Michael Heizer's colossal desert 'City' is for immersion — not Instagram Michael Heizer began work on his massive installation in the Nevada desert more than 50 years ago. One of the largest artworks in the world, it cost $40 million (so far) and is now open to the public.

Immerse yourself in this colossal desert 'City' — but leave the selfie stick at home

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EMILY FENG, HOST:

One of the largest artworks in the world recently opened to the public. It's called "City" and is located in a remote part of the Nevada desert. The artist, Michael Heizer, worked on it for more than five decades. NPR's Chloe Veltman went to see it and had a transformative experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOT MACHINE TONES)

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Most people who visit Michael Heizer's "City" start out in Las Vegas.

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VELTMAN: So it's quite a shock after a three hour drive north to be in the middle of the baking Nevada desert with no one but myself to talk to.

I can't see another soul. My cellphone doesn't work. I have not that much water left and, I don't know, a third of a bag of goldfish.

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VELTMAN: I'm completely alone. It feels really nice.

Heizer started work on "City" in 1970. The artist built his immense art installation out of local rock and dirt. It's more than 1 1/2 miles long by half a mile wide and consists of clusters of low-slung, gravel-covered mounds, as well as imposing sculptures made of smooth concrete and rough stone, separated by a network of rocky runways and winding empty streets.

Well, this is an interesting view. I can see these amazing jagged shapes to my left. And on my right, it's all curves.

Some parts of "City" look like they've been there forever.

These leaning structures - they look like gravestones in a very ancient cemetery, all misshapen.

But there are also concrete curbs like you'd find on any modern city street and futuristic-looking geometric sculptures. It's like a pre-Colombian Mayan settlement, a highway interchange in Las Vegas and the desert planet Tatooine from "Star Wars" all rolled into one.

I kind of feel like I'm on the far side of the moon over here.

"City" isn't like any other place I've ever been to in my life.

How can something that is so barren be so beautiful?

But it's also unforgiving.

My trudging is getting slower because I'm getting tired. It feels like I've been walking for days.

Only up to six people are allowed to visit the installation at once. The day I'm there, it's just me. There's no welcome center, no restrooms, no shade from the relentless desert sun. There isn't so much as a chair or a bench to rest on.

Going to sit right here on the gravel.

After a couple of hours of wandering about this eerie metropolis, things I normally wouldn't notice start to draw my attention.

Who knew the desert had so many colors? White and gray and red and green and blue and black.

My breathing slows.

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VELTMAN: I lose track of time. At a certain point, I also start to lose my mind.

Hello? Hello. Ooh, nice echo here. (Yodeling).

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 '70s. Instead, Heizer used the wilderness of the American West as canvas and paint. He became known for creating remote artworks that were so huge they looked like they'd been put there by superhuman forces. He also refused to explain himself.

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MICHAEL HEIZER: You know, I'm not big on talking about art.

VELTMAN: That's the artist speaking with NPR a decade ago. Today he's nearly 80 years old. His health isn't great. He's not doing much press. So I take advantage of the long drive to "City" to get the skinny on Heizer and his installation from a man who knows them both pretty well.

MICHAEL GOVAN: I mean, Mike Heizer does not come for the opening party. He comes to make the work and push definitions of what art is.

VELTMAN: Since the mid-1990s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan has been helping Heizer get "City" - 50 years and $40 million in the making - ready for the public.

GOVAN: It was not the easiest thing to convince people to give money to move earth in the desert with no completion date and simply an artist's vision.

VELTMAN: Photography is forbidden at "City," and Govan says the artwork doesn't even photograph well, even by drone. Audiences can only engage with the installation by being fully immersed in it.

GOVAN: I think the world's catching up to that idea of experience that Mike Heizer was already interested in, you know, long ago.

VELTMAN: "City" really has little in common with the immersive virtual reality installations or Instagrammable video shows dedicated to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo that are so ubiquitous today. There's nothing Insta about Heizer's masterwork. Being there, even getting there takes commitment. And that's the point.

The sun has almost disappeared behind the desert mountains by the time I realize I have to go. I'm parched and hungry and covered in dust. It's getting cold, and my feet ache. But it's so peaceful out here. I wish I could stay.

OK, one final quiet stand here in the middle of nothingness, just to see what the roaring sound of silence really sounds like.

It's late by the time I make it back to Las Vegas. The strip is in full swing, but I float above the glaring lights and blaring noise. I even feel a little bit invincible.

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VELTMAN: Michael Heizer's "City" is not the easiest way to have an experience with art, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

(Yodeling).

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

(Yodeling).

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