Grand Canyon Journal 4: Critique Is Destruction as Joy

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CityCenter is the biggest thing to happen to art in Las Vegas since Steve Wynn put his finger through a Picasso. The mixed-use, residential, gambling, fine dining, clubbing, high-end retail, luxury hotel behemoth opened in December with the explosive fanfare usually reserved for the demolition of buildings in Vegas. CityCenter boasts a collection of fine art consisting of existing works and commissioned pieces by the likes of Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, Donald Judd, Isa Genzken, Jack Goldstein, Tony Cragg, and Frank Stella. Like the attractions that shape the identity of every hotel on the Strip (the fountains at the Bellagio, the volcano at the Mirage, the Eiffel Tower at Paris, etc.), these works, installed throughout the interior and exterior of the massive development as opposed to a gallery space, are meant to create an ambience that will draw tourists, but also, in the case of CityCenter, tenants — to play, stay, and come back for more. But what does this context do to their status as art objects? How is a work of art’s relative autonomy impacted by its placement in a landscape of attraction? Conversely, what does the designation of these objects as art (a status denied the countless other unsigned attractions that pepper the CityCenter campus) lend to the new development? And if “starchitecture” is its other primary attraction, how does the artwork fare in relationship to the assemblage of buildings that comprise CityCenter?

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Based on my recent visit to CityCenter (on my way to the Grand Canyon, which I assure you we’re headed back to in the next post), the short answer to the questions posed above is that the art doesn’t do very well. In fact, like David Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty, most of it disappears. The Judd woodblock prints that grace the wall above the escalators to the Aria Self Park Entrance Lobby probably could have gotten better service at the valet, the Stella seems to have been chosen for its formal similarity to the Mandarin Oriental hotel logo and, despite their immense scale, the mud wall-paintings by Richard Long are barely visible behind soaring curtains of glass. While, as evidenced by the video above, the whirling stainless steel Cragg sculptures get a lot less attention than the tornados of water designed by WET Design, the water feature design firm that also did the fountains at the Bellagio, because they are art objects, they inevitably seek more attention than the swirling, metal tree-columns inside the casino itself. Similarly, Maya Lin’s potentially dramatic Silver River, a representation of a section of the Colorado River (Grand Canyon, here we come) cast entirely in reclaimed silver, is nearly entirely reclaimed by the glass and steel supports it hangs in front of. This ambivalent position between anonymously blending in with the overall ambience and emerging as a star attraction is paradigmatic of the confusion that lies at the heart of what it means to place art work in Vegas and is perhaps why Sin City has had such bad luck with art.

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One notable exception to this aesthetic quagmire is Jenny Holzer’s VEGAS, a scrolling LED text piece that expands upon her previous insinuation of Truisms into the marquee of Caesar’s Palace to take greater advantage of the architecture of CityCenter itself. While the movement of the text gives me nightmarish flashbacks to David Copperfield’s propaganda video, it is precisely in its engagement with the glass that defines the identity of the buildings that Holzer’s site-specific work succeeds where the others fail. In fact, though I’ve always been dubious of the critical potential of her work (which urban contexts like New York seem to invariably foreground), the spectacular entertainment context of Vegas seems to create the ideal viewing conditions for it. Vegas allows it to be spectacle first, art second and, maybe, critique third. It is this complicity with the spectacular regime of image-making in Vegas that allows her work to limn the boundaries of both art and entertainment. In this regard, Holzer’s work shares more in common with Dale Chihuly’s glass ceiling at the Bellagio (whose work, which one would think belongs to another art world than the art collection in question, is rather perversely represented in the only commercial gallery at CityCenter) and even Bernini’s design for the piazza at St. Peter’s in the Vatican than her counterparts in the art collection. All three works seductively draw visitors into their respective buildings while simultaneously transcending their functional status as lure. Vegas makes strange bedfellows indeed.

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With its front and center placement, Nancy Rubins’s Big Edge manages to visually emerge from the corporate landscape of CityCenter. And yet, because it is such a recognizable icon of urban public art (see her installations at MOCA in Los Angeles and Lincoln Center in New York), its inclusion testifies to the strangeness of CityCenter’s organizing theme. Far from being a legitimate urban development signaling the final nail in the coffin of theme-obsessed Vegas, CityCenter’s theme is contemporary downtown development itself. It is perhaps Las Vegas’s strangest simulation in that the very architects and artists who have been called upon to beautify, redevelop and, more often than not, evacuate and destroy, the downtowns of the world have designed and decorated this phantom downtown. It is as though Imhotep himself, after designing the step pyramid at Saqqara, traveled to Vegas to design the Luxor Hotel and Casino. Even more than Isa Genzken’s Rose II, Big Edge is the corsage pinned on the lapel of a new Vegas, all gussied up, trying desperately to shed its volcanic acne of pubescence and ready to go to prom. Too bad the economy just pulled up in a hooptie, putting the entire enterprise and perhaps the dream of unending growth in Vegas itself into jeopardy.

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And like the funerary melancholy that settles around both the pyramids of Egypt and downtown Los Angeles at night, CityCenter was eerily quiet when I visited. The experience of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Crystals shopping mall (a name that would make Robert Smithson proud) was like finding myself in an architectural model of a ruin from the future. The type of zombies that would want to live here are the pale shadows of the zombies that already live in condos in redeveloped downtowns everywhere. When they’re not expressing themselves through graphic design, Facebook posts, or working late at the office, they haunt their local zombie museum. As you can tell from the Aria advertisement above, they have no spoken or written language, let alone poetry, and they tend to communicate with their hands because instead of reading books, they’ve gazed all their lives at the undulating curves of Frank Gehry’s buildings. In short, they are the children of Eli Broad.

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Remember the old Vegas? Can you “Remember the Time” when Bono could walk down Fremont Street kissing whoever he wanted? Remember the old downtown LA when Bono could serenade the LAPD from the rooftop of a liquor store? Nah, me neither, and this is not about getting nostalgic. Instead, I’m glad Steve Wynn (great name, by the way) stuck his finger through our dreams. I’m glad that Jeff Koons is the new Steve Wynn. And I’m glad that when I searched CityCenter’s campus for Isa Genzken’s Rose II, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. While Holzer and Chihuly may have made the most trenchant Las Vegas art to date, the future promises a disappearing art, an art that inverts the magician’s standard of making a rose appear. Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be art but if it does, I imagine it should reconcile the worlds of magic and art like Lee Lozano’s infamous disappearing act.

Parking Garage, Sahara Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

Secreted away in the labyrinthine, bunker-like parking structure that skulks behind the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas is a ritualistic practice of mark-making that is bringing this future into being. It is also the purest expression of joy humanity has mustered since the invention of the whistle tip muffler. While these enigmatic missives from micro-terrorists with no leader, country or ideology appear to be anonymous (perhaps only legible to the elite team of CSI: Las Vegas), they are also the pure signature of multitude — decisive, yet fugitive calls to an authorless action neither individual nor collective with no demand and only the trace of gesture. Like the spread of a viral, crystal meth-induced Fred Astaire dance, these footprints have trespassed from the desert of the Sahara to lay claim to the walls and ceilings of almost every garage in Vegas. In a time when we have so much language and yet so little time for it, these archi-glyphs exhort us with their concise, undeniable, propagandistic force to raise one shoe aloft and renew our commitment to destruction as joy.


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