Michael Heizer- Effigy Tumuli


Effigy Tumuli consists of 5 artworks in one, and is located at Buffalo Rock State Park, Ottawa, Illinois. The land that the park is now established on was used originally for coal mining purposes in the 1930s (Fuld, 2012). Then when it turned into a park Michael Heizer, a well known land artist was commissioned to build Effigy Tumuli by the director of the park board. Effigy Tumuli is made up of 5 mounds of land in the shapes of animals native to Buffalo Rock. This includes; a snake, frog, turtle, catfish and a water strider.

Michael Heizer was born November 14, 1944 in Berkeley, California to Robert Heizer and Nancy Jenkins. His father was an anthropologist who lectured at the University of California, mainly about Native American culture in the west (Munz, 2012). This was a huge impact on Heizer’s inspiration for Effigy Tumuli. Heizer wanted to make his own Native American burial mounds. Which are mounds that the Native Americans would bury their deceased in. These mounds weren’t necessarily in the shape of an animal but commonly were. He noticed that the Native Americans never depicted insects and so he considered constructing the mounds in the shape of insects. After many months of planning he decided on insects and animals native to Buffalo Rock Park (Landcaster, 2010).

The Mounds are unrecognizable from the ground but when the viewer sees the artwork from above they are able to recognize the different animal shapes. As beautiful as the mounds are, they destroy the land by moving it from its natural place, which can cause many different effects to the earth such as flooding in unnatural areas and erosion making the soil unable to bare vegetation (Lailach, 2005). These mounds are of a huge scale. The water strider is 685 feet long, the frog is 350 feet long, the turtle is 650 feet long, the catfish is 220 feet long and the snake is 2070 feet long (Vincent, 2010). “Today the sculptures have deteriorated to the point of unrecognizability” (Munz, 2012). Over time the mounds have “largely eroded” (Lailach, 2005). I particularly do not like this artwork because it has such a devastating effect on the landscape of Buffalo Rock. The artwork is destroying the lands natural status and because of erosion, vegetation and animals will be effected.

Images of the frog and the turtle were unavailable; however I did find a map of all the mounds together. If the viewer were to look at the mounds as a collective, their attention would at first focus on the catfish, which is right in the center of the group. They would then go to the left looking at the frog and the water strider, only then to loop back around to look at the snake and turtle. However, the mounds are meant to be viewed individually. Heizer was interested in “positive and negative shape and he would demonstrate this through the addition or subtraction of land” (Lailach, 2005). In this instance Heizer is using positive shape by the additional dirt that has been formed into organic shapes. In the snake, water strider and the catfish, radiation was used quite obviously to compel the viewer to look outwards from the focal point, which varies on each sculpture. In the snake the focal point is the head of the snake with the body of the snake radiating outwards. In contrast to this the bodies of the water strider and the catfish are the focal point. The water strider’s legs are centrifugal and persuade the audience’s eyes to follow the legs out from the water strider’s body. The catfish’s whiskers and fins act in the same way. In the turtle Heizer has used a negative space for the shell. The negative space allows the viewer to assume what isn’t there. The frog can be viewed as one big focal point, which contrasts to the other sculptures because of this.

Heizer is fascinated by positive and negative shapes and by him creating his own Native American burial mounds he has left his mark in history. Heizer manipulates the land to show off what many people around the world think is astounding and beautiful, however, all he is doing is ruining “the natural beauty” of the land to create a tourist attraction (Adams, 2013). Heizer was more interested in depicting these Native American burial mounds as his key concept rather than the native animals of Buffalo Rock. By creating these geometrically abstract animals Heizer has not only portrayed “Effigy Tumuli [as a} political and social comment,” (Vincent, 2010) but he has degraded the 224-acre landscape that is known as Buffalo Rock State Park.


Adams, M. (2013, January 26). Michael Heizer Biography. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from Art Republic: http://www.artrepulic.com/biographies/213-Michael-Heizer.html

Fuld, I. (2012, September 28). Michael Heizer. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from On A Secret Mission: http://www.onasecretmission.blogspot.com.au/2012_09_01_archive.html

Lailach, M. (2005). Land Art. Berlin: Uta Grosenick.

Landcaster, D. (2010, April 06). Effigy Tumuli. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from Clui: clui.org/ludb/site/effigy-tumuli

Munz, D. (2012, July 04). Artist Biography. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from Dia Art: http://www.diaart.org/exhibitions/artistbio/83

Vincent, K. (2010, February 15). Biography. Retrieved February 19, 2013, from Double Negative: http://doublenegative.tarasen.net/heizer.html


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