Michael Heizer’s colossal ‘City’ desert is for immersion – not Instagram: NPR
Ben Blackwell/Triple Augh Foundation
Most people who visit Michael Heizer City Start in Las Vegas, a place dominated by the deafening sound of slot machines, air conditioning and the famous fountains of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino dancing to the beat of Celine Dion songs.
So it’s quite a shock, after a three-hour drive north, to find yourself in the middle of the burning Nevada desert, surrounded by absolute silence.
For more than five decades, American artist Michael Heizer has worked in this isolated environment to create a colossal art installation. Located at least a 90 minute drive from the nearest small town and costing around $40 million (so far) in construction and maintenance costs, City is one of the greatest works of art in the world. It has just opened to the public.
A city like no other
Heizer started working on City in 1970. The artist built his masterpiece from local rock and earth, which he and a team of laborers quarried over the years. The site is over a mile and a half long by half a mile wide and consists of groups of low, gravel-covered mounds and towering sculptures made of smooth concrete and rough stone separated by a network of rocky tracks and winding, empty streets.
Triple Augh Foundation
Some parts of City it looks like they’ve been there forever. There are dark, warped structures that look like tombstones in an ancient cemetery, and rolling hills reminiscent of native seashell mounds. And there are also concrete curbs like you find on any modern city street and futuristic geometric sculptures.
It’s like a pre-Columbian Mayan settlement, a highway interchange in Las Vegas, and the desert planet Tatooine of star wars all in one.
The city is unlike any other artistic experience on Earth. And as artistic experiments progress, it is ruthless.
Only a maximum of six people are allowed to visit the facility per day. There is no visitor center, restrooms or shade from the relentless desert sun. There isn’t so much as a chair or a bench to rest on.
There’s really nothing to do but walk the seemingly endless dirt roads, get up close to the towering architectural forms and contemplate the effects of changing light.
The artist and his vision
Michael Heizer was part of a wave of iconoclastic, mostly young, white men who turned their backs on the traditional gallery scene in the late 1960s and 1970s. Instead, Heizer (and other artists like Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson) used the wilderness of the American West as canvas and paint.
Heizer became known for creating works of art from a distance that were so huge they looked like they had been placed there by superhuman forces. He was never interested in explaining why he creates field works on such a large scale.
“You know, I don’t like to talk about art very much,” Heizer told NPR in 2012. More recently, he said The New York Times in August, “I’m not here to tell people what all this means. You can find out for yourself.”
So to learn more about the artist and his installation, NPR turned to a man who knows them both quite well.
“Mike Heizer is not coming for opening night,” said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “He comes to do the work and push the definitions of what art is.”
Since the mid-1990s, Govan has helped Heizer achieve City ready for the public.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing to convince people to donate money to move the land into the desert with no completion date and just an artist’s vision,” Govan said.
Photography is prohibited at City. And Govan said the artwork wasn’t even particularly well photographed, even by drone. The audience can only engage with the installation by fully immersing themselves in it.
“I think the world is catching up with this idea of an experiment that Mike Heizer was interested in a long time ago,” Govan said.
But there’s nothing Instagrammable about Heizer’s masterpiece. Being there – even getting there – takes commitment.
And that’s the point.
“There is no duplicate for this experience,” Govan said. “And after working here with Mike, it’s really hard to go back to a museum with paintings and frames. Sometimes it just doesn’t satisfy.”
Edited by: Jennifer Vanasco Produced by: Isabelle Gomez Sarmiento