This is a story of a crazed survivalist artist, hot rods of the Gods, the secrets of an ancient tribe, Area 51, GPS tech and Man’s urge to leave his mark on the surface of the planet. This is a very masculine story and it’s an American one. But it starts in the changing room of Selfridges.
To cut a long boring story short, I went to be fitted for a suit and found bits of me bigger than I’d previously imagined. So instead of a suit I bought running shoes, some hilarious leggings and an iPod arm band. I also downloaded the Nike+ GPS app because I wanted to know how far I was running and well nothing says ‘success’ better than Lance Armstrong saying ‘well done’ in your ear as you sip a mug of post-workout tea.
One of the more interesting things about Nike+ GPS is it maps your route, and looking at the shape of my run it reminded me of the Nazca Lines. These are series of geoglyphs in the southern desert of Peru. Most people know of them through Erich von Däniken’s book, Chariots of the Gods? You’ll find a copy in almost every provincial library across Britain, hardbound and wrapped in a thick plastic dust jacket.
Däniken is a proponent of the ‘ancient astronaut’ hypothesis, a theory that states that Mankind’s first steps to civilisation were benignly stage-managed by extraterrestrials. He believes the giant spirals, lines, animals, birds, plants and flowers carved on the desert floor are a landing strip for UFOs. Däniken claims the lines, dated between 450 and 600AD, could only have been made with the aid of flight.
However, Däniken is a convicted fraudster and a man not to let the truth get in the way of a good story. In his book, he played fast and loose with the editing of his photographic evidence and forgot to mention the hills the Nazca could have climbed to view their work. Not that they ever did. According to a study by the University of Kentucky, the indigenous tribes of the area were certainly advanced enough to construct their lines from the ground.
Why were the lines made? We’ll never really know, but one theory published by archeologist, Johan Reinhard in his book, The Nazca Lines: A new perspective on their origin and meaning, makes the far more interesting and likely claim the lines were used in worship and religious ceremonies. The Nazca walked as an act of prayer and the trails they left across the soft, rocky desert could be viewed as an early example of religious Land Art.
Land Art first came to prominence in the late sixties when a group of artists started making sculpture as a reaction against the plastic aesthetics of pop art and the gallery system by literally returning to the earth. British artist Richard Long was part of the group. His early work often mimicked the theoretical aesthetic of the Nazca Lines: simple paths walked into remote deserts. But the majority of those practicing Land Art were American, and unlike Long who always photographed his work and later started bringing the outside into the gallery, they believed their work could only exist in the wild. This was not artwork you could buy and hang on your wall; it was to be experienced in-situ.
A well-known example is Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, an earthwork sculpture constructed on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. However, Land Art’s most prolific and enigmatic practitioner is Michael Heizer. There’s not much online about Heizer, only a New York Times article from 2005. He lives an isolated existence with his wife in the desert of Nevada, barely a few valleys away from the infamous top secret USAF test base and supposed home for crashed UFOs, Area 51 (for those of you disappointed aliens are no longer part of this story). Heizer could be a character out of an Edward Abbey novel, a weathered cowboy of a man, with a healthy distrust of the Government and a single-minded determination to complete art on a truly astonishing scale.
Heizer is all about big: giant sculpture and the powerful methods he uses to make them. His first work was ‘Double Negative’, a 1500 foot long, 30 feet wide gash he dynamited from the Nevada Mesa. In 1972, the Dia Foundation acquired Heizer land in Garden Valley, three hours north of Las Vegas and hour from anyone else, and he’s lived there every since in a compound beside his current project, ‘City’, which is roughly the size of Soho and Covent Garden put together.
Unlike James Turrell’s, ‘Roden Crater’, similarly massive in scale, but shaped to magnify sky-light, solar and celestial phenomena, Heizer’s ‘City’ has no inherent purpose. It may reference ancient monuments from around the world, but Heizer’s reasons for making ‘City’ are as mysterious as the Nazca Lines. This is work of a private design, an obsession, a reaction against modern life and those meddlers in Washington. This is his land (not your land), and he’s going to build whatever the hell he likes.
Land artists such as Heizer and Turrell manipulate the earth to their design. Scraping, moving and sculpting tens of thousands of tonnes of rock over great periods of time. It’s a very masculine pursuit – boys with their toys building the ultimate dens. There are women practitioners of Land Art such as Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Betty Beaumont, but their work mainly focuses on making people aware of their surroundings or environmental issues. Even a more ambient work such as ‘The Lightning Field ‘, by Walter de Maria area is intrinsically male.
Two years ago, I arranged with the Dia Art Foundation (who maintain the work) to visit ‘The Lightning Field’. From May to the end of October, visitors are welcome in small groups of no more than six to visit the site in New Mexico and stay for a night in simple cabins beside the kilometre square grid of stainless steel poles that make up the installation. Vegetarian fare is provided and you’re asked to leave your laptops, iPhones and cameras at home. I never made my date because of family commitments, but I plan on visiting in the future. Despite its name, lightning strikes are actually fairly rare. Instead, the tone of the website suggests this is a place of quiet meditation, but come on, it’s designed to attract lightning! Stainless steel rods stand erect drawing electricity from the wide Western sky? If this isn’t an aesthetic on a grand scale that cops to a masculine sensibility, I don’t know what is.
In some ways it’s equally amusing and not a little depressing, but give a man a pencil and it’s fairly likely he’ll draw a penis. From the giant wavy hand/wavy willy Cerne Abbas Giant, to the thousands of scrawled cocks found on the back of toilet doors in pubs across the land, the evidence is everywhere. I’m not saying Land Art is implicitly connected to the crotch, it’s simply incidental. I know of only one man to make cock-centric art on a national scale. He’s not even an artist, just a former colleague who decided on his gap year to travel across the States. But instead of diving into the Rough Guide, he grabbed a map and drew a giant cock and balls from sea to shining sea. His one rule was to follow this path as closely as possible, and before you judge him too harshly for his puerile endeavour, take comfort in the knowledge he spent a great many nights in the middle of nowhere trying to explain why he was in possession of a rudely annotated US road map.
Yes, I’ll admit it. After my first time mapping my run I cheerfully guided my wife-to-be to the large map of London that hangs on our kitchen wall and employed her to join me in finding prospective penile routes to run. Honestly, I’m now above the concept; I’m not going to do it (well, maybe…), but we’ve (I’ve) found two: one in north London and one south of the river. I’ll leave it to you to guess which one is bigger.