The scene requires the kind of twisty imagination for which Tim Burton is famous: psychedelic flying saucers, Martians and a Mummy Boy let loose in the sun-baked outskirts of the Las Vegas desert.
The scenario is no fantasy. Burton is displaying an electrified selection of his artistic creations at the Neon Museum in Vegas as part of a delectably dark and campy exhibit, “Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ the Neon Museum.” The show, which runs through Feb. 15, is his first American display since his name and work drew more than 800,000 visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009.
“I’ve had a lot of haunting, powerful moments in Las Vegas,” Burton said on why he was keen to open a show amid the flickering neon relics of Sin City’s decadent, glamorous and irresistibly sordid past. “It’s sort of my own internal Burning Man.”
Burton grew up in Burbank and used to take regular jaunts to Vegas with his parents. He remembers a forbidden city full of intrigue and dark secrets, a place where kids weren’t so much allowed as tacitly accepted.
He can still recall the surreal feeling he got when, standing 2 feet tall, he stared at the giant seahorses emerging from the pool at the Dunes.
“It was a hallucinatory thing,” Burton said of those early trips to Vegas. “Drugs before drugs.”
But then the city started blowing up the hotels, he said of the period beginning in the early 1990s, when old standbys like the Sands and the Dunes met incendiary ends to make room for new developments like the Venetian.
“It was like seeing a species being destroyed,” he recalled.
Burton is grateful that the distinctive signage of such relics is lovingly preserved at the Neon Museum. That’s why he was careful to integrate his more than 40 digital and sculptural works into the museum’s existing scenery, rather than creating a show that would overwhelm it.
Gambling robots and candy-colored neon hommages to Burton’s gothic sensibility — and films — abound.
“It’s not really a museum,” Burton said fondly. “It’s a roadside attraction.”