Meaningless at Great Scale

February 1, 2023 Michael Heizer Art Neom Sculpture City Mexico

You can figure it out for yourself.”

I’m a little late to this, but in the grand scheme of things just by the blink of an eye: After 50 years of work, the artist Michael Heizer has finished City, his massive sculpture garden in the Nevada desert.

Loosely inspired by buildings and geometry of the Maya city Chicen Itza in Yucatán, Heizer’s work is made of dirt, rock, and concrete, and measures a staggering 2 x 0.4 kilometers. It pushes the limits of what it means for something to be a sculpture, since the monumental dimensions are meant to be experienced at human scale—you’re supposed to literally get lost in the work. The New York Times straight-up calls it a masterpiece”.

As the name implies, the work is meant to evoke a (pre-Colombian?) city, only the roads lead nowhere, the plazas are barren, and the sculptures are too abstract to pass for buildings. Personally, it reminds me of my visit to Monte Albán in Oaxaca, where we walked big distances inside a giant basin among the ruins, our brains slowly baking in the sun.

It was undoubtedly cool, but most meaning had been long lost to the sands of time. I am not here to tell people what it all means,” Heizer tells the New York Times. You can figure it out for yourself.”

Monte Albán in Oaxaca, MexicoMonte Albán in Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s hard to look away when something massive is conjured out of nothing

I’ve always had a soft spot for monumental projects, like the cinematic project DAU, the Khazak capital Astana, or Tatlin’s Tower. It’s hard to look away when something massive is conjured out of nothing, often at great expense, and mostly with no good reason provided.

The results are often puzzling: What is this meant do mean? Maybe City doesn’t mean anything, or maybe it’s nothing but a scar in the desert, built at an unjustifiable expense.

Ironically, Heizer’s timing wasn’t great. Just as he unveiled City after 50 years of work, the Saudi government took the wraps off The Line, part of the even more audacious Neom smart city”. That idea immediately went viral for its shear ludicrousness and has some parallels to Heizer’s work: It’s a 170km linear city in the desert, built with unlimited oil money. Presumably, we’re supposed to figure out a meaning again, aside from it being an ecological and moral atrocity”.

Things Mag, where I first read about City, sums up the friction most eloquently:

Heizer has become a literal gate-keeper, the king of a smoothly polished desert kingdom that remains off-limits to almost everyone (a maximum of six visitors a day!), and serves little purpose but to demonstrate the skills of the New York Times’ web design team. Perhaps it’s because Heizer’s dubious megastructural ambitions have been coloured by the widespread angst over Neom, the ultimate evolution of the land art movement. Studying the shifting sands that surround Neom is like lifting up a long-forgotten paving slab and marvelling at the life and death that happens beneath the surface. Reason is lacking, answers are evasive, and the only conclusions one can draw is that any kind of awe-inspiring’ scale is inseparable from massive ego and total control.

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