Before you can walk down into the Double Negative, you have to drive up to Mormon Mesa. I’d been around a lot of mesas growing up, the lacerated mountains formed the backdrop for countless family excursions, but this was the first time I’d actually been up on top of one. The dirt road out of the nearby town of Overton, Nevada, is monotonously flat, until you reach the edge of the embankment where the road shoots up, a sight that when viewed through the front windshield of a four-cylinder Grand Am seems impossibly steep with dirt that is treacherously loose. But again, after cresting the ridge and arriving on the caprock, you find yourself in the midst of another flat expanse. Mesas form by the twin processes of weathering and erosion. The weaker types of rock are eroded away, while the more resistant types – like sandstone – persist, forming the flat top of the mesa. Geologists measure the processes that formed the Mormon Mesa in epochal time scales. The same geological history can be observed in a smaller, vastly accelerated scale as the once-crisp, man-made edges of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative deteriorate. The 1969 artwork becomes part of a tiny artificial blip in the geological history as the incontrovertible mass of the desert moves back in to reclaim the void which was removed.
Working with two bulldozers, dynamite, and a skilled crew, Heizer removed 244,800 tons of sandstone and rhyolite from the edge of the Mesa to create two trenches facing each other on opposite sides of the mesa cliff. The channels are around 50 feet deep and 30 feet wide, as well as approximately 750 feet and 325 feet in length, respectively. Double Negative comprises the cuts as well as the space between them, see MOCA’s description of the work as a 1500 x 50 x 30 foot sculpture (aside: how can something this remote and this huge, be considered part of a Los Angeles museum’s collection? And is that antithetical to the staunchly anti-gallery ethos espoused by some land art practioners?). Another pretty accurate description is “that old cut out on the mesa,” given by the waitress at Overton’s Sugars Home Plate Restaurant and Sports Memorabilia fine dining establishment in response to my query as to whether she knew where it was. I received the distinct impression that the folks of Overton had either: a) never been out to Double Negative, and/or b) didn’t hold it in very high regard. (I initially found this to be kind of sad and a little narrowminded, but the more I thought about it the more I started to equate their attitude as pretty analogous to how I feel when out-of-towners show up eager for a tour of Times Square.) Instead, the two other patrons enjoying an afternoon meal at SHPRandSM suggested I look at the “tank that is parked in front of the old post office” or the “house that looks like a castle” as being more interesting. Both of which I did indeed end up seeing (see photos here and here), but I have to admit I still found Double Negative to be far superior.
So, any time you’re going to talk about Double Negative, you have to start by mentioning that its power comes from being “an old cut,” or simply negative space. It’s there in the title and Heizer pretty much sums it up when he says: “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture.” The destructive force loosed onto the desert was the act of creation. And, paradoxically, what was removed from the mesa’s edge, constitutes what is. At least from an architectural standpoint, what I find most interesting about Double Negative is how powerful the void space becomes, a place where a slit in the desert can hold and command your eye in the panoramic expanse of the desert. This was also the first place where something wasn’t sticking out of the desert scrub, but rather — as cliché as it sounds— it was bringing the sky down into the earth. Stephen Holl does this a lot (he even has a project called Void Space/Hinged Space), but also think about the Twin Towers (or even the Petronas Towers): what really made them powerful is the slot of void between them and the way the blue sky captured between them doesn’t seem the same as the blue sky around it. It holds the void the same way the two trenches hold space. It’s so powerful you can almost hear the light moving between the embrace. I’ve had professors who would call this a “charged void,” full of electrical tension running between the trenches. Unable to stand still, I had no choice but to run through them (even while panting in the brutal 110-degree August heat).
I think it’s a good thing that Heizer is letting Double Negative deteriorate, allowing it to erode to the point where the original intention of the artist is hidden and it becomes a further enigmatic, less differentiated, more primitive part of the landscape. The disintegration of the boundaries allow the softer indentation to achieve a greater continuity of experience from inside the event to outside — for example, from landscape to art. Or, to put it another way, it becomes a compound object, something language doesn’t necessarily give us the luxury to “know” well enough to describe, and opens the possibility of allowing the object to “just be.” And being uncoupled from the obligation of knowing allows the possibility to present itself for art (or architecture, music, painting, etc.) to transport us into an integrated realm of feeling where the experience of heat, dust, colors, textures, sand, and walls allow us a wonderful sense of completeness.
Ok, let me try to put it another way. In this paragraph by Ellen Douglas, the poet deals with loss and memory in a way that is plasticized, or architectural:
“Charlotte knew that her mother had listed and stored in her heart all the things she had not been able to do for lack of money, and that she sought for her daughters a fleshier bedfellow than that specter, Want, whose hard bones she knew so intimately, who had lain down beside her almost before the dent that marked her dead husband’s place in the feather bed had been plumped up and smoothed away.”
The void space of the bed becomes an architectural manifestation of a memory. The dent and terrible loss described provoke similar shared qualities in different readers. It is not a photography, it is a memory of actual space, it has an interiority. While each of us may respond slightly differently, there is still an undeniably common response to the depth of our feelings toward Charlotte. The sense of shared feeling is something Kant described as a community Subject with a capital “S.” Douglas and Kant are describing an architectural event that goes beyond representation to convey something both more abstract (loss) and more concrete (the dent) all at once. It’s another way to say that Double Negative is so powerful as architecture because it is an event that can take on so many meanings with a common interiority that we can all respond to, one that can provide shelter, destroy the land, hold space, offer protection, erode away, and criticize art — all of which is done through an architectural manner.
P.S. After all of my inquiring, this thing is surprisingly easy to get to, a little more than an hour from Las Vegas, and contrary to what some sites say regarding the necessity of high-clearance, four-wheeled vehicles, when I drove out there, I didn’t have any trouble in my compact.