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In the Nevada desert, the pioneering artist Michael Heizer completes his colossal life’s work.
“City” is a monumental architectonic work, with dimensions comparable to those of the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., and a layout informed by pre-Columbian ritual cities like Teotihuacan. Heizer started it in 1972, when he was in his late twenties and had already established himself as an instigator of the earthworks movement, a group of artists, including Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, who made totemic outdoor sculptures, often in the majestic wastelands of the American West. “City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest.
“My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs—their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”
It is either perfect or perfectly bizarre that Heizer’s sculpture, a monument meant to outlast humanity, is flanked by an Air Force base and a bomb-test site; in recent years, the land surrounding “City” was under consideration for a railroad to convey nuclear waste to a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain.
As it happened, Senator Harry Reid, a dedicated opponent of Yucca Mountain and an advocate for public lands, fell in love with Heizer’s crazily ambitious project and its quintessentially Nevadan setting. “I decided to go and look at it,” Reid told me. “Blew out two tires. I just became infatuated with the vision that he had.” Last summer, at Reid’s urging, President Obama declared seven hundred and four thousand acres of pristine wilderness surrounding “City” a national monument, meaning that it will be protected from development, including a nuclear rail line, for as long as the United States exists. […]