Fiction, Fantasy, Deserts, and Destruction

Article: “Kiddie Orientalism” by Brian T. Edwards in The Believer (June 08 )

Book: The Book on Vegas by Lisa Eisner, Roman Alonso, Noel Daniel, Dave Hickey (intro)

Blog: “I will see where it takes me from here: A conversation with Ed Ruscha” by Arcy Douglass in PORT

The desert has routinely been linked to particular notions of wasteland, absence of life or romantic exoticism through artistic representations and popular culture. This week, the relationship between the desert and decay has seemed particularly prevalent, perhaps mostly because the sun has been so noticeably absent from this bitter Seattle June and I am seeking a merging of fiction and fantasy myself.

In the latest issue of The Believer, Brian Edwards considers a family trip to Tunisia in terms of his intentions to use the site in this country where Star Wars was filmed as enticement for his two children. His ultimate reason for taking the trip, however, was to try to introduce a different perspective on the Middle East and North Africa to these children from a generation introduced to 9/11 as what he describes as “fact”, rather than through experience; Edwards explains,

“When George Lucas made his way to the subterranean homes of Matmata and the desert villages around Tataouine, both of which inspired him deeply, he was following a path well worn by American filmmakers and novelists who had imagined frontier tales set in North African locales…Star Wars, I’d decided, might be another key to those emerging attitudes about the Arab, the imagined look of evil.” (25)

Tataouine, image from Travel Blog

Edwards’s account is particularly interesting because the generation of his children is one that relies so highly on visual culture for information and yet images of what is actually going on in the Middle East are almost entirely absent from the media. In effect, the questions he raises in this article may have more powerful implications than one might think when first considering what Star Wars still can tell us about society and new generations’ understandings of relationships between the Middle East and North Africa and the Western world.

On a somewhat lighter note, The Book on Las Vegas examines this city in the middle of the desert though the works of some of the best artists working in reproducible media, including Thomas Struth, Larry Fink, Doug Aitken, Andres Serrano, and others, as well as screen shots from films by Scorsese and Coppola, drawings by R. Crumb, and archival images taken by the casinos.

Image from Ursus Books and Prints

Not surprisingly, Dave Hickey contributed the book’s brief introduction “Deciding About Las Vegas.” Although some this essay is a bit obvious for those who have visited the city with a vague level of consciousness for their environment, Hickey astutely notes,

“If you [photograph Las Vegas], it’s easier because Vegas is ‘America Concentrate.’ All the soft places, the cushions, and the distances between the nuggets of fact and fantasy have been frozen out. It is all content.” (27)

Thomas Struth. Las Vegas 1. 1999.

This quickly becomes apparent while perusing the pages of this book, through images of prosthetic breasts, casino exteriors, strip club and brothel interiors, lavish pool scenes, and the most fleeting celebrity moments. Paralleling the elimination of the distance between fact and fantasy Hickey references is the very prominent destruction of Walter Benjamin’s aura in these images, which Benjamin defines as “…the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be” (Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility, Third Version). Themes in The Book on Vegas are reminiscent of subjects traditionally found in painting: nudes, exotic landscapes, and social scenes. Yet in the works created in the city in the desert, the appearance of a distance is completely eliminated, leaving viewers with suprisingly revealing (and aura-less) images .

Moving towards a more theoretical vein, the desert emerges in a conversation between PORT’s Arcy Douglass and Ed Ruscha as they discuss the deterioration of the image as it is seen through works in the Ruscha exhibition opening at the Portland Art Museum today. L.A. County Museum on Fire (1965-66) has always been one of my favorites by Ruscha, but Azteca/Azteca in Decline (2007) introduces new implications for the deterioration of the image, as Ruscha moves from a painting of a larger scale, dramatic destruction through the institution in the 60s to a gently sagging image seen in terms of temporality (image of Azteca/Azteca in Decline on PORT blog).

Edward Ruscha.The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire 1965-68.Oil on canvas, 53 1/2 x 133 1/2″. Image from the Hirshhorn Museum

These ideas come back to the desert through one of the simpler pieces featured in the discussion: New Wood/Old Wood (see PORT for an image). New Wood/ Old Wood is a small, print edition depicting a piece of wood Ruscha found in the desert in two states, in a perfect and a less perfect form. This project again reminds me of a more drastic piece: the Royal Road Test project Ruscha completed in the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1967 (images included in The Book on Vegas). Royal Road Test involved photographing a whole typewriter at the beginning of the trip and then documenting its destruction after being thrown out the window through shots of its broken pieces strewn across desert sand.