Michael Heizer’s ‘Land’

‘Land’ connotes soil to a farmer, property rights to a lawyer, commodity to a developer, voting district to a politician, habitat to an ecologist, yard to a suburbanite, resource to an economist, playground to a child, overburden to a miner, resource to a farmer, scenery to a tourist, etc. What is ‘land’ to an artist?

Michael Heizer is not typically associated with the long history in Western art of landscape painting that first appeared in the frescoes from Minoan Greece around 1500 BCE. Within this tradition, artists approach 'land' as scenery. Such artists  frame a vista and meticulously record its visual contents.  Land, thereby, is a rich repository of optical evocations. It provides ready-made compositions consisting of spaces, lines, symmetries, balances, textures, colors, and shapes. Heizer's 1971 photographic installation, "Actual Size: Munich Rotary", not only continues this tradition, it interrogates it. Heizer-actual-size

Heizer’s modern redefinition of ‘land’ is made apparent by his projection of six enormous images on two long, tall walls. The intense light was created with sophisticated special lenses. The projectors are huge, steel contraptions. The images are arranged side-by-side to construct a continuous landscape. But this image is not romantic, like conventional landscapes; it is funerial. Furthermore, the perspective is not above the horizon, like conventional landscapes; it is below!  This is becuase this panorama locates the viewer at the bottom of the depression that Heizer created as a land art installation.  “Munich Depression” was formed by removing one thousand tons of dirt. It is a conically shaped hole, 100 feet across and 16 feet deep. Its photographic depiction, entitled “Actual Size: Munich Rotary”, is also 100 feet across and 16 feet deep. That means each grain of dirt and chunk of stone is represented in its authentic, one foot = one foot scale.

While the work presents its visual contents in a realistic manner, there is no mistaking the image for the site. Heizer prevents this transfer by making the machinery of picture-making is so apparent, and by presenting a situation in which close-up views of the projected image obscure the visual information instead of clarifying it.