How to Visit Michael Heizer’s ‘City’ Outside Las Vegas, the World’s Largest Contemporary Artwork
Only six visitors per day, per the artist’s wishes, are permitted to visit the City, Michael Heizer’s monumental land sculpture in the Nevada desert, which finally opened to the public in September — after 50 years of construction. It measures a mile and a quarter by one mile in width, making it the largest contemporary artwork.
To reach the City it is a pilgrimage. To view it is life-changing. To understand it, it is a form mental sublimation. Sign me up. On a chilly Thursday in October, I drive about 90 miles to the dusty cattle town of Alamo in southern Nevada, known for its placement off the Extraterrestrial Highway and proximity to the famed Area 51 and the Nevada National Security Site. I meet up with a few fellow explorers from California’s museum world.
Our group meets on Alamo’s main street at noon to the offices of The Triple Aught Foundation. This nonprofit is charged with maintaining the City , which sits on land that was made a national monument by the Obama administration. It was created in the ancestral territories of Nuwu and Newe. According to the foundation, the City occupies parcels of Bureau of Land Management land acquired by Heizer from individual landowners; Heizer’s family has inhabited Nevada since the 1800s.
Soon, we are able to get into a large SUV and travel into the Great Basin’s high desert. After about an hour, our phones stop working. Thirty minutes later, around 2 p.m., our driver, an Alamo resident for many years, opens a gate.
In the midst of the barren terrain, it appears that there is no sign of any city. The City emerges as a mirage. It is a metropolis made up of geometric shapes, mounds, and depressions of concrete, rock, and dirt. Because the City has so many people, everything is small. As the sun sets, shadows swiftly traverse the vast land. The gaps are filled by one’s imagination. This city’s mountains look like stacked horseshoes and its valleys like a gladiator pit. Its skyscrapers look like Egyptian obelisks. Temperatures can also vary greatly. Sometimes I feel freezing cold and other times my legs get scorching hot.
Our group was given some guidelines to follow: Return in three hours, keep hydrated, and don’t climb onto the sloped sculptures that are regularly raked. I am always looking for more rules. Is there a recommended path? You just have to find it as you go. I ask myself: “Am I going in the right direction?” Can I touch it? Can I sit there? “Can I walk over there?” This silent and still desert doesn’t respond to these questions.
Kara Vander Weg is the senior director of Gagosian Gallery, and a board member of Triple Aught Foundation. She says that all my feelings are justified.
Vander Weg says that there is no set route. “If I’m coming in as a visitor, I come into the center of the project, I spend a moment orienting myself in a 360-degree view of the sculpture and then choose to go in one direction or another. It can be a very winding route depending on the light and time of day. I prefer to follow a circular route around the entire sculpture. It is very valuable to see the sculpture in isolation from the surrounding landscape. The interior sculpture has a variety of topography and large open spaces. You can see half a mile from the sculpture. It is so inspiring. It’s amazing to see this open sculpture. Everyone has to find their way.
She first visited the unfinished work in 2014 on a private tour. It’s not about sight. It’s about sound. Depending on the season, the sounds you hear, the crushed gravel beneath your feet, and the scent of the sagebrush depend on the time of the year. It’s everything. It’s the air. Vanderweg says it is a full-body experience.
I explored the vast artwork by walking six and a quarter miles. Every path within the City became a surrender of the unknown.
Heizer, who started the City when he was 27 years old and who is now 78, does have one additional, profound rule for visitors, given the world in which we currently live: no photographs. Explains Vander Weg, “Over the 50 years that it’s taken Heizer to build it, our experience of the world has been so mitigated by electronic devices, it’s almost more important to have that solitude.”
The Triple Aught Foundation begins accepting reservations for the 2023 season on Jan. 2, 2023, at tripleaughtfoundation.org. $150 per person, with a student ticket rate of $100 per student and free (but with reservations still required) for residents of Nevada’s Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties.
This story was first published in The Hollywood Reporter magazine’s Nov. 9 issue. Click here to subscribe.
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