Double Down

The entrance to Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas at SFMOMA is marked by silver wall text atop a blue vinyl sign, imitating the atomic, neon glamour of Las Vegas in the era of the Stardust resort and casino.  Leading visitors towards this sign is a wall lined with 15 photographs of sparse, post-industrial landscapes from Lewis Baltz’s 1978 Nevada series.  Seen adjacent to Baltz’s black and white renderings of half-constructed buildings, desolate valley businesses, and vacant sandscapes, the blue sign leading to the two video installations comprising Double Down dazzles the viewer by serving its purpose: to evoke the excess of The Strip.  The brief wall text on the sign further articulates this evocation, describing Las Vegas as “America’s most spectacular fantasy environment–and fastest growing city.”

#15 Nevada.  Lewis Baltz. 1977. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 in.  Image from Yancey Richardson.

As noted by the Associated Press, Las Vegas can no longer be posed as the ideal fantasy in the way it once was:

“And so it has been a shock as, quietly and slowly, everything has changed. Like many US cities, Las Vegas is watching its economy reel. Home values have plummeted. Foreclosures have exploded. Unemployment is the highest it’s been in at least 20 years.” (International Herald Tribune, 5 Jan 09)

When I visited Las Vegas last August, from a tourist perspective, the seams had begun to show on The Strip. Caesars’s Palace’s glitzy buffet was so understaffed that waitresses were piling all dirty dishes in a single booth rather than seeking a bus person to clear tables.  Despite its 2006 announcements of a $2 billion renovation, this year the Tropicana opened their pool to the public for weekend DJ parties in an attempt to lure a few more gamblers at their swim-up blackjack tables once frequented by the celebrities of the 1950s and 60s.  The massive City Center was visually unchanged from my last visit one year prior, more reminiscent of the half-built businesses in Baltz’s Nevada series than a luxury complex dotted with extravagant fountains and large-scale works of contemporary art.  This was a few months ago, before things became really bad in Vegas.


City Center in August 2008.

Las Vegas has always had many serious problems, including government corruption, the consequences of gambling and drug addictions, and severe poverty among many who live there.  However, these were things hidden to visitors by the extreme architecture, dancing fountains and upscale shopping centers of The Strip.  In effect, the city maintained an image associated with the American Dream of excess, splendor, and perpetual high rolling for outsiders.  Now, this strange utopia has been entirely altered for the first time in the city’s history.

Knowing that Nevada has maintained the second largest decline in housing prices in the U.S. from October 2007-October 2008 (31.3 % according to National Post Canada, 11 Dec 08) changed the way I encountered the sign at the entrance to Double Down.  The museum’s text was strikingly out of date, promising reflections on the city as though it still were where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, an advertising campaign that has all but disappeared in the last several months.

Working in a museum myself, I have confidence the wall text for Double Down was written significantly prior to when the exhibition opened in September.  Furthermore, the works in the gallery behind the sign continue to resonate in wake of Las Vegas’s newly flawed image.  Olivo Barbieri‘s site specific_LAS VEGAS05 (2005, 13 min.) is particularly fascinating at this moment in the city’s history; watching it can be as addicting as gazing at the faux landmarks of architectural and art history during the slow-moving cab rides of Las Vegas Boulevard.

Olivo Barbieri. site specific_LAS VEGAS 05. 2005. 13 min.

Through shots taken from a helicopter using a tilt-focus lens, Barbieri re-scales the scale models and precise replicas of world landmarks comprising The Strip’s casinos. With images of The Strip prevalent throughout the arts and visual culture, viewers know what icons to look for, anxiously waiting to see how the Luxor pyramid or the Venetian’s St. Mark’s has been re-envisioned as a souvenir “replicas”, even though all are already replicas of other places.  More importantly, the cameras overhead view suggests the sense of perspective and awareness buried by the spectacle aimed at Vegas pedestrians. A brief moment of camera time among the Neon Boneyard signs and enormous skull suggests a timely view of what Sin City could look like, should the remnants of the 90s excess be left on the side of the road to rust and fade.  The souvenirs of Barbieri’s film appear to be beginning an uncanny pause, like the unihabited moments of Baltz’s photos, begging to be remembered while recovering from something already forgotten.

Still from site specific_LAS VEGAS 05 by Olivo Barbieri. © Olivo Barbieri. Image from Da production house.