to parse through his continued maintenance of what is essentially a wasteland.
“I think there are really big questions right now of what is a nation state, how is it functioning? Our idea of what it is — how relevant is that?” Landsberg said. “If you look at Iraq or Syria right now, on Wikipedia they have a flag, an outline on a map, a national anthem, and who’s in charge, but effectively, right now, that outline does not describe what’s going on. It’s just different groups that are running their own thing in different spots. Even look at the Euro crisis: you have really big questions not just with economics, but what is Greek sovereignty? And how do German banks decide that?
“I’m trying to ask the question: well, OK, is ISIS a country? Is Taiwan a country? Is the Vatican a country?” he continued. “What’s recognized by the UN, and why? Why not?”
Zaqistan exist primarily as an idea to many, even the majority of its citizens, rather than a lived experience, which has created perceptions of it that differ drastically from its physical reality. Over time, Landsberg has photographed monuments that he and others have placed within the nation’s borders, posting them on Zaqistan’s website — the main way he disseminates information on the republic. Every form of documentation and piece of information remains there, forming an almanac-style compendium that is the way most people experience Zaqistan — unless they embark on one of the expeditions Landsberg occasionally organizes. Most of the monuments documented on the site no longer exist, although Landsberg notes that many people believe they do.
The nation’s sculptural patrimony includes three aluminum robot sentinels, created in 2006 to guard the republic; a Victory Arch, erected in 2009 and made of vinyl tile printed to look like black marble; and, most recently, a commemorative monument to mark Zaqistan’s decennial in the form of a towering robot figure with a back that slopes like a slide. A number of artists (and fellow Zaqistanis) have brought works of their own to the desert — though, to date at least, no earthworks in the vein of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” located just a three-hour drive from Zaqistan. Most of the works contributed by Zaqistani artists contrast starkly with the landscape. New York-based artist Charles Harlan left behind “Hanger Cairn” in 2009, a pile of black coat hangers; Ingrid Burrington, who recently produced Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide, planted a device in the soil that played messages in Morse code on a loop, powered by a solar panel. Those installations have weathered, but most of the larger works are no longer there, save for the decennial monument, which still stands alongside the customs booth and flag pole.
“There’s an idea that exists in people’s minds that it’s all pristine,” Landsberg said. “The reality is that it’s all wrecked, a lot of it is blown over or destroyed by the desert and time. The packaging, I think, lulls a lot of people into complacency. What I’m trying to get people to do with Zaqistan is to look closer, to not accept things at face value, and question what’s going on.”
The media propagates the myth, with many publications, according to Landsberg, failing to explain what Zaqistan looks like now and sharing the photographs without dating the works. Still, the empty landscape is a fabricated country that, bolstered by physical passports, offers people recognition by someone. That realization hit Landsberg particularly during a study-abroad trip in India, when he issued citizenship to his homestay brothers, a pair of Indian-born, Tibetan exiles who could claim only refugee status.
“They told me Zaqistan is the only country they hold citizenship to,” Landsberg said. “Literally they have no country, they have no state. Where they’re from doesn’t exist, and Zaqistan is the only place that gives them nationality for free.”
To offer his nation for more people to “project their ideas onto,” he set up temporary consulates in 2012 to issue more passports and conduct lectures and workshops on what it means to exist as a country. The first was at the art space La Ene in Buenos Aires; the second, in a space a few blocks away from the United Nations building in New York City, hosted by chashama. Both also featured exhibitions documenting the history and development of Zaqistan.
Landsberg has tentative plans next year to install new works in what he calls his “barren patch of nothing”; as long as he holds the deed to the land, Zaqistan will continue to exist in both its physical state and in the many narratives people have created.
“Everyone kind of hopes for something better, to determine their own fate … whatever the problem is in their lives — whether it is the government — there’s the idea that there’s something better, something that can be improved,” Landsberg said. “Zaqistan isn’t going to solve that at all, but the gesture and the façade of it — they think it’s inspiring.”