Within the scope of Fernando Tavóra Prize, I will give the lecture "America Deserta: Paisagem, Arte e Arquitectura do Sudoeste America" next Monday, October 2nd 2017, at Matosinhos City Hall.
Prémio Fernando Távora
This is the second essay of a series of five that I will be published at Jornal Público during this summer. It is based on the Travel Diary of my journey in the American Southwest. You can read it here.
The bright lights are the boiler towers of Ivanpah Solar Electric, they concentrate the energy of thousands of mirrors. In the 1980s, Reyner Banham described Solar One, also in the Mojave, as 'the most beautiful powerplant in the world'.At the time, Banham envisioned the structure as an aesthetic object to be visited as another artwork in the American desert.
Hoover Dam is the ultimate earthwork, a pharaonic infrastructure which mobilised thousands of workers. The convoluted structure with its Art Deco details is vaguely reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. This dam is a national monument, celebrating the technical achievements of early C20.
Driving through the Great Basin desert, in Utah and Nevada, we visited 3 Earthworks. All three were sponsored by Virginia Dwan, the visionary gallerist and heiress of the 3M company - Minnesota, Mining & Manufacturing. It was at Dwan Gallery, in 1968, that the show Earth Works defined what would become sculpture in the 'expanded field'.
The temperature was over 45°C when we visited Michael Heizer's Double Negative. We arrived at noon, and addressed the visit as a scientific expedition. We went back and forth, like astronauts or divers. Heizer's artistic compulsions can be traced to many artifacts that we saw throughout our journey, as if he is tapping the American id: the tire marks at Bonneville Salt Flats, the monumentalization of extractive industries, the exhibition of human power over nature.
This is Gap Mountain, 100 miles beyond it one finds 'City', Michael Heizer's earthwork in progress since 1972. 100 miles beyond 'City' there is the Nevada Test Site, surely one of the largest known earthworks, comprised of underground laboratories, tunnels, atomic waste repositories and the famous atomic craters. Hundreds of atomic tests were made between 1951 and, surprisingly, 2012.
Route 50 was deemed the loneliest road in the US. It is an epithet that works both ways, as a derogatory and flattering qualifier. Driving a few miles West of Ely, one finds the small company town of Ruth, serving the Robinson copper mine. The mine slopes are so perfectly formed and artfully done, that I wondered if the workers, these artisans who worked with bulldozers, were the ones hired by the artist Michael Heizer to build his earthwork 'City'. Forgetting all the human and earth exploitation, it is easy to admire these earthworks formally. In the last decades the mine was bought and sold by various global companies, but throughout most of the C20 it was owned by the Guggenheim family.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are remains of the vast lake Bonneville of the Pleistocene era. They are well known for the C20 obsession of land speed records. The close surroundings of the Salt Flats are marked by the exploits of the aptly named Intrepid Potash mining company. In recent years, some speed races were cancelled due to the thinning of the salt crust. Intrepid Potash is now required to pump brine on to the flats to mitigate the problem.
Wendover air base has an open air museum. There's a public drive with plaques informing about the history of the site. These describe objects inside the base, over the fence, like the Enola Gay hangar. Besides they also point at structures that although built as movie props, remain onsite. This is a place where historically laden artifacts and constructed imaginary worlds seem to be presented on the same level. A few old planes were 'parked' close to the fence so that visitors could take pictures. At first, we thought this one was also part of the exhibit. That was not the case.
The revelation. It happened at Pilot Mountain Road, crossing the vast plain framed by mountains. The sun was high and I remember thinking: 'It must be midnight in Lisbon.' The temperature was 43C. The air was very dry. I realized I was in a state of hyper awareness. The senses stretched without obstacles. In this place of absence one feels as if in infinite purity. In this place I understood the ascetics.
This railroad crossing is the only urban remain of the town of Lucin. It was founded as a watering station for steam locomotives, the Lucin Ponds were reservoirs of the water collected through a pipeline from the melting snows of the nearby Pilot Mountain Range. Where the ponds used to be there are clumps of surprisingly tall cottonwood trees. They are now protected as an important resting site for migratory songbirds, attracted by this small patch of shade and water in the Great Basin Desert. On our way to see Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels we waved hello to the railroad engineer inspecting this crossing. We had to drive three hours until crossing paths with another car, the driver waved hello and we waved back. I imagine that we too were the first people he saw in hours.
The water at Rozel Point is not bright red anymore, but muted pink. At the time I visited the weather was stormy, the sun was heavily veiled by multiple layers of clouds and rainstorms in the distance. The experience was not of horror, on the contrary, but of beauty. This mobile phone photo doesn't do justice to an environment that seemed to be painted by J.M.W.Turner after having borrowed Agnes Martin's palette. I was still surprised to see such an animated landscape, which changed so quickly. Moments before, crossing the ranches framed by the Promontory Mountains, I had seen a 'dust devil' for the first time in my life, a whirlwind raising suddenly a dancing body of sand, which raised two arms in the air. It seemed alive and wickedly happy.
The Spiral Jetty seems to be a device to promote a journey through a series of historical sites. It has the effect of bringing past events to our present experience, and in that sense is a Kublerian work. Driving from Salt Lake City for a couple of hours it takes us to the Golden Spike National Monument, and the history of the Union Pacific Railway. Smithson built his work on the centennial of the railway connection between the East and West coasts of the United States. Moreover, the first jetty we see when arriving to Rozel Point is the ruin of a former oil drilling site. In 1970, the Spiral Jetty was situated on a terrifying site, with blood red water, caused by the Lucin Cutoff, an engineering 'earthwork' in which a railway line cut the Great Salt Lake in two. The oil prospection at the site continued up to the end of the 20th century. Here we only see remains, but a few decades ago this place smelled of crude oil and was scattered with dead birds.
While in NYC, in transit to Salt Lake City, I was lucky to see John Baldessari's exhibition 'Paintings, 1966-68'. It comprised a series of paintings that Baldessari showed in his first solo show at Molly Barnes Gallery in 1968. I primarily went to see 'Painting for Kubler', Baldessari's homage to the simultaneously famous and arcane historian, I thought that this painting would set the beginning of the trip. In retrospect, I can see that 'Pure Beauty' was surprisingly present in many instances of the journey.