The remains of a modern piece of land art displayed behind the Capitol’s west end from 1980 to 2002 was returned to the original artist after sitting in storage in Detroit for years, the state of Michigan confirmed this week.
The final stop for the framework of “This Equals That” — a collection of six sculptures made up of two large semi-circles, one disc and three pie-shaped spires — is the Nevada desert property of Michael Heizer, according to Michigan History Center Director Sandra Clark.
It’s not known when the piece was delivered. Attempts to reach Heizer, 78, were unsuccessful.
For years, state officials had hoped to refurbish the piece at a new site. But with the reclusive Heizer disgusted with how his work was treated 25 years ago and with nowhere to put the structure after the storage facility it sat in was repurposed, the state reached out to the artist, who agreed to take it.
“I’m stunned,” said East Lansing art gallery director Roy Saper, who attended the 1980 dedication ceremony with then-Gov. Bill Milliken. “The sculpture was a big deal.”
The city’s largest public art project — both in terms of size and price tag — was met with mixed criticism when it was unveiled in 1980. The mixture of sprayed-on concrete and stucco over a steel frame cost $500,000, half of which came from private donations and half from taxpayers. State employees at the time questioned the expense when layoffs were happening, according to reporting at the time.
But Milliken’s wife, Helen, reportedly wanted the project so badly the governor, himself, set aside some of his salary to make it happen.
The arts community rallied around the piece as an example of the public’s embrace of the arts. Heizer was a rising star at the time and the piece gave Lansing a modern vibe.
“More important than that, is simple availability,” Heizer said at the time. “You don’t have the collections (of art) here for public viewing that you have in New York or other major cities.”
The problems occurred years later when Gov. John Engler took office and had a different vision of the Capitol Mall between the Capitol and the new Hall of Justice he ended up having built three blocks to the west. Engler envisioned a walkable path — similar to the Capitol Mall in Washington — that state employees could enjoy for outdoor lunches or lunch-time strolls.
Standing in the way of this view was This Equals That, which sat on a deteriorating surface that badly needed repairs, said former Engler spokesperson John Truscott.
“There were trip hazards. The joints were uneven. It just got run down, and led to an effort to making the area more much more attractive,” he said.
The first step was to add some curbs and greenery to the area, which disgusted Heizer because it disrupted the plain, flat canvas on which he put his geometric shapes.
According to City Pulse, Engler in 1996 ordered a walkway be run through the plaza, which split the artwork in half.
“Not only was the color-related plaza which defined the sculpture from all its visual competition removed, but a very thoughtless mix of grass, concrete and rock was put in its place, altering totally the clarity and simplicity of the structure,” Heizer wrote in a letter to Engler.
Milliken was furious that the state would “destroy a $600,000 piece” that “kids learn about when they take art classes in college … . It’s unconscionable.”
One of the main issues was that This Equals That couldn’t be fully appreciated unless you had an aerial view of it, he said. Unless you were a state employee working on a top floor of an adjoining office building, you couldn’t see how all the shapes worked together, said Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.
“Send sculpture to the dump,” wrote retired Lansing State Journal reporter John Albright in a guest column.
In late 2002, as Engler was on his way out of office, crews ruggedly carved up the sculpture with chain saws at a cost of $500,000. According to a Department of Management and Budget spokesperson at the time, the goal was for it to be “restored.”
“Over the years, This Equals That, has suffered from the cruel hands of elements that caused some cracks and fissures,” said Penny Davis to MIRS in 2002. “Not only has it just started to create problems with the art’s structure itself, it’s caused leaking into the parking structure below.”
The plan was for the artwork to be stored in a state warehouse while the Department of Management and Budget worked with the History, Arts and Libraries Department to locate art experts who can restore the artwork.
Instead, the carved-up remnants of This Equals That were trucked to a Michigan Department of Transportation field outside of Mason. Truscott said Engler didn’t want the sculpture dumped. He felt it should be stored somewhere in case it could be saved for another location.
Saper said he paid it a visit as it sat in the field.
“I can still picture it very vividly in my mind,” Saper said. “It was like a windy, cold day around this time of year. I remember this howling wind going through the plastic cover that really wasn’t covering the skeleton of the structure … . I remember thinking, This is the end.’”
It was, but it wasn’t. In 2004, This Equals That was moved to a warehouse in Detroit, where Bill Anderson, the director of the History, Arts and Libraries Department had hoped it could be restored. The estimates came back at $1 million, which Anderson couldn’t justify given his shrinking budget.
Detroit industrialist Richard secured the framework for a time, Anderson said.
“When the storage facility I had arranged was going to be repurposed, I started a conversation with artist Heizer and he agreed to take the framework back to his facility in Nevada,” Anderson wrote in an email.
In 2018, a pair of local art experts began a search for This Equals That. Mark Auslander, the director of Michigan State University’s Museum at the time told the Lansing State Journal, “This is something that put us on the map back in the day. I think there are people who will want to do something wild, crazy and ambitious all over again.”
But nobody ever could find the structure. If they did, what would they do with it? Where would they put it? Who would pay to restore it? Unless it was fully stored back to its original location with the original footprint — sans walkway and greenery — Heizer had vowed publicly that he wanted his name taken off the art.
Now, whatever remained of the art remains with Heizer.
Castanier said he understands the technical challenges of keeping the controversial structure where it was, but he called it “unfortunate” that state leaders at the time “didn’t have much respect for the arts.”
Today, Heizer is world famous for his land art concept. But at the time, even the arts community didn’t have much respect for the arts and didn’t recognize who Heizer was.
“Heizer if one of the top five sculptors in the world,” he said. “For Lansing to have a Heizer piece of art is a pretty big deal.”
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