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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. A mile and a half by a mile wide, it’s been called the largest contemporary artwork ever created.
To get to the City is a pilgrimage; to view it, life-changing; to understand it, a form of mental sublimation, or so it has been said. 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. There, I meet up with a handful of fellow explorers, all from the museum world in California.
On Alamo’s main street, our group gathers around noon at the offices of The Triple Aught Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to maintain the City, which sits on land that was declared a national monument during the Obama administration through the work of the late Sen. Harry Reid and which has been created within the ancestral territories of the Nuwu and Newe peoples. 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.
We soon pile into a large SUV and journey into the high desert of the Great Basin. After an hour, phones stop working. Thirty minutes later, at about 2 p.m., we arrive at an unassuming gate that our driver, a lifelong resident of Alamo, opens.
At first, there appears to be no trace of a city of any sort amid the stark terrain. Then, like a mirage, the City comes into view — a metropolis constructed of geometric forms, mounds and depressions made of compacted dirt, rock and concrete. The City is so large, everyone and everything is small. Shadows rapidly traverse the vast land as the sun throws itself deep west. One’s imagination fills in the holes. The mountains of this city look like stacked horseshoes, its valleys a gladiator pit, its skyscrapers like Egyptian obelisks. The temperature also greatly varies; at times, I am freezing cold, at other times my legs become searingly hot.
Our group has been given a few guidelines: Be back in three hours, stay hydrated and don’t climb on the sloped sculptures as they are regularly raked. I find myself searching for more rules. Is there a path or recommended way to explore? Nope, you just have to figure it out as you go. I ask myself, “Am I going the right way? Can I touch that? Can I sit there? Can I walk over there?” The silent and still desert does not respond to these queries.
According to Kara Vander Weg, senior director at Gagosian Gallery and board member of the Triple Aught Foundation, every one of my feelings is justified.
“There is no prescribed route,” says Vander Weg. “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. That can become a very meandering route, depending on the time of day and the light. I tend to do a circular path around the entire sculpture. It’s valuable to see how it stands alone from the surrounding land. In the interior, the sculpture is so varied in terms of topography, and has wide open expanses — you have a great distance where you can see for half a mile. It’s so inspiring. It is sublime to see that open sculpture. But everybody has to find their own way.”
She first visited the unfinished work in 2014 on a private tour. “It’s not just about sight, it’s about sound, certainly when you’re walking the silence, the crushed gravel in your footsteps, the smell of the sagebrush depends on the time of year that you’re there. It’s everything. It’s the air. It is this full-body experience,” says Vander Weg.
Exploring the vast artwork, I walked six and a half miles, and every path within the City became a surrender to 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.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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