In 1970 American artist Michael Heizer began building the world’s largest earthwork sculpture in a barren desert in Nevada. Heizer has spent the last 50 years on ‘City’ – moving dirt and cement in miles and miles of bleached emptiness, an emptiness that contains concrete ramps, earth pits, mounds, and a geometry so despotic, so alluring and vast, it is visible only from the air. In building it, the mad obsessed artist, has driven himself to the brink of death The man is 75 now, but his structure is still incomplete.
I have never understood this kind of obsession. I don’t know what drives a person, especially an artist into a sort of dementia only she or he can understand.
Sure there are writers who project the same madness into their craft, but usually it is directed towards a specific end – a long linear procedure that sways from side to side, but – like a building – is consciously building up. Scientists too I can understand, whose research or experiment stem from a desire to solve a difficult riddle. In the search they lose track of time, their routines, their families, the presence of fellow scientists and friends.
A biography of Einstein talks of when he would lock himself in his lab at Princeton for days on end, ignoring his house keeper’s persistent knocking on the door to remind him that he needed to eat and sleep.
He would continue to work himself to such exhaustion, that he would finally give into the house keeper’s refrain, and emerge from the lab. Then, seating himself at the dining table, and with his mind still absent, he would eat and eat; and continue to eat, till finally the house keeper had to remind him ‘Dr. Einstein, it is ok to stop’.
The adrenalin rush to remain in the clouds, and entirely absent from daily routine comes with its own rewards. Einstein’s discovery of his formula was perhaps worthy of many missed shaves, missed toilet breaks and missed meals; a mountaineer death-wish is to die climbing the highest mountain. The theory of personal conquest is linked to sort of indescribable joy that is less public achievement than some inner undefined drive.
While the physical challenge of a climb, the page filling of a writer, or the formulations of science are understandable, the artist’s goal is ambiguous and filled with inner dread, and a huge potential for misunderstanding. The line between futile effort, public display of stupidity and personal glory wears thin when a goal is unclear in the artist’s mind. ‘I could have done that’, says a puzzled viewer of a precious white canvas with a single dot that hangs in a museum.
‘Then why didn’t you?’ Of course the curse of the obsession also brings with it the possibility of misreading and a public that may view the eventual result as underachievement. ‘Michael Heizer at 75 has nothing to show but some ramps and mounds for 50 years of work’, some will say. Others may say, ‘Michael Heizer has so much to show, so monumental, the mounds and ramps. What a remarkable achievement, and in barely 50 years’! The perspective of art is clouded by uncertainty. Even the artist doesn’t know what he has done? Or why?