A thousand years from now, Michael Heizer's ``Effigy Tumuli'' earth sculptures will still be attracting people curious to see 20th-century American art, just as tourists today visit the Stonehenge of Great Britain or the Nazca ground drawings of Peru. What these future visitors to ``Effigy Tumuli'' will find are five immense animal figures carved into a bluff overlooking the Illinois River about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
The sheer size of these sculptures is guaranteed to attract attention far into the future. Each is more than two stories high and up to 1,800 feet long -- longer, in fact, than the Sears Tower if it were laid on its side.
But size alone will not be the sole attraction of ``Effigy Tumuli.'' Mr. Heizer's sculptures possess their own power and animation. From the river, the warehouse-size snapping turtle appears to be leaping into the water. The half-mile-long snake slithers from the bluff down to the river's edge. The catfish, frog, and water spider are also remarkably realistic, even to the precise number of whiskers on the catfish.
For Heizer, an internationally acclaimed pioneer in making sculpture from the land, or what is known as earth art, ``Effigy Tumuli'' represents a modern version of traditional earth art forms. He was particularly inspired by the tumuli, or burial mounds built by native Americans, which dot the landscape from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. These earth mounds, shaped like animals, human beings, and abstract geometric designs, were thought to be used for religious and ceremonial purposes. In fact, Hei zer borrowed many dramatic design ideas from the mound builders. ``The idea for taking the turtle and snake down to the river's edge came from a Wisconsin tribe who had carved sculptures of birds flying down into a river,'' he says.
Heizer's upbringing as the son of a University of California archaeologist also provided inspiration for ``Effigy Tumuli.'' ``I've been around this kind of earth sculpture all my life,'' he explains. ``As a kid I traveled to Egypt and Latin America with my father, exploring ancient earthworks.''
He also once lived near the Nazca Ground Drawings in Peru. These drawings, dating back to 200 BC, are lines etched across the desert for hundreds of feet in the shapes of birds, monkeys, and geometric designs.
As you can imagine, creating earth art is an entirely different artistic process from painting in a studio. Heizer's canvas for ``Effigy Tumuli'' is a mile-and-a-half-long bluff that was once a wasteland of coal mine tailings. Instead of paintbrushes, he commands a fleet of bulldozers as his artistic tools.
``To make a pile of dirt look like something requires incredibly precise work,'' Heizer explains as he instructs a bulldozer operator to make a refinement in the snake.
Later, after viewing the project by helicopter, Heizer huddles with the site engineer to suggest a few more changes that will better translate his vision into reality.
``These forms come out of the natural setting,'' he explains. ``Making the design fit the topography of the site is the hardest job.''
``Effigy Tumuli,'' sponsored by the Illinois Abandoned Mines Lands Reclamation Council and the Ottawa Silica Corporation Foundation, is more than an aesthetic exercise. It is also part of a unique mine reclamation project that will solve the serious pollution problem caused by the coal mine spoils. Next spring the grounds will be landscaped, trails created, and the entire area turned into a park. Visitors will be able either to walk around the huge sculptures or to look up at them from boats cruising on the Illinois River.
Art on this grand scale is not new to Michael Heizer. His work has been featured in Art in America, Art, Artforum, Art News, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. In addition, his smaller sculptures are shown in galleries across the United States and Europe. ``Heizer is the most important earth artist working today,'' says David Whitney, adjunct curator of New York's Whitney Museum, which sponsored a show of Heizer's work this year. ``Effigy Tumuli'' is grand sculpture in the tra dition of Mt. Rushmore and the Egyptian pyramids.''
Opinion about the mammoth sculpture is mixed in Ottawa, a river town of 20,000 people. But Frank Polancic, owner of a sporting goods store, thinks Heizer's project is a plus for the town. ``Heizer took a hundred acres of useless land and made it productive again. It will also attract people from the city, and that will help local businesses.''
Heizer earned his reputation in the 1970s for two projects in the Nevada desert. For the first of these, ``Double Negative,'' he dynamited and then carved with bulldozers two vertical notches out of a desert canyon, each one taller than the Empire State Building. ``The image appears almost as an accent mark on this vast and pristine environment,'' says Cherie Kluesing, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. ``It affects the environment, yet remains consistent with the earth's
active processes found on site.''
A second project, ``Complex I of the City,'' is also in Nevada, about four hours' drive from Las Vegas. Heizer considers it his metaphoric city of sculpture, because its cement and earth forms represent all the basic geometric abstractions.
In particular, the project sparked Heizer's aesthetic interest in nature's geometry, a theme he explored in both ``Double Negative'' and ``Complex I.'' ``What personally intrigued me about this project,'' he notes, ``was discovering a whole new level of geology in the skeletal structure of the animals I was drawing.''
But what will art critics a thousand years from now say about ``Effigy Tumuli''? Heizer hopes it will convey to them the scale of the grandest architectural and technical accomplishments of American society, while showing the connection with the native American heritage. ``My purpose is to make American art, not copy the tradition of European painting,'' Heizer says. `` `Effigy Tumuli' is American without being chauvinistic.''