This last rule is a smart move on the foundation’s part—it says, Accept no substitutes. “City” wouldn’t photograph particularly well anyway. It’s vast and sometimes overwhelming, and there’s no convenient place to stand and drink it all in; the only way to see everything is to keep moving or to find a helicopter. The bulk of the sculpture consists of deep, gently sloping trenches and tall, wide mounds of gravel, marked off with concrete curbs. From the trenches, the purple mountains look like they’re yards away instead of miles. “City” pulls quite a few of these perceptual tricks, scrambling near and far and old and new. This is, simultaneously, the quietest place I’ve ever been and one of the loudest—every breath and pebble-crunching step is deafening, in the same way as someone wrestling with a sweet wrapper at the movies. The slanted sides of the trenches suggest ancient ruins, but also the I-15. It’s not always obvious where the art ends and the desert begins. Toward either side of “City,” however, you’ll find big, straight-edged structures: to the west, a flock of concrete fins; to the east, a trapezoidal slab with concrete beams poking out. These objects look plainly more man-made than natural—“man-made” being the strange, polished stuff that refuses to admit that it’s natural, too.
If “City” is land art, the usual term for remote, monumental, durable sculpture in this part of the world, it is an especially fussy, rule-oriented kind. Unlike, say, “Spiral Jetty,” the defining creation of Heizer’s rival, Robert Smithson, it cannot be explored at the visitor’s leisure; you can’t climb on the gravel mounds, you have to reserve a slot in advance, and no more than six guests are allowed at once. (The day I went, I was the only one.) As with Smithson’s sculpture, though, the sheer inconvenience of “City” can seem part of the point. It’s difficult to separate Heizer’s work from the experience of getting to and around it—burned calories are crucial ingredients, no less than sand or granite.
Insofar as it demands a reshaping of attention, and takes that process as one of its subjects, “City,” like the Sphere, is an immersive experience. You have to do more of the immersing yourself, but, partly for that reason, it ends up making a more successful attack on your senses. For three hours, your perceptions dilate and time slows down. The mere fact that “City” is an outdoor sculpture gives it a flicker of unpredictability that’s rare in immersive art. The usual sense of artifice is balanced, or at least tempered, by the entropy of the surroundings—I have a hard time believing, for instance, that Heizer planned the endless spiderwebs covering his mounds and trenches. It occurred to me, while I was staring at some of these strands, that I couldn’t recall how long I’d been standing there. As I snapped out of my trance, the sculpture felt not large but infinite.
The differences between “City” and the Sphere are deep, true, yet narrower than you might suppose—the works are trying for the same things but in opposite ways. Both are big, expensive, geometric structures in the desert that offer visitors a vivid encounter with the natural world—one with exquisite footage of jellyfish and the like, the other with deftly roughened rock and concrete. Both were funded by the same sort of people (“City,” for example, got money from Elaine P. Wynn, the ex-wife of Steve Wynn, whose casino sits across the street from the Sphere), and both have been craftily peddled to the world, one with a deluge of images and the other with a tantalizing lack of them. Heizer has described his sculpture as “a masterpiece” and “art for the ages”—these being, to the best of my knowledge, the two most Vegasy claims that anybody involved with the Sphere or “City” has made about either.
What’s the price of art for the ages? In dollars, 1.2 million in annual maintenance costs. In another currency, one pale cloud of dust per day. This cloud was the first sign of “City” that I saw when the foundation’s designated guide, Mark, drove me the last few miles there, and, if I had to guess, it will be what I’ll most remember years from now. “You’re early,” a voice coming from Mark’s walkie-talkie said. The voice was correct, and possibly a little irritable. Before visitors arrive, Mark told me, “City” is purged of footprints and litter, and its mounds are carefully raked. He called the process “dragging.” I didn’t ask about the mechanics of dragging (something involving a desert Zamboni?) or why it launches so much dust into the sky. Even now, I don’t especially want to know: that concept, somehow mystical and mundane at the same time, may be the best thing about Heizer’s sculpture. It’s easily the most poignant.
Walking through the semi-dragged terrain, I saw footprints that I’m fairly sure weren’t mine, and a tattered price tag, for a hammer from Vaughan & Bushnell, camouflaged by pebbles. Millions of dollars and hundreds of Sisyphean man-hours were required to preserve the illusion of calm, untouched beauty in harmony with nature. This entire place, I thought, is a simulation, and the tag is a glitch. But glitching is one of the most interesting things that immersive art can do—it’s when the work ceases to be one size fits all, and yields, finally, to interpretation. I’d been on the road for hours that day, I was in a place dry enough to kill me, but it wasn’t until I squatted down and read “VAUGHAN” that I appreciated how far I was from my normal life. The bar code was what got me: this single, useless sign of civilization, designed for talking with machines that weren’t there, made me feel the absence of everything else. It spoiled the illusion of the sculpture, and the more it did the more the illusion persuaded me.
It’s odd that, even when almost everything is presumed to exist on a spectrum, we still talk about deception as though it’s binary. You’re indoctrinated by fake news or you see through it; you have an immersive experience of art or you don’t. Las Vegas—a place whose economy depends on people who realize that gambling is for suckers but who strut into the casino all the same—knows better. Illusion mixed with disillusion can be more intoxicating than either. So it goes with Heizer’s desert magic trick, and perhaps with the Sphere, too. You watch “Postcard from Earth” to marvel at the tonnage of this thing built to deceive you, to feel yourself half-suckered, and to gasp at the same giant bug, not for surprise so much as for the joy of doing anything in perfect harmony with thousands of strangers. Why settle for immersion when you can be waist-deep? ♦