At two thousand metres above sea level, the air is crisper, the light clearer, and the mind calmer. The morning mist is so close it touches your cheeks, and the scale of the world spreading out before you is stunning. High in the Swiss Alps, an arresting work by Michael Heizer brings viewer, valley, mountain, dam and sky into a permanent dialogue of subtle tensions.
Tangential Circular Negative Line is a composition of three circles – the smallest within the largest, the other alongside – each one almost touching, each one very almost on the tangent of the others. Formed robustly in Corten steel, the circles are laid out over several hundred square metres of levelled earth, recessed as negatives and surfaced with local rubble. You walk around them, over them, along the negatives. You gaze across, around and up. You follow curves, you interrupt their flow with your body, you stop momentarily at interstices. You can’t help but feel the energy emanating from this work.
Monumental art frames the world anew. The deceptive flatness of Tangential Circular Negative Line casts your gaze across a landscape readily reinterpreted for its own regularities and irregularities. How matted, how flat the surrounding mountains can seem, looming behind the screening mists as mere textures – albeit, shapes and colours of overwhelming weight and volume – and yet, how awesome, how sublime.
The nearest such vast form is a built structure: the Mauvoisin hydroelectric dam, one of the largest and highest in the world, producing nearly a billion KWh of energy per year. Power generation is more than mere metaphor here. Like the work, the concrete wall of the dam suspends itself with a calm power, strongly reminiscent of Christo and Jean-Claude’s Valley Curtain. A beautiful work of engineering precision, the dam’s clean form gestures towards minimalist art, offering its own compositional force from several viewpoints. Entering the dialogue is another hand-crafted feat on the face of the neighbouring mountain: a clean horizontal block, stark and regular, providing access to the pipes that regulate the dam water. These neatly constructed lines betray their own negative.
Climbing the steep, damp path which tunnels inside its framing mountain allows access to the top of the dam several hundred metres above, which in turn offers an astounding view of the valley below as well as of the work, whose negative lines can only be appreciated as perfect circles from above.
And how high is that? The work lies some 1850m above sea level; the top of the dam is at 2100m. The nearby Mont Blanc, the alps’ highest peak whose eternal snow glistens even from here, is 4810m above sea level. And to put this in Australian perspective: the continent’s highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko, stands 2228m.
On the day of my visit I’m delighted to see children playing across its curves and troughs, jumping and leaping and dancing. Their parents are more tentative, conveying a customary respect for the work. Later, a group of visitors arrive in two carloads and park on the work’s edge, only to chastise one another the moment they see our faces.
I want to walk slowly, to take my time. To listen to the stillness, to make new perspectives with my movements, perhaps to draw.
Visiting with Jean Maurice Varone, Director of the Air & Art Foundation who conceived and commissioned the work, I’m already in a more practical dialogue when we arrive. For days I have been buoyed by his energy and vision. He gestures up towards the stark horizontal cut in the mountain; he sweeps around the shape of the circles; he bends down to uproot some stubborn weeds. “Mon jardin,” he smiles. Unbeknownst to him, the children and their mother also start pulling at weeds in generous imitation. Now it’s their garden too.
The son of an archaeologist, Heizer’s eyes had surveyed the landscape for meaning from a young age, appreciating the impact on the earth of carefully cut lines made in search of that meaning. Completed in the same year, his Levitating Mass took that negative further yet, suspending a monstrous 340 tonne granite boulder over a narrow walkway. There is no narrative here, no metaphor; the form itself is the work. The negative space remains for us to fill and endow with meaning and with sensation.
In the winter, the site is completely inaccessible, the work completely obscured. It’s tantalising to think of the work left to its own devices, hibernating under metres of snow, waiting patiently for the people of the new spring. Already it has seen two winters. And its quiet power will go on to see many, many more winters than we will.
Tangential Circular Negative Line (2012)
34.3 x 22.9m. Corten steel and locally sourced gravel. Presented by Fondation Air et Art.
Photographed 3 August 2014 by Esther Anatolitis.
Inaccessible across the winter months