Art and Nuclear Waste, or, the Ozymandias Effect

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, an article appeared about Michael Heizer, one of the pioneers of Earth Art, and his looming conflict with the US government over his monumental sculpture, “City,” in the Nevada desert. “City” is over…

Feb 7, 2005

In last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, an article appeared about Michael Heizer, one of the pioneers of Earth Art, and his looming conflict with the US government over his monumental sculpture, “City,” in the Nevada desert. “City” is over a mile long, and attempts to duplicate, in a contemporary idiom, the feel of other monumental achievements, such as the Great Pyramid at Giza or the Easter Island monoliths. Heizer’s idea is an interesting one: he wants to make something large enough that viewers will have to experience it piece by piece, walking through it in time, rather than gazing at it as a whole from a distance. By his own account, the project is at least ten years from completion.

The problem appears to be that the federal government plans to run its railway to Yucca Mountain, the proposed site of a national nuclear waste burial ground, directly through “City”. According to the Times magazine, Heizer thinks of this as an act of spite. Of course, this is only one more complication in the long controversy surrounding Yucca Mountain. The controversy includes issues of Native land rights–the mountain is sacred to the Western Shoshone Nation–and questions about the safety of the storage technology, as well as questions about the wisdom of transporting tons of nuclear waste across the country by rail to a central dump.

In any case, the Times frames the story as a conflict between a cantankerous visionary and the forces of a faceless, and perhaps sinister, Washington bureaucracy. What struck me, however, is the similarity between “City” and the Yucca Mountain Project. Both entail a large-scale disruption of desert lands in the name of projects whose designers intend them to outlast the civilization which created them. In other words, long after the United States is gone–we’re talking geological time spans here–Yucca Mountain Project and “City” are meant to endure. Though one is coded as “engineering” and the other as “art,” one an expression of bureaucracy and the other of solitary creative genius, they seem like one continuous act of hubris to me. Why, exactly, would we want to leave “City” or a radioactive mountain to our distant descendants? Both remind me of the famous poem by Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias,” which I quote in full here:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

But then again, colossal wrecks have their own kind of charm, don’t they?