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A Summer Pilgrimage to Nevada’s Double Negative

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The dirt road from Overton, Nevada to Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969), located two hours northeast of Las Vegas, is a quintessential piece of the Land Art canon. Yet if you don’t have a clear image of what you’re looking for, you may not find it — this is no “Spiral Jetty.” Unlike Heizer’s discreet monument, Robert Smithson’s best-known work undeniably appears to be the product of human intervention, even though its spiral shape was chosen for its multifarious affinities to nature.

“Double Negative,” by contrast, appears from many viewsheds as a geological feature, produced by the accretion of time and elemental change. One of the only distinguishing humanmade characteristics is the strong linear symmetry in its matching northern and southern transepts, which evokes the order of architecture, the directional orientation of cathedrals, and the Minimalist work of its era.

Created by the massive displacement of 244,000 tons of rock, mostly rhyolite and sandstone, each rectangular slice measures approximately 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep and 1,500 feet long.lindquist-dn-3In 1984, “Double Negative” was donated by Virginia Dwan, a gallerist and financier of the work, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles with the agreement that conservation would not be attempted. In addition, no reproduction of the work was included in the historical survery “Ends of the Earth” at MoCA in 2012, as Heizer expressed that the work could only be known through physical experience. On July 3, 2013 — in 113 degree heat — artist and girlfriend Mary Mattingly and I visited “Double Negative” en route from Las Vegas to Mono Lake, California and attempted to camp in its northern transept.

The paved road from Overton, the town nearest “Double Negative,” became a service road of compressed sand directly before winding its way atop the Mormon Mesa on which “Double Negative” is situated. Renting a four-wheel drive Jeep, we anticipated obstacles and roadblocks, yet encountered none, though the inclines are harrowingly steep, with several spots lacking a railing or shoulder. While many visitors have gotten lost or not been able to find “Double Negative” prior to the proliferation of GPS devices and smartphones, Mormon Mesa is now within range of cell phone towers, enabling navigation maps and voice calls.

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“Double Negative” at twilight: the psychological experience after visiting Las Vegas is one of sensory isolation and decompression. Deep silence and a hyper-awareness of nuanced light and physicality of surroundings cleanse my sensory palette. These dual depressions became natural cathedrals of technological deprivation. In temperatures ranging from 92 to 114 degrees, the heat of this hellscape if anything is the most demanding of one’s attention, in contrast to my extremely frigid January visit to the “Spiral Jetty” in 18 degree Fahrenheit Utah.

One of the unexpected and unplanned arcs of my visits to Earthworks are the subjection to extreme weather conditions. To experience the works not only in unmediated physical reality but also unmediated climatic conditions impresses the rawness of site. Mary and I photographed for a couple of hours, then wrapped one of the large rocks with a green tarp. While Heizer intended to create an absence with this earthwork, wrapping a boulder was a way to create presence and thus fill the void.

Wrapped rock in the south transept, with matching wrapping in distant north transept.
Wrapped rock in the south transept, with matching wrapping in distant north transept.

After sunset, the Jeep, not a tent, became our shelter as we retreated from a lightning storm that drove us off the mesa. Winds shook the SUV, with all its windows rolled down. Fearing becoming trapped in washed out roads, we quickly decamped and descended the mesa as lighting, winds, and the threat of rain gathered. It never rained, but we slept in the Jeep on the service road below, waking every hour to drink bottles of water to counterbalance a profuse sweat that interrupted regular urination. After dreaming of strange spacecrafts hovering overhead, I was awoken at daybreak by several passing vehicles barreling down the dirt road.

Around 6 am, we returned to Double Negative, finding the tarp half-blown off, and photographed the storm’s influence on our intervention. The landscape bore no indication of the previous night’s events, and I remained conflicted about whether we should have left the site of “Double Negative” at all.

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Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (Mormon Mesa, Overton, Nevada) is on view year-round through the fall of the American empire (and probably after).

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