Michael Heizer’s “City” and the Las Vegas Sphere in 24 Hours

by Jason Gudasz May 21, 2024
Photo of Michael Heizer land art sculpture called City

“45°, 90°, 180°, City,” © Michael Heizer. Courtesy of Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Ben Blackwell

The largest work of art ever created, the size of a regional airport, lies silent in the Southwestern desert. Hours away, the world’s largest LED screen beams inside the world’s largest spherical structure amidst the neon chaos of Las Vegas. Two contemporary pinnacles of human achievement. Both recently opened to the public. Both I will see in the next 24 hours.

For some distant future species, Michael Heizer’s magnum opus City will exist as one of the few remnants of human civilization. For the art world, City has existed as a decades-long mystery, seen only by those working on its construction. For myself, City has only existed the past couple of weeks. 

We drive toward Heizer’s City and a glance in the rearview mirror shows the fading outline of Liberace’s city. In the morning light, Las Vegas looks like the space wreckage of a desert crash landing, with clouds of dust and smoke yet to settle. We will return there later to witness the Sphere, but for now its skyline smoulders miles behind us and the air still smells of casino cigarettes.

I did not know much about Heizer aside from his work Levitated Mass — the impossibly large boulder that looms over the sunken walkway behind the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If it existed in a vacuum, the effect of Levitated Mass would be one of serenity amidst danger, but often the work is reduced to photo opportunities where Angelenos angle their phones in obscene ways to make it appear as if they are lifting the boulder with little effort. I know this because I have done this myself. 

City, however, is deliberately inaccessible. The lottery for winning a chance to see it happens one day a year, and even if you get on the waitlist, only six people are allowed to see the work each day. The closest city with a major airport is still 3 hours away from the site. 

I had been invited to see City thanks to Morris and Liz, artists and partners originally from Dallas. There’s something quintessentially Texas about Morris, who tells many stories that roll into each other like a sprawling southwestern epic. He had met Liz years earlier in a welding class for metal sculptors. They were both married to other people at the time, but when those marriages dissolved they eventually gravitated to each other as partners and built a home in Santa Fe. When they won the lottery to visit City, they awarded their remaining four spots to friends Art, Sherry, Ariel, and myself. Morris, now in his seventies, speaks about this drive to City as though it will mark the last adventure in a long and storied life. 

The first leg of the journey is the hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas to the small and predominantly Mormon town of Alamo (no, not that one), where we will be picked up by a shuttle. The graveled embankments alongside the sun-damned Interstate 15 look a lot like the few photos of City I’ve seen. I am not the only person to point out that the manmade slopes probably served at least partial inspiration for Heizer, who has used Nevada as his canvas since the 1960s (i.e. Double Negative). 

After passing stretches of planetary desert landscape, we finally reach the unincorporated town of Alamo, the closest semblance of population to City. Our first stop is the Sinclair gas station, a clear focal point for the town. The gas station buzzes with the energy of recently dismissed school kids, all purchasing its hot chicken sandwiches. The population of the town is so meager that the high school team can only engage in the smaller variation of 8-man football. Memorabilia for the team adorns the gas station walls as though it were the last team left on earth, fighting for humanity itself. 

A small tribe of goats posts up on the porch when we pull into the visitor’s outpost. A man with a sunburnt face, apart from the pale where his Oakleys normally rest, gently ushers the goats away as he sweeps their droppings off the porch. This is our driver and defacto guide. He is a sixth generation rancher who drives the shuttle to City when he’s not busy managing livestock. He shakes our hands with a kind of sincerity you only get from growing up in a small town. Friendly neighbors wave in apology to the driver as they herd the escaped goats back to their pen. “Goats’ll climb just about anything,” Morris says, launching into a story about an acquaintance who lent his 1980 Camaro to a friend. The friend parked it near some free-roaming goats, and when he came back to the car, the flock had climbed the roof until it crumpled flat under their collective weight.

We sign our names on the last page of the guest book. 

Looking back through older signatures we discover that this is the first and only guest book — we are among the first couple hundred people to ever visit City. The name Michael Govan is repeated several times in the ledger, with the fourth entry reading “Michael Govan again.” With my last bar of phone reception, I search and confirm this is the director of LACMA. Govan has been a chief supporter of Heizer and one of the reasons City has acquired the funding to be completed within anyone’s lifetime. He serves on the board of the Triple Aught Foundation, the nonprofit institution that oversees City. It was created not just for today’s operations, but to provide stewardship over the work even after Heizer’s lifetime. The seven of us pack into the driver’s large white SUV and we drive out of Alamo and into the widening desert. 

When viewed from above, the basin and range topography of Nevada looks something like stretch marks on the earth. That’s effectively what they are. The continental plate has been rising toward the sky for millions of years to form the high-elevation deserts of the American West. The land splits from the strain, and masses of earth continue to push upwards through the cracks, resulting in mountain ranges and flat valleys between them. The mountains expose the layers of dark bands of past millennia, making them almost look like masonry. It is hard to visualize this was all under water in the time of Pangea.

“They found fossils of fish up there,” the driver tells us, nodding toward the passing mountain peaks, “Big fish.” 

The highway forks. The busier offshoot, dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway, leads to the nearby Area 51. Instead, we veer to the right, the more remote State Route 318, and then onto impossibly long stretches of dirt roads. We drive at a very deliberate speed. We ask if Heizer is as cantankerous as his reputation suggests. He says the artist has only been nice to him, pointing out that Heizer has provided jobs for a town that doesn’t have many jobs to spare. It’s worth noting that Heizer allows any resident of Alamo to visit City for free.

We pull up to the entrance road. All we can see of City is what looks like a tall brown wave in the otherwise flat landscape. Heizer’s ranch hides nearby, shrouded in trees. 

Aerial view of Michal Heizer "City" located in the Las Vegas Desert

Michael Heizer’s “City,” 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer. Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Eric Piasecki

The driver walks us to a winding entry point in between the 40-foot tall embankments that border City, “I’m gonna tell you the only thing that Mr. Heizer told me to tell people when they come here: use your imaginations.” This feels more Disney than it does Heizer — an elusive enigma, even by art world standards. Maybe this was just the driver’s own distillation of something Heizer said, or maybe it was his own invention, but we accept it as truth.

We pass between the sloped barriers until they part, revealing a long valley bordered and meandered through by road-like paths and arabesque embankments. Because of its size, one and a half miles long and a half mile wide, it is impossible to photograph City with encompassing effect. The 480-acre project is best experienced and digested in pieces, at a walking pace, as Heizer intends.

We have been dropped off about halfway into the work, where neither end is completely visible. Large geometric concrete structures bookend either side, though it’s difficult to grasp both ends from the same vantage point. We first encounter a several acres of untouched desert in the middle of City. The driver called this “central park” (an apt nickname) and told us he would meet us here in the allotted 3 hours, give or take ten minutes. The driver is generous. 

The Triple Aught Foundation states the megasculpture is constructed almost entirely from locally sourced clay, rocks, and concrete. This allows City to simultaneously stand out and blend into the natural ecosystem. Every piece of gravel has been sorted for size to distinguish between City’s mounds, causeways, and depressions. White curbs, like those found in any suburb, lace through and act as borders between the varying flows of rock fragments. 

Aerial view of Michal Heizer "City" located in the Las Vegas Desert

“City,” 1970 – 2022 © Michael Heizer. Courtesy Triple Aught Foundation. Photo: Eric Piasecki

Heizer likes to experiment with depth perception by stripping three-dimensional spaces of any details that might reveal their true scale (aka monocular cues). This makes it hard to guess the size of anything in City until you’re right beside what you’re looking at. I am probably particularly susceptible to this kind of artwork since I already have faulty depth perception (my right eye works fine and my left eye is useless). The collection of triangular sculptures on the northwest end is the most publicized because of this effect — from afar they look as though they are the size of carefully arranged building blocks, though in actuality they could be as tall as 30-40 feet. Current sources do not agree on their exact height. A similar parallax effect is also apparent in the building-like structure on the southeast end, where a beam of concrete appears to levitate at its “roof” level. It’s only when you walk within a hundred feet of the structure that you see this is only the flat side of a T-shaped beam extending outward.

As we climb on top of the embankments, a hamster-sized rodent, likely a vole, races down a slope nearby. I walk towards it to get a closer look, when it suddenly changes course and charges toward me, squeaking loudly. A bite from a rabid vole would cut everyone’s time here short and result in a long drive to the closest hospital. When the vole gets a foot away from me it shows no signs of slowing down so I kick dirt in its direction. It continues scampering and barking at me, undeterred. I move out of its path, and it continues its original course toward a small hole in the embankment behind me. The vole is not rabid — it is the lone citizen of City

City evokes the paradoxical, down to the name itself. Every city is constructed to house masses of people, whereas this City is intended only to be visited by a few people at a time. It is the ruin of a city that never existed, a nameless Tenochtitlan to be discovered not just now, but in distant futures. To be here is to straddle the past and future simultaneously. 

I walk ahead of the group by accident, and then on purpose. I reach an area that opens into an elongated hole the size of a coliseum. I clap my hands and their echo slaps back instantly like an announcer’s voice in a stadium. How many sleepless nights has Heizer wandered from his ranch to come out here alone to bask in the serenity of its strange silence? 

In his final book of essays, The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher described the eerie as a sense of presence in the absence of something expected — something is not quite right — the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and a sense of haunting lingers. City is undoubtedly an eerie work. Despite the existing information about Michael Heizer and City, questions of agency still arise. How was this made? Why was this made? What is its purpose? Even the answers for Heizer have shifted over 50 years and five “phases” of creation. What began for him as an ambitious concept in his twenties evolved into an ongoing and broadening project that spanned marriages, remarriage, three divorces, the death of part-friend-part-rival Robert Smithson, bouts with obsession, construction-inflicted health problems, the resulting morphine addiction, and the other usual pitfalls that kill many artists. How can any work that has been constructed over such a long period hold any singular thesis, even for its creator? Truth can really only be told in glimpses over the meandering course of a lifetime. 

The sun reaches the horizon when we head back to the SUV. Three hours has been enough time to walk the entire perimeter of City at a leisurely pace. We pass by an understated oblong bowl-shaped depression that looks like a much larger, deeper version of a bowl you’d find at a skatepark. Sherry and I agree that this is our favorite part, though neither of us can say why. Maybe because it doesn’t have defined lines like the other sloping parts — the depression just smoothly rounds itself out with spatially disorienting ease. 

Thirty minutes into the drive home it is already pitch dark. We listen to innings 3 through 7 of the World Series as the Rangers near victory. The Texan artists jostle quietly with the bumps of the desert, watching the headlights cut through dust behind the blue glow of the radio. 

Image of a video projection with the subtitles "Postcard from Earth"

Video projection in the Sphere in Los Vegas. Photo: Jason Gudasz

The next afternoon, Ariel and I go to the newly-built Sphere to see Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth. I do not go in with any expectation, other than this will be some kind of immersive experience. 

The building is of course impressively large, 516 feet in diameter, and covered with 1.2 million LED lights on its exterior. The daylight takes away from the effect of its visual projections, revealing the dark and tangled inner workings behind their spherical mesh.

Both City and Sphere are gargantuan constructions in Nevada that have only recently opened to the public. This is where their similarities dwindle. The lines at the security checkpoint for Sphere stretch hundreds of feet in a disorganized tangle of unmarked lanes. After the checkpoint, every step of getting into Sphere is also a standstill bottleneck. Even the escalators feel like molasses in an hourglass. 

Ariel mentions how impossible it would be to evacuate this structure, and she is right. Catastrophes of yore flash in my mind — the Station nightclub fire, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster — all incredibly possible here. One would think Las Vegas, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in 2017, would place a greater emphasis on pedestrian flow and egress planning. We guess that the lines are moving slowly because it is probably an especially busy day. 

It is not. 

When we finally reach the entrance to the theater itself, we see that it is not even a third of the way full and the scene is already one of mass confusion. The gravity-disorienting stairs are so steep that even the venue’s ushers are wary of leading people down to their specific rows, which are too subtly labeled for the dim light. Lost people carrying glowing beers don’t realize until they’re halfway down the long rows that they are one or two levels off from their assigned seats. They climb up and down over other people to get to their seats. How no one has fallen to their death here yet is miraculous, bizarre. 

Projection of pink and green light inside of the Sphere in Las Vegas

Video projection in the Sphere in Los Vegas. Photo: Jason Gudasz

The interior of the theater looks like what could be the inside of a Nintendo GameCube, with a black, purple, and teal color scheme reminiscent of 2000s laser tag. The energy of the room is less that of an engaging theatrical experience for the senses and more like a minor league baseball game. The casino-drunk crowd talks, spits, and laughs its way through the entirety of Postcard from Earth, as though it were playing on mute behind a nightclub bartender. Of course, you can’t fault a venue for its audience, but God how you want to.

Postcard from Earth begins within a standard theatrical screen-sized rectangle in the middle of the sphere. We are introduced to two humans in the distant future who have been frozen and are just now waking up. Their purpose is to now repopulate Earth, which was abandoned because of environmental collapse. The most memorable effect of the film is when a slow zoom stretches out of the rectangle, bringing us into the full 160,000 square foot, 16,000 x 16,000-pixel wraparound screen. 

A voiceover goes on to tell the two humans a not-very-chronological account of what Earth was like back in the salad days while beaming video snapshots from around the globe into their brains. This is a movie about Earth, showing images of Earth, screening on an Earth-shaped screen. The shots, gathered from multiple camera teams, are undoubtedly beautiful, though some of it has been noticeably choreographed with over-acting background extras. The Big Sky camera was invented just for this project and the Sphere screen, shooting at a whopping 18k resolution (for reference, current Marvel movies are shot on 6.5k cameras). 

Aronofsky explained to the Wall Street Journal “When I first showed up, it was eleven Red [cameras] welded together.” Stitching these together into one camera is truly an achievement, though there are still bugs to be figured out in just how best to utilize it. The overwhelming majority of Postcard from Earth exists with horizons on the bottom fourth of the screen while the rest of the image is just sky. This can work for the bottom few rows, but most of the film does not play to the middle or the back of the room, in the only theater specifically designed to reach the back of the room. When the images do fill the entire screen they can’t help but inspire awe — like when a school of fish quietly envelops from all angles, or when a cumulonimbus thunderstorm is paired with escalating booms from Sphere’s deftly hidden sound system. 

The voiceover prose ranges from cringey (“Earth was a kaleidoscope of life,” boldly stated as though it is the first time the phrase has been used) to Dr. Suessian (Humans came along with their “billions of dreams, billions of schemes…”). The film would have probably worked brilliantly without it. I want to feel the same cerebral glow I felt when I first saw Planet Earth or the sacredness of Terrance Malick’s Voyage of Time, but this self-insistent voiceover comes off as disingenuous and it is taking me out of the most immersive theater on the planet. The fault could be my own, perhaps I did have expectations of Postcard from Earth after all, but even from an objective storytelling perspective, it’s impossible to think that these Poetry 101 musings provided the film’s future-nauts with any practical information on how to repopulate Earth in an eco-conscious manner. 

Postcard from Earth wraps up with a call to action: do better to preserve the natural world that is given to us. This empty message is immediately undercut once the lights come on to reveal the hopeless excess of Sphere — a temporary circus tent of technologies that will become archaic within a half-century. The masses clamber and shuffle out of the LED globe, ready to take in other spectacles of Las Vegas, the electricity-hungry Neon City, the clearest middle finger to any environmental cause. 

Photo of the outside of the the Sphere venue in Las Vegas

The Sphere in Los Vegas. Photo: Jason Gudasz.

I leave the venue depressed. Maybe the whiplash is too much. Maybe I am having a hard time enjoying the ephemeral glitter of Sphere — the embodiment of all that is humanly possible in the present moment — right after experiencing the expansive timelessness of City. Maybe all land art, no matter its aim, is eventually a meditation on permanence. Maybe it’s not even worth meditating on because nothing is permanent. Maybe $40 million is a lot to spend on constructing a City no one can live in. Maybe an environmental cataclysm is going to level it all. Maybe I should just be in the now. Maybe I just didn’t have enough to drink. 

Returning to California the next day, I look again at the sloped gravel along the sides of the I-15. The wave-like easements, if left to the elements, will probably survive longer than the asphalt road in between them. Such is the case with any human accomplishment — its intended purpose is survived by its material scaffolding until it is eventually only survived by the earth it displaced.

If a distant future-naut roams the basins and ridges of what was once Nevada, they might find the elevated grooves that once were I-15 or the eroded ruins of Las Vegas. They also might find City as a series of ripples and mounds with vaguely geometric edges, softened by wind and rain and time. They probably will not know of Michael Heizer or his complex feelings toward Smithson or two-seam fastballs or the Golden Nugget. All they will know is that there was a time when something moved this earth for a reason. Some reason.


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Liz May 21, 2024 - 15:55

Bravo, Jason!

Jim Malone May 26, 2024 - 18:47

I wonder if this essay would be significantly different if the experiences were reversed?

Norman Kary May 27, 2024 - 08:54

Excellent review of Micheal Heizer”s CITY. Thoughtful and succient.


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