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SYFY WIRE Geek Road Trip

Geek Road Trip: Tim Burton takes us on a tour of his Las Vegas

By Josh Bell
Tim Burton Lost Vegas

Tim Burton grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in London for years, but in a way, a trip to the Nevada desert is a homecoming.

"I've been coming to Vegas since I was basically a baby," filmmaker Tim Burton, whose connection to the city was first memorialized in his 1996 film Mars Attacks!, tells SYFY WIRE. The satire incorporates actual footage of the 1995 implosion of the Landmark hotel-casino in its scenes of aliens destroying Las Vegas. As Burton tells it, witnessing the destruction of the Landmark had a profound effect on him, and it's one of the key influences on his new art exhibition, Lost Vegas, which is on display at the Neon Museum in downtown Las Vegas through February 15, 2020.

"The dust fell, and everybody was just silent, because it was powerful," Burton says of the Landmark implosion. "It was like watching an ancient species of animal dying out."

A scale model built for the movie, of the Landmark and surrounding domes, along with some Martian flying saucers, is one of the first things that visitors see when they enter the museum's interior gallery for Lost Vegas. But unlike previous Burton exhibitions, which have been shown in institutions including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Lost Vegas consists primarily of new work that Burton created specifically for the Neon Museum.

"Every element that you see in this exhibition was carefully designed by Tim," says curator Jenny He, who's worked with Burton on all of his exhibitions since 2009. "Even the light bulbs on the sign tower had to look a certain way."

Mars Attacks Landmark Hotel

What makes Lost Vegas unique is not only that it's Burton's first exhibition of primarily newly created work, but also that it's fully integrated with the existing exhibits at the Neon Museum, a repository for vintage Las Vegas neon signs. There are a few dedicated indoor gallery spaces for Burton's pieces, but the bulk of his creations are scattered around the Neon Boneyard, the museum's outdoor collection of retired signs from places like the Desert Inn, the Stardust, and the Moulin Rouge.

Viewing Lost Vegas at the Boneyard is a bit like going on a scavenger hunt for Burton oddities. Look among the scattered pieces of various vintage signs, and you'll see one that touts "Betelgeuse Betelgeuse," a replica of the sign over the title character's grave in Burton's 1988 film Beetlejuice. Burton's colorful bug characters hang from the letters of the Moulin Rouge sign, next to a Burton poem in neon letters.

Burton and He reached out to the museum early last year with the idea for Lost Vegas and Neon Museum president and CEO Rob McCoy seized on the opportunity, a first for the museum that opened seven years ago. For McCoy, having Burton's work integrated into existing displays is one of the most exciting things about Lost Vegas, both for the museum and for the artistic process. Burton toured and extensively photographed the space before he even began creating the pieces to include.

"He was already in his mind seeing how his pieces would actually fit in with our collection, which is very unusual for any art exhibit anywhere in the world," McCoy says. "But it works, because of who we are."

The unique nature of the Neon Museum is what drew Burton in, connecting to his formative experiences visiting Las Vegas. "I think the statute of limitations is over — I can't get arrested now — but I used to sneak into the old place where the signs were and trespass," he admits, referring to the previous private holding facility owned by sign company YESCO. Burton can easily rattle off a list of Vegas icons (Siegfried and Roy, Wayne Newton, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Jones) that he saw perform over the years, and he references staying at the Dunes, the Sands, and the Aladdin (all now gone) in his artist's statement.

Mars Attacks!

"It triggered memories for me about Vegas in my experiences in a weird dreamlike state of it," Burton says of the museum, and his pieces are about capturing that dreamlike quality, rather than reality.

"The one that triggers it is my memory as a child of the early days of the giant seahorses coming out of the pool at the Dunes," he explains. "My visceral memory is these 10-, 20-feet giant seahorses spewing fountains of water. It's an ingrained, visceral memory. So then I pull up pictures of it, and they look like they're from a bad miniature golf course. That to me is symbolic of the whole illusion."

The pieces in Lost Vegas freely mix memories and dreams in that way. McCoy's favorite is the exhibition's namesake creation, a neon sign that combines elements of the old Dunes and Stardust signs, which was then aged by local sign company Hartlauer Signs to make it look 50 years old, like just another relic rescued by the museum. If you didn't know the name of Burton's exhibition, you might not even notice that the sign wasn't part of the museum's permanent collection.

There's a higher concentration of Burton's art in a dome erected on the museum site, where patrons enter a dark circular space with holographic and diorama pieces viewed through portholes of various sizes, and a larger mixed-media piece in the center featuring Burton's character Robot Boy tethered to a slot machine, seemingly entranced. Robot Boy is just one of the characters from Burton's 1997 picture book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories who shows up in the exhibition, alongside the Martians from Mars Attacks! and the Betelgeuse sign.

"Those characters are weaved into this because they're both the same kind of thing," Burton says. "They're symbolic of me and my feelings and sort of fragmented little memories, dreams, whatever."

Lost Vegas

In Lost Vegas, Burton's dreams and memories intertwine with the history of the city, creating something unique that can't be captured by just watching a Burton movie or walking the Las Vegas Strip.

"This is the most significant, I think, art exhibit in the history of the city," McCoy says, as he hopes for future collaborations with Burton. The artist takes a more ethereal approach. "I hope what [visitors] see is that what I love about the museum is the beauty and the art of these things," Burton says. "I just tried to integrate that."