BY Steven Stern in News | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Desert Boom

More art than ever is being bought and sold in Las Vegas. Haluk Akakçe’s Sky is the Limit was recently shown there – on the largest video screen in the world

BY Steven Stern in News | 01 JAN 07

I’m going to tell you a few things about Las Vegas and art. Maybe you’re laughing already, but more likely you’re thinking you’ve heard it all before – you’re a tough audience. Still, writing about the city in an art context always seems to require some introductory wink, the way writing about, say, Cleveland and art wouldn’t. A 1997 Art in America article began: ‘“Art in Las Vegas” is either an oxymoron or a statement of the obvious, depending upon one’s definition of art.’ Much has changed since 1997 (about the city, and perhaps about the definition of art), and much hasn’t. The best story of recent months concerns Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, who decided to sell a painting to his friend Steven Cohen, the hedge fund mogul. The painting was Picasso’s 1932 Le Rêve (The Dream), and the price was $139 million – the highest sum ever paid for a work of art. Or it would have been, if the sale had gone through. Shortly before the transfer of the work Wynn invited a few friends – Barbara Walters and Nora Ephron among them – up to his office to take a look at his soon-to-be-former possession. While lecturing the group on the painting’s provenance, he accidentally put his elbow through the canvas, leaving a substantial gouge. Naturally, the sale was called off. Wynn is keeping the painting, and spending an undisclosed amount to have it restored. According to published reports, he took the loss with admirable equanimity. ‘My feeling was,’ he told The New Yorker, ‘it’s a picture, it’s my picture, we’ll fix it.’

There’s something satisfying about that story: it’s always kind of fun to read about the clumsiness of the ridiculously wealthy. But it also seems like the perfect Las Vegas art story. It’s scandalous somehow, although it is not entirely clear where the scandal resides: is it more shocking that the painting was valued so highly or that it was treated so casually? When it comes to high-culture perspectives on Vegas, a certain air of free-floating scandal is usually the name of the game. Robert Venturi certainly knew that in 1972, when he published Learning from Las Vegas, a title that seemed designed to provoke. In the 1990s Dave Hickey took over the role of town crier for the thinking classes, arguing that the thing to understand about Las Vegas was that there was nothing to understand. All the buttoned-up art professionals were just too square to see the city for what it was: the exercise of democracy and desire in their purest forms. The terms were different, but Hickey was still offering scandal – the ever-popular Warholian scandal of depthless surface, of what you see is what you get.

Hickey’s 1990s’ writings on the city already read as history. Many of his reference points are gone: the Desert Inn demolished, Siegfried & Roy maimed and retired. The city is significantly bigger now: the suburbs creep outwards, and traffic on the strip has gone from crowded to impossible. Las Vegas still performs Las Vegas, though, and it shows no signs of turning into just another American town. Since 1999, former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman – the wildly popular mayor – has done much to help perpetuate the city’s guilelessly dissolute reputation. Public appearances find him accompanied by showgirls; asked about his hobbies by a classroom of fourth graders, he replied ‘drinking’. Currently he is hoping to turn a former Federal courthouse – the place where he tried his first case – into a Museum of the Mob, an homage to the city’s founding (god)fathers. And, the local curatorial classes enthuse, he is a friend to the arts. More art than ever, it seems, is being made, viewed, bought and sold in the city. Both commercial galleries and public organizations are increasing in number and professionalism. The local art scene, in fact, may be the least exotic thing about Las Vegas. There are local particularities, of course. As much as it suburbanizes and expands, Vegas remains a place where money is exchanged openly and without mystery. A local gallerist told me about a phone call she got from a man who had seen an image of a work she was showing on her website. He read off his credit card number and asked to have it delivered immediately. (She was amused, but she wasn’t complaining.)

Despite all this activity, it’s not likely Las Vegas will host a biennial any time soon. Yet a certain air of ‘biennialism’ – a rather familiar cosmopolitan spirit – may be creeping into town. If the Arturo Herrera mural and Jasper Johns prints in the lobby of THEHotel (the Mandalay Bay casino’s upscale annexe) are any indication, tastes are shifting closer to those of the international art establishment – or at least trying to. Which may be why the City of Las Vegas Arts Commission recently tapped the New York-based public art organization Creative Time to help organize its latest venture. Every evening in November Sky is the Limit (2006), a piece by Turkish video artist Haluk Akakçe, was shown on the largest video screen in the world. The Viva Vision display is a four-block-long canopy over a pedestrian mall, the centrepiece of the ‘Fremont Street Experience’: a not entirely successful attempt at revitalizing Downtown Las Vegas, the oldest – and still one of the seediest – parts of the city. Akakçe, whose slick and often gorgeous work projects an appropriate sense of the spectacular, was a canny choice for the project. The piece he created seemed right at home amid the neon. Filled with constantly shifting, interlocking biomorphic and mechanical forms, it conveyed a sense of dramatic unfolding without anything as concrete as a narrative. A few minutes in, an enormous dark and vaguely crystalline object – something between a whale and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – slowly, ominously makes its way down the length of the screen. On opening night many passersby, who clearly had no idea they were attending an art event, reacted with approval and goggle-eyed looks of wonder.

The more jaded may have to head out of town to capture some of that wonder. Michael Heizer’s massive complex, City – begun in 1972 and still perhaps a decade from completion – is off-limits. (Its location is officially a secret, and rumours of the artist firing rifles at unannounced visitors have been circulating.) But a mere 65 miles from the Strip, Heizer’s pioneering anti-sculpture Double Negative (1970) offers its own geological version of spectacle. The trip into the desert, past military bases, prisons and, mostly, nothing much at all, reminds you of what an unlikely place Las Vegas is, how little it shares with the state of Nevada. Heizer’s piece – two, huge rectangular cuts blasted out of a mesa – seems to belong to the world of the desert, but it brought me back to Akakçe’s video. Here was another work of art in a place that seems not to require further intervention, another piece that threatened at every moment to vanish into its spectacular surroundings. And actually Double Negative has a perverse formal resemblance to the Fremont Street canopy: the two are remarkably similar in shape and scale (they both measure 1,500 feet long, in fact). Perhaps there is something about the desert that inspires long, straight extensions, sight lines made palpable. In any case Heizer has found in the desert what the builders of Las Vegas first found a century ago: cheap land and freedom from interference. Talking about City – ‘I want to isolate you in it, to contain you in it’ – the artist could be a casino owner discussing his latest property.

Double Negative, it must be said, isn’t holding up too well. The walls of the trenches have begun collapsing in on themselves. Heizer has said that he hopes the work (which is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) can be restored, its crumbling surfaces buoyed up with concrete. Perhaps he will get his wish. Something about preservation, though, seems ill-suited to Nevada’s libertarian ethic. Back in the city, the forward march of capital is as inevitable and irreversible as the forces of geological entropy. When old buildings are demolished to make room for new development, few mourn; empty spaces on the Strip are filled in as casually as holes in a damaged Picasso. And if the distinctive visual culture the city has evolved is becoming infiltrated by a more generic cosmopolitan swank, that is just Vegas being itself. Until Mayor Goodman’s Mob Museum takes off, the nostalgic impulse seems confined to the Neon Boneyard, the final resting place for many of the city’s discarded signs: as the name suggests, it is more a scrap heap than a museum. Soon the Boneyard will get its biggest and most impressive acquisition: the iconic Stardust hotel sign. The hotel, one of the last surviving first-generation Vegas casinos, closed in the autumn and will be imploded at midnight on New Year’s Eve to make room for a new $4 billion mega-resort. Local artist Catherine Borg is planning to attend the ceremony and is working on a ceremony of her own. She has constructed stars out of polystyrene and glitter, goofy home-made replicas of the neon stars on the famous sign. As the building comes down, she plans to set her stars aloft on helium balloons and let them float off into the night sky. It’s a sentimental gesture, and perhaps sentimentality about the past is what really counts as scandalous in Las Vegas. I’d like to imagine that, if prevailing winds allow, one of Borg’s stars might come to rest in Heizer’s eroding trench.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.