Big Dumb Art

I try to engage with contemporary art because I think it’s just kind of a thing one should do. I don’t like most of it and have kind of honed in on what I enjoy but that’s partly the problem. Art, to some extent, should be a challenge. Art is something of a conversation between the viewer and the creator and this can result in some uncomfortable commentary. For instance:

Years ago, I was New York Maker Faire and there was an exhibit that was just like a square yard of e-waste. Broken printers, laptops, circuit boards, larger metal bits, and all sorts of other technological remains were strewn about a parking lot labeled as a “for kids” activity. They were given screw drivers, hammers, pliers and such. Then I read the label “This kid-friendly installation piece allows children to enjoy the same discovery and valued effort that kids all over the world get to experience every day”. It was then that it hit me that this was a piece on children in developing countries disassembling electronics to recover metals and plastics, likely exposed to toxic processes. The piece hit me. If it wasn’t the intent of the piece, it still got me to be much more mindful of how I disposed of each piece of technology.

MIchael Heizer is an American land artist and his piece, City, has been under construction for decades. It’s big. Something like a mile-and-a-half long and half a mile wide. It was opened for visitation in 2023 and there was a raffle process to get in. It started out with something like 120 showings in the year, each for six people, and costing $150 per person to spend three hours out the site. These parameters both interested and bothered me. The idea that at most 720 people a year would see this and it’d bring in 108K seemed questionable, but if I could be one of the 720 people, I wanted to. I made my spouse and a friend wake up at 3am to register for the lottery which was billed as first come first serve. Two of us were later contacted so we were either fast or lucky or both and our visitation was set for November 14th, 2023.

We stayed in Vegas and drove to Alamo, NV where the Triple Aught foundation ran the tour. There, someone would drive us 80 minutes to the site, let us see it without taking pictures for three hours, then take us back.

The drive to Alamo was straight-forward. A little less than two hours from where we were staying near Vegas. We checked in and Mark, our guide/docent/driver, met us and seemed genuinely excited to show us the piece. We were early and swung by Chester’s Fried Chicken to grab a late breakfast and quickly discovered that their definition of chicken strip was two sigma larger than I was used two. At three I was stuffed.

We returned to the pick-up point and met the older couple that’d be joining us as well as a 20s or 30s girl. We headed off and Mark immediately started telling us about the Pahranagat Valley where Alamo was situated. His family had been in the area for five generations and he spoke about working with the Bureau of Land Management, what it was like working in a national monument, what managing cattle was like, and the various jobs he’d done over his life. He was familiar with the local wildlife and pointed out what plants did and didn’t make for good feed and how they manage where cattle go. Finally, we got the what every-rancher-has story of a weird cattle birthing. This one involved a calf that had frozen to the ground after birthing which was then hoisted into a truck to warm up before it scampered off. Mark described which head were coyote killers and the difficulties of managing the herd when water or feed is scarce.

Then we got to the site. We passed Heizer’s home/workshop and saw the arrays of solar panels that powered the operation. Mark dropped us off, told us where the portable restroom was, and told us what we could and couldn’t climb on. Then he moved the Chevy Tahoe we had ridden in behind a mound and we were on our own and immediately split up. I headed southeast to use the restroom and encountered what was simply the cleanest porta porty I’d ever seen. Pristine.

As I said the site is 0.5 x 1.5 miles with the long axis being east to west. Around it were the Golden Gate mountains (at least what Mark called them) and miles of scrub range between the mountains and the site. Much of the site is composed of either mounts of pea gravel or small stone or concrete structures. They have no obvious naming nor arrangement but generally the concrete is angular and the stone is more gracefully curved in piles. In one particular area there’s a small placard with the arrangement of mounds in relief which I tried to make a rubbing of. It didn’t go great but I got about the third of the site embossed in a sheet a paper. The elements existed in kind of three levels, below grade, at grade, and above grade, with above grade being maybe some 40′ above grade. Likewise with the lowest portions being about 40′ below. While there is no place that gives a complete vantage, some spots allowed you to see the vastness of the site. A friend who joined us said “that’s the furthest I’ve ever been able to identify a person” as I was well over a mile away when she first spotted me and then it took us some 15 minutes to actually be face to face.

While people shouldn’t leave traces, the animals did. There was a spot where some bird of prey enjoyed regurgitating undigestible prey bits and others where different birds very much appeared to enjoy leaving droppings. In other parts, mammal scat was clearly present. No trash at least.

Based on my step counter, I covered some seven miles over the three hours there suggesting that I’d done the place stem to stern four times. Using the map I found as a base, I tried to cover the central east-west line and then a larger circle around it and then some of the far corners to see most of everything. And all of it paled in comparison to the mountains. It was certainly peaceful, aided by the area having no cell reception and Mark recommending we put our phones in airplane mode as to not drain our batteries. I even skipped listening to podcasts as I trudged around not wanting to break the mood. I only saw one other person in the first two hours, then re-met with my group as we compared notes. Sun was setting, shadows were getting longer, and the air was getting cooler but not yet chilly. With 30 minutes left, I returned to the truck to make sure I could find it before doing one last little loop and collecting my spouse. We stopped on the way out to use the restroom and admire the sunset. Overhead, some Air Force plane was writing graceful curves in the sky with its contrails. Over a few minutes we watched three planes cross, corkscrew, weave, and duck all the while leaving icy vapor behind.

So how was it? Vast and kind of small, a lot and not too much. I’m not saying it was explicitly paradoxical but it felt like we were exploring remains that had been smoothed over by time. The site has been worked on for 50 years and it sure doesn’t feel like it. Sure, the artist has done other things, but to get that out of $40m or so and 50 years of work just doesn’t seem like much. Then again this could be a case where simply moving that much dirt took that much time. I’d be fascinated to see pictures of the site over time. The place is over-shadowed by the mountains around. It just makes the work feel contrived and out of place like people aping the grandeur around them. The frustration was also seemingly evident as the place still wasn’t quite done with spots where it was apparent where breaks and concrete blocks had yet to be laid. At best I can say that “City” felt like, well, a kind of mock reduction of a city. It was a city in the same way iconography in a user manual reduces mechanical elements to their barest forms. If I wanted to I could refer to the heaps of symmetrical stone that lined the southern end as “the villas” and refer to one overlook as “the cathedral” or the place with the large cement triangles as “the market” but this would be entirely my contrivance that maybe another visitor would agree with roughly half of. One part that did stick with me was in the northeast corner and I’ll call “the basin”; a massive depression that gently met at a point like an incredibly wide but shallow funnel had been pushed into a gravel pile.

On the way back we compared notes on the experience and Mark told stories of his travels, weird things other groups had done, interesting visitors, and more tales from his desert (basin and range) life. We got back at about 6pm and headed to our next stop, dinner at a small chain followed by Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart which was simply amazing. I mention these things because of the things we did that day, this was our group’s rough ranking of preference.

  1. Omega Mart, hands down
  2. Mark, the guide
  3. The mountains around City
  4. The planes overhead
  5. The chicken from the Chester’s Chicken
  6. CIty

I’m by no means saying the work was bad. I quite enjoyed the smell of the native plants in some of the areas and I appreciated the engineering that went into it. At the same time, it seems like maintaining it is going to take a fair bit of work. What happens with the first heavy snow storm or wind storm or rain storm starts leveling the hills? How will the ground be groomed for the next season? Can we get more people to have a chance to see it? I suppose these aren’t criticisms so much as concerns. If this is to be a monument, is it still a monument if it falls apart without human tending? Is that the point?

I suppose my ultimate recommendation is, go to City if you can, if you find yourself in Alamo, ask for Mark, and definitely go to Omega Mart.

This post was written on 11/16/2023 and is back-dated.