Spectacular, Spectacular: Venice, Vegas, and the A-Y-P Expo

On Artsbeat, Randy Kennedy recently recounted a Kafkaesque experience receiving his press credentials at the Venice Biennale:

“The words ‘grande confusione’ are often heard. They were running through my head as a woman told me I was in the wrong place and that I should walk to the Arsenale, the other site for the event, several blocks away. They were in my head again when a woman at the Arsenale told me I was at the wrong entrance and needed to walk to the other end of the blocks-long building. Here, they could discover no record of my existence – but they looked me over warily, eyeballed my credentials and grudgingly wrote out a pass for me anyway.”

Out There: Architeture Beyond Building, Venice Biennale 2008, image by dysturb

Not being a member of the press, I don’t know how common this feeling might be; in my mind, it evoked one of the most memorable press check-in scenes in modern literature:

“My legs felt rubbery. I gripped the desk and sagged toward her as she held out the envelope, but I refused to accept it.  The woman’s face was changing: swelling, pulsing…horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out, the face of a Moray Eel! Deadly poison! I lunged backwards into my attorney, who gripped my arm as he reached out to take the note.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 23)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998).

Hunter S. Thompson’s vividly drug-induced scene is the most appropriate way to begin their spectacular journey to the Mint 400 race in Las Vegas. If nothing else, an experience on the Las Vegas Strip is one of pure spectacle, burying the spectator in disproportionately large hotel facades, casino-specific air scents, and flashes of LED screens (or neon in Old Vegas). It is inevitably Dave Hickey who captures the essence of Las Vegas-brand spectacle best in an introduction to the photography-focused The Book on Vegas:

“There is…this gorgeous life you feel in the pit of your stomach as you step out onto the Strip in the cool midnight air. I call it the “Vegas effect. It is all about colored light in atmospheric space–extremely vivid colored light in a very large, dark space, a little bit like stepping into the middle of an acid-drenched constellation–and photographs can’t do that…They can capture the space at the expense of the color or the color at the expense of the space, but if you want both, you have to be there.” (“Deciding About Las Vegas” 27)

In other words, Las Vegas is the obvious culmination of spectacle.

Although distinct in many respects, including content and intent, biennials typically have their own forms of spectacle; elements of unexpected scale, and the extreme are some of the vehicles for spectacle I recall from works in New Orleans’s Prospect.1 and the Whitney Biennial.  Although such events do not always make for astute journalism, it is rare to have a noteworthy spectacle without the presence of the press.

The Mint, Downtown Las Vegas, 1970, image from Photos Las Vegas.

As the first on the scene, the press can signify the beginning of a journey into a spectacle, which may offer some insight into the unique press credentials experiences described by Kennedy and Thompson.  After this period of initiation, the spectacular occurrence begins.  In the instance of multi-day events such as an art biennial or a weekend in Las Vegas, this can become a pilgrimage of spectacle: a series of stops, sites and way-finding amidst a saturation (or over-saturation) of the senses.

This summer, Seattle is reconsidering its own historical spectacle: the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.  Similar to its previous incarnation, the current A-Y-P event requires a pilgrimage around town to various sites, including 4Culture, the Museum of History and Industry and the UW campus, the original site of the A-Y-P  Expo (a journey itself for Seattle’s residents in 1909).

Display of Southern California fruits, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, 1909, image from Wikimedia Commons

Expositions were a regular source of spectacle for late 19th and 20th century citizens.  The A-Y-P Exposition had its fair share of this, ranging from a race of 55 Model T’s from New York to Seattle to the disturbing use of indigenous people as scenes in the fair’s displays.  Eventually becoming the buildings for some of America’s museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry and the Pacific Science Center, expos impacted the viewing of objects throughout American history, and to a certain extent, continue to do so; this is demonstrated by traveling blockbuster exhibitions that rely on spectacle through perceived exoticism (King Tut), shock (Body Worlds) and mainstream popular culture (Titanic). Not surprisingly, two of the three blockbuster shows listed have semi-permanent homes in Las Vegas casinos.

Grand staircase replica, Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, image by sgurr.

Thus far, the only location of the current A-Y-P exhibition I visited is Gallery4Culture, which houses 100 years…For better or worse, featuring the work of lead artists Dawn Cerny and Patrick Holderfield with Doug Keyes, Lisa Liedgren, Carlos Ruiz, Clara Sims, Daniel Smith and Brent Watanabe. Cerny’s recreation of A-Y-P souvenir flags was a highlight, showcasing an overt criticality of the exposition though appropriated kitsch.  Almost as interesting were the two sheets of text entitled “Souvenir Flags Inventory.”  There, Cerny comments on the contradictions, offenses and general strangeness of the A-Y-P Expo in brief bouts of cynicism.  A favorite was, “How American to think that history is most impressive when measured in stone,” which was written in relation to a flag that read, “Over 10 tons of prehistoric stone relics.”

cerny_1© Dawn Cerny, We hate you, Silk, felt, fringe, 26″ x 33″, 2009, image from 4Culture

Ultimately, Seattle’s current A-Y-P Expo is important because it is doing what is rarely done in museums and exhibitions: it is critical of something from the past that was once championed and loved.  Whether it takes the form of a gambling mecca, a biennal or an exhibition, it is always easy to love spectacle.  The new A-Y-P emphasizes the need to get beyond passive viewing and enter a more challenging arena, whether we are the presenters of objects or in the role of the spectator.