The Artist Is the Void

Michael Heizer's "Double Negative." Photo by Elisabeth Nicula.

I didn’t expect to hate Michael Heizer’s seminal earthwork Double Negative when I visited it in 2017. I thought it would be a marvel, unbound as it is by the constraints of indoor art facilities. I hoped it would show me something that wasn’t obvious about its situating landscape. I was distracted by the worrisome prospect of going to the desert for the first time, and not knowing how fast scorpions move. 

Supposedly, some people believe the desert is empty and others who know better reply that the desert is full of wonder. Claims of barrenness are politically useful in exploitative, extractive economies, and it’s worthwhile to examine and preempt them. I have always lived by water so my desert imaginary was neglected, informed by the usual pop-culture representations and left to dry out. This was my void, and on the way to Double Negative, I filled it with glimpses of the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert that were thrillingly subtle, landforms that suggest a durational performance and vegetation that is most expressive by scent. 

Nevada’s human population is sparse outside of its cities, and there is a real isolation there, an impression of possibility devoid of consequence, and a visually-apparent record of weird and violent events. The desert has been carved up and used for all kinds of reasons. My friends and I camped at a tapped-out iolite mine to look for purple tailings, and I slept beside a pile of rusted tin cans. We drove past unapproachable military installations including whatever is at Area 51, and peeked into a volcanic crater that NASA used as a lunar-vehicle driving school. We soaked in a rigged-up hot spring pool made out of a blue plastic trough in an improbable cattle pasture. We stood on the concrete cap over the site of an underground nuclear bomb test and thought about being irradiated.

Lately, watching the NFT boom unfold with a mixture of horror and inevitability, I’ve been thinking about the void in art. Manifested wittingly by the artist or not, discernible to an audience or not, the void is an important motif for art in times of material privation and ecological desolation. I feel deeply resistant to thinking about NFTs—I prefer to keep the void in my periphery, alas. 

Heizer cut his pair of trenches into either side of a triangular indentation, formed over time by wind and water, high in the edge of Mormon Mesa in the Moapa Valley. The matrix for the sculpture is broad and pale, dotted with knee-high, resinous creosote bushes. I have problems experiencing open space without imagining that I will detach from the Earth, so for me it felt destabilizing to be up there, pressed close to the sky, looking out over two river valleys to the stretchy mountain ranges beyond and all around, not even hearing the air. My sense of being nothing was profound. Compared to this, Double Negative seemed puny. It wasn’t 50 years old yet, half a blip in the geological record and the walls already collapsing, perhaps faster than Heizer planned. It looked a lot like any roadside gravel yard, with dusty hillocks of gray-brown rock tumbling into the channel made when a backhoe extracts a load. When you drive the narrow road cut to the top of the mesa on the way to Double Negative, you’ve already seen something aesthetically aligned with the sculpture. That evening, I watched the loveliest rectangular cloud float south and dissipate. Where did the 240,000 irrelevant tons of sandstone go?

Though NFTs may seem to have been quickly caught up by the market, digital art has been happening all along without much legibility to collectors, in spite of prior efforts. What finally attracted collectors was the coupling of digital art with cryptocurrency, which is made from energy extraction that gathers no raw material for any useful purpose. The artwork underpinning an NFT transaction is beside the point because what’s being collected is the opportunity to speculate on crypto. (“NFT” is widely used as a shorthand to describe any asset marketed as a collectible via this mechanism.) Despite wan efforts to display them in physical, gallery-like, or escape-room-like spaces, NFTs are almost completely decontextualized. 

What’s new about the NFT is twofold. First, it extracts and burns carbon at a groundbreaking level of meaninglessness: the environmental cost of one NFT’s transactions—setting aside the now-ancillary acts of making, displaying, storing, or viewing the work—can be estimated in a range from a month’s to multiple decades’ worth of a household’s electricity usage, depending on whether the NFT is a single “object” or an edition sold in multiples. Secondly, inasmuch as the artist is usually not foregrounded, it inverts the traditional arrangement in which an art market is based on the perceived exclusivity of an artist’s output, and its ability to store value through that individuated provenance. The funniest, saddest aspect of this boom is that the digital and internet artists who had long awaited a salable moment performed a sort of due diligence, or conceptual laundering, for the nothings to come. Most artists are unknown, but not usually because their existence is immaterial. 

A quality of Heizer’s void is that it takes up the same amount of space as its byproduct, wherever that is. Industrial earthworks are more impactful than the ones for art, being vaster and innumerable. They are highways, and dams, and estuaries drained and filled, and massive solar-panel arrays over bulldozed desert habitats, and shipping channels. They are mines and military detritus. Did the sandstone that Heizer excavated find an infrastructural use in Las Vegas or Los Angeles? Did it tumble downhill? I am the Luddite who would rather be astounded by the mesa. I can see the void without mimicry.

Extraction—of natural resources and of labor—is the defining American act, at home and at war. Inasmuch as art is for the statement of itself, earthworks such as Heizer’s extract for the sake of extraction. To me he is the most patriotic of artists. The effect of an earthwork is never big enough to critique its circumstances nor generative enough to counter the harmful effects of its creation. In this, the NFT producers have accomplished something great, and outdone the 1970s land artists. With minimal labor, no pretense of theory or contextualization, no aesthetic clarity, and no object to speak of, they have set off exponential extractions. It’s not new; it’s just worse.

At home some months later and still feeling peeved, I acquired satellite imagery of Mormon Mesa, thinking I’d use it as the basis of an art project of my own. From space, Double Negative looks like the splayed-out legs of a staple when you flip the plate around the other way. I lost interest.

When in conversation I say that I dislike the chauvinism of the land artists, someone usually reminds me of the temporal, cooperative works of Andy Goldworthy and Agnes Denes. I appreciated Denes’s 2019 retrospective at The Shed (a big void, not her fault) in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards real-estate development. Her most famous, radical work, WheatfieldA Confrontation, confronted Wall Street for a season in 1982, and that site also became real estate. 

Goldsworthy’s local gallerist Cheryl Haines facilitated a series of his installations in the Presidio, a park and former US Army base here in San Francisco. Other installations in the Presidio include a deactivated Cold War-era Nike missile launch site, a golf course, and George Lucas’s visual effects complex. This is a very ritzy part of a devastatingly unequal town. I rode my bike over there to look, first at Wood Line (2011), a waveform arrangement of eucalyptus boughs sloping down a barren gap in the stand of trees at the eastern edge of the park. Viewed straight on, it’s lovely; the living trees are shockingly straight against its undulation. It is not possible to tune out the auto traffic on either side. When the Army planted alternating rows of imported eucalyptus with native Monterey cypress, the water-and sun-hogging eucalyptus won out and the cypress trees died, leaving “a need for art to fill the resulting gap.” Wood Line is the latest in a sequence of interventions, acknowledging and making use of a settler-formulated landscape without, I think, commenting on it very clearly.

Andy Goldsworthy, “Spire,” 2008. Photo: Elisabeth Nicula.

Goldsworthy’s earliest sculpture in the Presidio, Spire (2008), struck me as more profoundly tied to its locale, partly through audience interaction. It’s a steeple-like bundle of cypress trunks within another Army-planted stand, currently undergoing a reforestation effort. The young trees are meant to obscure the artwork by growing. I noticed that Spire’s entire surface looked burnt, having missed the news that someone lit it on fire in June of 2020. It seems to me that Californians would recognize the relevance, living as we do with human-scale fire weather.

I think voids, including those made by the violent activities of one’s cultural forbearers, cannot be made whole by art. Art can’t fill the damage done by extraction and enshrining a site of extraction through installation, reframing it as a cultural space, is a softened blow rather than an elucidation. When art fills a void, it justifies the void. When art’s sole purpose is to transact capitalist accumulation, the void is the point. 

As an adolescent, Michael Heizer spent time in the field with his archaeologist father, developing an evident interest in the earthworks of ancient cultures. His “geometric extractions”—to quote the title of his 1984 MOCA retrospective—though rendered in the negative, are meant to elicit awe and refer to those predecessors both in scale and venue. One’s perception of the void is situational. Petroglyphs made by the earliest people known to have lived on this continent are still on view in the Mojave Desert, in its fullness. They are markers of life—narrative, wayfinding, holy, or simply there to be seen. Outside of motivations related to subsistence and ambition, sometimes artists just want to see a thing. This is a fundamental pleasure of making art, to wake up the day after it’s finished and see it realized. The way I imagine it happening, Heizer wanted to see his own monument-shaped hole in the Earth. From space you could drop pennies in it. Maybe that was still conceptually tenable in 1969, but not anymore. I saw a TikTok called “My Hole” of a guy who dug a pit in a desert as a joke, and after he got millions of views on that he did another video of sticking a plastic geodesic tent in there. Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten what looking at art is for, and sometimes I think I never knew. In the case of the NFT makers, there’s nothing to see at all, but there’s a hole all the same.

6 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.