I can’t tell if Zaq Landsberg is simply having a good bit of fun or actually taking himself seriously. Landsberg is the founder of an art project in Utah’s west desert called Zaqistan, which consists of two rather inaccessible acres of scrubland that has been given the meta-contextual properties of a sovereign nation—there’s a flag, a motto, national monuments, etc. And Landsberg and his crew have managed to orchestrate mention of the project in various media outlets so that, a decade in, while not exactly viral, it is building some internet steam. People might even be taking the project seriously. But as is becoming increasingly clear in the political arena, it can be a depressing world when something that begins as a joke gets taken too seriously.
In 2005, as Landsberg explains on his website, he purchased a piece of Utah desert on eBay for $610, which even in the pre-recession real estate boom seems like a bit much for a chunk of salt, sand and sagebrush two miles from the nearest dirt road. But Landsberg and friends have made good use of the parcel in the time since, making various pilgrimages to the site, probing its habitability (pretty much zero) and for the most part constructing tongue-in-cheek art projects — a victory monument, a field of plastic “wildflowers,” robot sentinels and a border-crossing gate.
They’ve taken the project beyond its geographic confines to place mention of the “nation” in various media outlets (a list that15 Bytes now joins). Most have covered it in an appropriately bemused manner, like a curious local news item. In other instances, the wool has been pulled over the lazy journalistic eyes. In a VICE article, Salt Lake City writer Mike Abu, who is now a “representative of Zaqistan,” says he was even able to use his Zaqistani passport as identification in mundane transactions. Imagine, you can use your Zaqistani passport as a fake I.D.! You wonder what would happen if the beer-seeking teenagers of America learned about this.
It all seems like good fun. Camping in the desert, working on ridiculous projects. It’s the sort of thing American millenials apparently have the time and means to do, the kind that artists are drawn to by habit and that curmudgeons detest.
The media placements remind me of a stunt I pulled in high school, forging notes from my English teacher in order to get false announcements — containing embedded jokes known only to my friends—read on the school’s intercom system. And its impractical building projects remind me of the various things my cousins and I would cook up on our family trips to Lake Powell — one year we convinced grandma to hand over her box of trashbags so we could line a large pit we had dug in the sand and make a hot tub (yes, I know what you’re thinking, a hot tub at Lake Powell, where it’s frequently 100 degrees? We were 12. Which also explains our surprise at the lackluster capacity of Glad Extra Duty trash bags to seal off water, as well as our disappointment at the cost of replacing said bags at the remote marina store).
But there are stirrings, intimations if you will, that Zaqistan might be more than just a joke, that it might be a piece of conceptual art that has broader implications — there has been an essay by one participant, “Secession as Gesture and Gesture as Secession,” with a title that imports a good deal of intellectual significance, and now there’s a gallery exhibit at CUAC, and an organized tour of the “nation” happening this weekend.
These pretensions are likely as much a part of the joke as anything else. And Landsberg isn’t to be blamed for any sort of contextual baggage others might load on top of his playful piece. But if art can still say anything meaningful about the world, it is important to distinguish between art that does and art that doesn’t. It’s not a question of saying what is and isn’t art, but identifying a work’s register, what it does and does not do and not confusing the two. Because in an age where 500 words may be considered a long-form read, and false equivalencies have us living in a post-truth age, we risk slipping into nonsense, where by purporting to say too much, art ends up saying nothing at all. A form of art doublespeak.
With the legitimacy of its arrival in a gallery setting, attempts have been made to put Zaqistan into various art world contexts. With its location in the general vicinity of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, it may be tempting to place Zaqistan within the context of the Land Art canon; but apart from geography, it’s hard to see what Landsberg’s project shares with that historical movement. Attempts to tie it to local culture are equally threadbare (though in his defense Landsberg has not been the one to attempt these connections) — with the artist safely ensconced in his Brooklyn home for most of the year, and the various holders of Zaqistani passports descending only sporadically on the territory, if at all, the project known as Zaqistan bears no meaningful resemblance to the migrations that have occurred in Utah — from those of the indigenous peoples, to the Mormon settlers of the 19th century, and even the refugee communities that increasingly call Utah home. The closest Zaqistan comes to a Utah precedent is the mining enterprises that descended on Utah to make a few bucks before heading back East.
The ability to fool people into thinking that Landsberg’s art project is a real country, that somewhere in the vicinity of Uzbek-, Turkmen-, Tajik- and Kyrgyzstan there is a place called Zaqistan, might be read as a commentary on our national myopia, of Americans’ poor sense of geography — a reference, let’s say, to a recent presidential candidate’s ability to correctly identify the location and importance of Aleppo, and the pundits’ equally embarrassing attempt to set him straight. And there’s a decent amount of fun in that, though as someone who, prior to writing this article, could not be counted on to correctly order the various -stans in an east to west order, I would hesitate to laugh too loudly for fear of shattering my glass house.
If anything, the Zaqistan project positions itself as a political work, a commentary, or satire, let’s say, on borders and national identities. One of the main selling points is that in visiting Zaqistan’s “border control” you can get your passport stamped (caveat emptor: technically, this stamp from a fake or non-legitimate country invalidates your U.S. passport) or you can become a citizen and have issued to you a Zaqistani passport. As a commentary, however, it is fairly light. It’s not really probing the concept of secession and sovereignty, that sort of dangerous enterprise is left to the likes of Ammon Bundy and family. There are a lot of “would-be’s” in the idea of Zaqistan, not a lot of realities. This is a citizenship with no rights or responsibilities. In a mock-U.N., flags and symbols may be enough to create a country, but in the grown-up world a nation consists of resources, trade, an economy, defense, and internal protections. It is for these things that thousands of people are risking their lives on the Mediterranean. When someone from Somali makes it to Italy, they’re not interested in getting their passport stamped in the small city-state of San Marino (a tourist attraction for Westerners). They want work, a livelihood. Or simply to flee death and destruction. A passport to them, a valid one, could mean life or death. In that sense, the nation-state is more than a figment. It’s a serious issue.
But Zaqistan keeps it light, the tone mostly in jest, with its innocuous border crossing and its fake monumental art that mocks the aesthetics of former Soviet republics. One can’t help wonder if all the recent efforts—the show at CUAC, the upcoming tour — are a ruse to see how far the joke can go. It only takes a little digging to figure out that the Mount Insurmountable in the tourist brochure is only a few feet high, that the national monuments are thrown together, or that the local flora is plastic. Is the real commentary, perhaps, a poke at the contemporary tourist industry that has become part of our consumer culture—Zaq Landsberg as a sort of American Michel Houellebecq? It might be a DADAesque stunt poking fun at the bourgeois millenials of 21st-century America. When they encourage you to be the first among your friends to have your passport stamped in Zaqistan, maybe they are making a commentary about our fetish for travel, the desire to one-up our friends and the need to go to increasingly remote and unknown locales in order to make our Instagram feed a success. And if we see the whole project in that light, maybe we’re getting the joke. But if we’re paying $500 to go get the stamp, maybe we are the joke.
Because, at least for most of us, $500 is no joke. That’s what the Sunday tour out there facilitated by CUAC costs. You get food by Blended Table as well as cocktails en route, which sounds appealing enough. CUAC has also announced a cheaper tour on Saturday for $150, whether because the demand for the first is so high or so little is hard to tell. It’s never explicitly stated where the money goes. If we were to learn that after the bus and cocktails and food have all been paid for, all the proceeds were donated to a legitimate charity helping refugees from Syria or elsewhere, it would go a ways toward redeeming what might otherwise be considered a joke in questionable taste.
After the announcement of the tour went out, one of our 15 Bytes writers wondered if it was possible to get a press pass to go. My flippant response, hastily tapped out on my phone in between children’s soccer games, was, “A four hour trip into the desert to see a bad joke?” To which I received the reply, “That’s what my last editor said about the Sun Tunnels.” Ultimately, the joke may be on me and Zaqistan may prove to be an important work, a touchstone of art, let’s say, in the Age of Irony.
But this is where what seems like good fun becomes problematic. Overexposure to ironic mustaches and the practice of drinking our beer ironically may have conditioned us to a single register of thought, a mono-diet of snark. Irony is not without its merits—one thinks of Jonathan Swift and the cannibalization of Irish children—but an irony that doesn’t actually provoke risks becoming a form of masturbation, with no real engagement with the real world. Or if it is quick and easy, and, like a Zaqistani monument in the harsh desert climate, doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, we risk unlearning how to take anything seriously. And the only thing worse than taking things too seriously, is not taking them seriously enough.
If Zaqistan wanted to be a real, biting commentary there are myriad things it could do beyond mocking former Soviet republics. A number have already been suggested. The artist could build a giant wall around the property with himself inside — he would have to be life-flighted out by those foreigners in Utah. Or he could pass laws requiring all Caucasian visitors to be stopped, frisked and tazed: people of color, by contrast, would be the only ones allowed to use the Porta Potty (which, actually, doesn’t exist, you’ve been forewarned). Let your mind wander and you might come up with some fruitful, untapped concepts of your own waiting to be fulfilled in the glorious future of Zaqistan.
To date, though, Zaqistan has concerned itself mostly with the superficial trappings of national identity. Campy fun. The squid as the national animal, wrapping itself around a cog and rising sun on the flag. But if we compare what Zaq Landsberg does with the trappings of national identity and what, say, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick does, we see what a wide gulf there is between an art project and the real world. There is probably a Zaqistani national anthem (that’s my guess for why an opera singer is slated for the expensive Sunday trip), and visitors might even sing it before the planned fireworks display. But if someone were to kneel during it, what would happen?
The Zaqistani gods have been kind. The recent storms will make the danger of the fireworks display setting off a wildfire (and an “international” incident, when Utah and Box Elder County authorities arrest the organizers) less likely; and the lower temperatures will make any tourist visit to the west desert less harsh (what problems the moisture will have caused for the “roads” remains to be seen). In other words, it could be a really good time. And that may be all Zaq Landsberg meant it to be: Some good food, drinks, a road trip with friends. Because, if Rome is burning, why not head out on a tourist junket? Ironic trucker’s hat optional.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.