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27_05_21 Michael Heizer - ‘Double Negative’

Extracts: Reading Group Re-reading Michael Heizer’s ‘Double Negative’

From today’s reading group we discussed ‘Double Negative’ (1969) by Michael Heizer. Double Negative is a piece of land art located in the Moapa Valley on Mormon Mesa (or Virgin River Mesa) near Overton, Nevada.

The work consists of a long trench in the earth, 30 feet (9 m) wide, 50 feet (15 m) deep, and 1500 feet (457 m) long, created by the displacement of 244,000 tons of rock, mostly rhyolite and sandstone. Two trenches straddle either side of a natural canyon (into which the excavated material was dumped). The "negative" in the title thus refers in part to both the natural and man-made negative space that constitutes the work. The work essentially consists of what is not there, what has been displaced.

Discussion evolved around the topic of what is sculpture and the tradition of ‘old’ sculpture (think Greek and Roman era. I always refer to ‘David’). With traditional sculpture we are connected to the work by what is represented (mostly the human form). We can create a knowing relationship due to our clear understanding of what is being communicated, projected, showcased from the artist. To put it in simple terms, I will refer to my encounter with Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ (1501-1504). I must state that my experience of ‘David’ was somewhat sublime, the true essence and beauty of the work was not something I was expecting, rather I was just presuming I would be looking at another ancient sculpture of the human figure. Without moving into the sublime experience, I was able to simply refer to ‘David’ because of its visual state. It is the human form (male) and I know my form and therefore my conscious understands the visual relationship. It puts us in a state of thinking about oneself but how much of oneself can we think about or truly understand?

From a phenomenological point we can question about how the work looks back at us and I do not mean this on a literal sense, but it is almost like we are transcended through the work. Is there an unknown there? If we consider the human form, we understand the outer form but what about the interiority of our body. How can we therefore be so certain about oneself if we do not know the interiority of oneself? Where does ‘Double negative’ fit into all of this then? Clearly there is an otherness to the work. By standing in one trench and looking over to the ‘mirror’ other trench without being able to navigate towards it due to the vast expanse of ‘empty’ space between we are then offered a different encounter with oneself. By standing in the trench, we can picture the space we stand within by viewing the symmetrical space across the ravine. We must drive that perception internally into our consciousness and with the inclusion of the vast openness of the ravine. As a viewer we must embody and channel our perception of space via a mathematical and dynamical act of reason.

The history of the artform, especially around sculpture is being challenged here. There is a reversed role with ‘Double Negative’ and that it relies on the negative space and the question of what should the artform be doing to us?

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