We knew that Michael Heizer’s installation City would be impossible to visit when we made our way through the Nevada desert in the summer of 2016 with a field trip investigating “technical lands” of the American desert for students in history and practice of art, architecture, and science. As our chartered bus departed the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Wendover, on the morning of August 22, we cued up a complicated satellite compass/phone system that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided to our group as a safety measure, preparing to announce the moment when we passed near to City (we had already abandoned the idea of trying to enter).
But by the time our bus was barrelling down Route 318 to arrive at Heizer’s Double Negative before sunset (and a threatening thunderstorm), most of the passengers — no longer the fresh, exuberant crowd that boarded some six hours ago — were asleep, lulled by a land art documentary playing on bus monitors overhead. We counted down the half hour before City’s approach in roughly five-minute increments: “It’s coming up on the right, get ready!” We hit the stretch of highway closest to City with little fanfare and with very few people other than us even glancing out the window. We saw a high, dark range of rock between our road and Heizer’s land some 30 miles away, which would have taken hours to reach had we attempted to travel on local roads. We didn’t stop.
We did not visit the enigmatic, decades-long, and massive construction project in the heart of the Nevada Desert, about 160 miles north of Las Vegas. Up to the last summer’s announcement of the installation’s opening, access to this site has been tightly restricted, with only a few reports from selected visitors offering a glimpse into its construction. Some wondered if the work would ever be completed. Even the New York Times, which dedicated a massive eight-page full-color spread to the “art world Atlantis,” caveated that “art’s Fitzcarraldo [Heizer] still doesn’t consider ‘City’ finished.”
City’s lack of accessibility and its seemingly indefinite state of incompleteness, which suggested a perpetual deferral of its opening date, made its role in the 2015 proclamation establishing the surrounding Basin and Range National Monument by the Obama administration a bit perplexing. The designated protected area comprises over 700,000 acres that include petroglyphs, mining structures, and other features aligned with the orientation of the overarching Antiquities Act of 1906, which protects sites of cultural, historical, or scientific significance. Yet a full paragraph of the 2015 proclamation was dedicated to the centrality of City — at the time an unfinished artwork entirely closed to the public, situated on private land, and impenetrable (Heizer was reputed to personally chase trespassers from the property with a shotgun).
The Basin and Range National Monument protects the space surrounding City, effectively an act of viewshed preservation that serves the view from within the artwork while making it inaccessible to most (one notable response to an “envisioning” questionnaire about the Monument seems to respond in kind — encouraging the surveyors to “build high solid walls around [City] — improve the view!”). In the United States, preserving a view surrounding a cultural or natural destination is an established conservation philosophy situated within a settler colonial legacy of evacuating lands of their occupants in the service of their aestheticized protection. Hyperallergic’s report on Native American artists’ reactions to City shows how the installation participates in a tradition of “people replacing those that were displaced with their own monuments,” in the words of Diné visual and sound artist Raven Chacon.
While City’s preservation through the Antiquities Act necessarily focused on cultural heritage, the Monument designation also had environmental implications. Longtime Heizer advocate Michael Govan — director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and board member of the Triple Aught Foundation that maintains City — made that connection in his statement celebrating the success of this advocacy: “What made this happen, now, was the coming together of the art interests — people who really felt this was an American art masterpiece that needs to be protected — and conservation interests who realized this is one of the great landscapes of the United States.” While the discourse of conservation has other grim associations, linking this discourse to City instrumentalizes the work through an environmental alibi that claims the natural landscape as a beneficiary of artistic intervention.
The lack of vehicular access to City is similar to the pre-highway approach to La Venta, an important Olmec site in the Veracruz jungle in Mexico where Heizer’s archaeologist father Robert F. Heizer worked. Michael Heizer drew an explicit connection between City and La Venta (although he later regretted having made the reference). Art historian Luis Castañeda traces the intersections of work by Heizer and his father through the artist’s design of the Cor-Ten steel stands that exhibited Olmec heads from La Venta at LACMA in 2010, and in the accelerated mobility that the art world forced upon these objects. The Olmec heads are large, carved boulders measuring up to nine feet and weighing several tons, making their movement from the original site to museums and exhibition spaces precarious and onerous. This paradoxical mobility was famously depicted in the October 1966 cover of Artforum, with a photograph of a heavy stone Olmec head lifted by a crane and floating in front of the monumental curtain wall facade of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in Manhattan. The casual dislocation and exhibition of Olmec heads contrasts the concepts of permanence and remoteness that have always undergirded the mythology of City.
When we arrived some hours hence at Double Negative, we found no explicit barriers to entry, save for the rugged terrain that even our hired SUVs could not traverse — we walked the last half mile — and, of course, those which were surmounted by access to grant monies that funded this adventure in the first place. Climbing into Heizer’s large cut in the mesa, looking out through its wide opening to the Virgin River below, we saw ample evidence of other visitors: traces of campfires, cigarettes, and other paraphernalia from groups who had stayed late into the night. We took a photograph of our shadows cast into the deep crevice of Heizer’s artwork by the setting sun; “Double Positive!” commented our friend Olga when we posted it on Facebook. We hadn’t made it to City that day, and we still haven’t as tickets were officially reserved for the opening season early on; at least one of us is content to never make this visit. But all told, how many people will access this work? After years of inaccessibility and mystery, the artwork feels as hard to get to as ever, even after the recent grand opening announcement. We are impressed by the performative research of Kohl Marantz, whose video about his attempt to skate City for Jenkem Magazine takes place primarily casing the gated perimeter, beautifully illustrating how inaccessible it remains.
City serves as an apparatus of two different regulatory enterprises: on the one hand, a culturally designated space of landscape preservation, and on the other, a regulated art-world experience of manifest scarcity. We perceive that it profits from that rarity. Both public and private protections reinforce City’s identity as a remote place surrounded by a supposed “virgin land.” Categorical claims to isolation — of City from its surroundings, of culture from nature, of land from its inhabitants — strike us as contrary to the logic of renewed relations with the land advocated by Indigenous activists.
In a piece for Hyperallergic that coincided with City’s opening season, scholar and Cherokee Nation citizen Joseph M. Pierce points out the problematic nature of land acknowledgments, arguing for the development of active mutual relationships that better understand “what our responsibilities are to the land as our kin.” These are precisely the types of reciprocal relationships that are obstructed by City‘s insistent isolation. We didn’t go to City, and our very inability to reach it points to its role in eliding critique and resisting the reciprocal relationships we hope to learn and practice.