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Tales of City: an evening with Dave Hickey and Michael Govan

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Michael Govan and Dave Hickey
Andrew Kiraly

Michael Govan, left, and Dave Hickey at Cabaret Jazz in the Smith Center

Last night at Cabaret Jazz in The Smith Center, Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and art critic and MacArthur fellow Dave Hickey discussed City. A vast work of earth art in central Nevada, City is the ongoing project of artist Michael Heizer. Govan and Hickey addressed the significance of Heizer’s work in progress to the art world and to Nevada — and efforts to preserve it. Desert Companion editors Andrew Kiraly and Scott Dickensheets were there.

ANDREW KIRALY: Brain still effervescing! As the bubbles settle, though, I’ll say this as a non-artspeak-speaking civilian who skirts the edges of the edges of the scene: Before last night, I’d heard only rumors and whispers about City, read a few articles about it. My pedestrian understanding was that it was, oh, cool, a work of monumental, isolated eccentricity. Govan and Hickey really tightened the bolts on what City entails — a work of slow, epic, generational urgency that seeks to rearrange how we think of art being objects that represent things or meanings — say, like a painting on a wall that offers a visual window. To paraphrase Govan, City is no window; it’s a world. Road trip!

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SCOTT DICKENSHEETS: I’ll drive if you’ll buy the gas. No real hurry, though. City will be around for, it sounds like, ever. It’s built to last. That vast time-sense is a lot of what the project is about, both in its references to ancient ceremonial constructions and in its overtures to the surrounding geology.

Backing up a sec: For the uninitiated, City is a mile-and-a-half long complex of structures, mounds, depressions, divots and trails that Heizer’s built — make that engineered, to underscore the level of expertise lavished on this thing — on private land near the borders of Lincoln and Nye counties. (It's still not open to the public; soon, we're told.) Because of City’s artistic importance, as well as the presence of native artifacts and some environmentally sensitive sites, an effort is underway to preserve the federally owned basins and ranges around it, from frackers, miners, nuclear railroaders and other disruptors.

Heizer’s notoriously secretive, so at some point our road trip will become a covert op. (I’ll bring the night-vision goggles; don’t ask.) But from the photos that’ve emerged, City is an outsized extension of Heizer’s astringent minimalism, an epic, Zen-like boil-down of art to a few rock-hard essentials: time, materiality, space, size. So, in a way, Hickey’s uncritical embrace of it surprised me; in its severity, City doesn’t seem like the kind of convivial, insouciantly glamourous art he normally champions.

ANDREW: I won’t presume to spelunk into the bubblegum-and-cocaine neural pathways of Dave Hickey, but I suppose I was surprised, too — the critic known for championing beauty and surface pleasure going on the arts-activist march, urging us to preserve a vast work with such solemn conceptual gravitas. Definitely at odds with what I always perceived as his cowboy, market-minded contempt for the institutionalized art world of museums and foundations and guvmint meddling.

That said, it seemed to me he spoke most often of City not as art but as place — a destination, which, in the stubborn, bright nimbus of Nevada’s most intentional destination, Las Vegas — isn’t but a few steps away from a collection of pleasure-dispensing commodities. And, to paraphrase him badly, he did say he didn’t think of City as a work of art so much as a cool place to walk around and see cool things. Maybe that’s a bit of his offhand, cool underpromoting, but it offered some earthy yang to Govan’s bracing and brainy yin.

It’s funny. I feel like I could get most of the intellectual appreciation of City I would “need” just by reading and thinking about it without ever having to see it. My impulse to visit stems from the part of my brain that fizzes from being freaked out by new shit. Road trip!

SCOTT: Just plan to spend the whole drive in stony, implacable silence as I exhort you to switch off your “freaked out by new shit” program and reboot your sense of intellectual wonder. Andrew, I will harangue — totally winging it, by the way, since I’m no art critic — its coolness can only be given dimension by the firsthand experience of its intellectual content. That’s right, there’s gonna be a haranguin’! Because I’m not sure I'm onboard with the Hickeyian dichotomy between the art and the place. The terroir of the desert seems too vital to the meaning, as I understand it, of City. All that stuff about City trying to reframe our sense of time, about the meaning of size and scale in a desert — that’s not some brainy garnish slathered onto groovy built forms. That’s what City is made of as much as it is concrete, dirt and rock, and I suspect that’s much more legible in person than on the page. Or so I think, having never, you know, seen it.

Even though we’ll be road-tripping in my tiny Fiat 500, we need to make room for Michael Govan. As quarterback of last night’s conversation, his footwork was impressive. Hickey fulfilled his expected role as free-range aphorist, gunning zingers in all directions. But it was Govan, nimbly backfilling the spaces between Hickey’s comments with context and explication, who tied the whole thing together. And when he talked about Pollock canvases as landscapes (imagine them the way they were painted, horizontally, and they suddenly seem like freaky aerial views), I felt a new door open in my brain. That's a guy we need on our trip.

ANDREW: I think you’re right upon insta-reflection: Why should I assume my intellect can’t crackle and bang in a way only achievable through physical presence? Point taken. And if that’s the case with City — if the gravid awe it high-beams to the soul in person can get all your parts stirring, and if its significance as a lithic bookmark in the history of art is as much as Govan and Hickey made of it, then I could even get on board with Govan’s classic piece of advice that closed the talk: Write your congressman. But first, I have to make sure. Road trip!

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