Friday, September 21, 2012

Designer of the Month: Michael Heizer

Week 3: Effigy Tumuli

As we saw last week with North, East, South, West (1967/2002) and Double Negative (1969), Michael Heizer's work tends towards the sense of what I would like to call monumental minimalism. With his focus on creating large-scale, abstract negative spaces within specific landscapes, even when these works are at least somewhat recognizable as a geometric form, Heizer's work can sometimes be difficult to relate to. Which is one reason why Effigy Tumuli (1983-85) is such an interesting departure for Heizer.

Michael Heizer, Effigy Tumuli Water Strider, 1983-85. Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa, IL. Courtesy of California Home + Design.

A 224-acre landscape in Buffalo Rock State Park, Illinois, covered with five enormous earth mounds shaped like river animals, Effigy Tumuli is, at least to date, Heizer's one and only representational work. Of course, a work on this scale is only representational from a limited view point. From the air, they're immediately recognizable as animals. On the ground, however, rather than representative figures, the land more closely resembles a choppy landscape of furrows and hills, grown over with a carpet of colored rye, with the really big mounds so large as to suggest actual, natural hills.[1] So why would a purely abstract artist like Heizer suddenly wake up one day and decide to create a work of this nature? Why, he was commissioned, of course. In some ways, Effigy Tumuli was inspired by Heizer's childhood and trips with his father, the anthropologist Robert Heizer, on expeditions in Mexico, Central America and the deserts of the American West, where he became intimately familiar with the prehistoric art and architecture of America.[2] When he began working on Effigy Tumuli, Heizer was certainly aware that prehistoric Native Americans had built earth mounds, called tumuli, many of which still existed in the present day, but he was surprised to discover just how widespread the practice had been; literary thousands of these mounds cover the continent.[3] Of the source material and representational aspect of the project, Heizer explains:
It's an untapped source of information and thematic material. It's a beautiful tradition, and it's fully neglected. And it's from a group of people who were genocided. So, in a lot of ways, the Effigy Tumuli is a political and social comment. To me it is...The criterion was earth-moved sculpture, period. All domestic material. Nothing imported. No gravel, no wood, no concrete, no metal. Just dirt."[4]
Michael Heizer, Effigy Tumuli Catfish, 1983-85. Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa, IL. Courtesy of Live Auctioneers.

But even from the start of the project, Heizer had trouble with the very representational nature of Effigy Tumuli. In the years leading up to his actual work on the site, after agreeing to the commission and firming up a contract, Heizer became intimately familiar with the Buffalo Rock site. In the summer of 1983, he walked over the entire site, memorizing the terrain and taking thousands of photographs, which he would eventually enlarge and mount in his studio as dozens of photographic collages - some ranging in size up to six feet long and three feet high - that he used throughout the project for both reference and information.[5] Heizer was inspired to create his own versions of prehistoric effigy and ceremonial mounds both from his experience with them as a child and from his research and reading into the history of the mounds in the Midwest, particularly Illinois.[6] He explains:
It's in the nature of my work that I keep in mind the environment I'm taken into. And the native American tradition of mound building absolutely pervades the whole place, mystically and historically and in very sense. Those mounds are part of a global, human dialogue of art, and I thought it would be worthwhile to reactivate that dialogue. I thought, this won't be some Disneyland-looking kind of a park. It will be reminiscent of that native American history. And people out there seem proud to of having these mounds. They get people excited. So, it's good material for a public work...The obligation was to maintain that ancient dialogue, and so I couldn't just come in with some modernist sculptural geometry.[7]
But it was exactly this struggle - a need to create representational images to remain true to the project's vision crossed with an entire career thus far spent exploring abstraction - that led Heizer to the ultimate decision of river animals as the proper subjects for his mounds.[8] After realizing that the Native Americans had never created insect-shaped mounds, Heizer's initial design called upon these forms as his own innovative spin on the mound-building tradition; the ultimate forms of the mounds as river animals, however, came when Heizer grew increasingly disenchanted with the idea, and instead decided to draw on the typography of the area and the Illinois River as a source of inspiration.[9] Of course, while they're recognizable as representational animals, the final forms themselves - a snake, catfish, turtle, frog, and a water strider - are inherently geometric in nature, thus maintaining Heizer's connection to abstraction.[10]

[1] Douglas C. McGill, "Introduction," from Michael Heizer: Effigy Tumuli, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990), 14.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 21-22.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] Ibid., 22-23.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid., 25

[10] Ibid., 34.

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