Michael Heizer's masterwork in the Nevada Basin.
Eighty feet high, a quarter of a mile wide, and one and a quarter miles long, “Complex City” is roughly the length of the national mall in Washington, D.C., making the artwork one of the largest sculptures ever created. The sculpture is so large that when the energy department did a survey flyover of the area, they mistook it for a military project.
Begun in 1972 by artist Michael Heizer, this earthwork is made entirely of dirt, rocks, and concrete. Despite its size, City was built with incredible precision and is accurate to Heizer’s plans down to a sixteenth of an inch. Creating City has been a 40+ year process and has cost tens of millions of dollars, despite the fact that there is no way to “sell” the monumental work. When completed, City is to last for thousands of years, long after other artworks are dust.
Earthworks and other unsellable “land art” like this were a reaction to the commercialization of art in the 1960s. City is some fifty miles from Area 51 and lies in the shadow of Nevada’s nuclear test sites. This has influenced Heizer and his art; In his words, City “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era. We’re probably living at the end of civilization.”
In 2004, Heizer expressed dismay over Yucca Mountain’s plans for a nearby rail line to transport nuclear waste to the storage site. The Las Vegas Mercury reported that year he “told his neighbors that if the Caliente Corridor becomes reality, he will use his bulldozers to completely bury the City project and that he will walk away from it.” Thankfully, much of Yucca Mountain’s funding was cut in 2009, and it is probable that Heizer will not carry out the threat of destroying his decades-old project.
Heizer is notoriously not welcoming of visitors as the work is still being developed and is a functioning construction site, though with the completion of Levitated Mass at LACMA and increased activity on City, it is hoped that the project will be completed within the decade.
Know Before You Go
Note that special permission from the artist is required to visit Complex City, as it is a work in progress.
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