Desert Ephemera: Parts I & II

I.

“What’s so special about this thing, again?” a younger cashier asked to her older coworker.

After a short pause, the older coworker replied, “Nothing.”

The object in question was a matted pair of playing cards and $500 poker chip I was in the process of purchasing for $2.99 from the Bonanza Gift and Souvenir Shop on Las Vegas Boulevard.  One of the playing cards is an ace, mounted with its face value revealed; the other is glued face down, a Dunes Hotel logo printed in red across its reverse.  The poker chip includes the Dunes’s signature sultan and the dates of the resort’s lifespan: 1955-1993.  There were stacks of these mounted cards and poker chips inside a locked case at the Bonanza.  It was not clear whether these were objects actually used in the Dunes or just leftover souvenir items that someone had come across in the back room of the store after the hotel’s implosion.

Dunes Hotel, Las Vegas, 1950s. Image from the Online Nevada Encyclopedia.

The young cashier pressed on, “No, I know there is something about it.  What is the Dunes?  You know I’m not from Vegas.  I don’t know about all of that old stuff.”

Old things do not sell here, except in the pawn shops at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, past the Bonanza, the aging Sahara and the trademark drive-through wedding chapels. Las Vegas is a city founded and sustained on the absence of memory and remorse. By early 2009 many of the major casino corporations dominating the Strip felt the impact of the recession; chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp. (former operator of the Sands Hotel; now the corporation owning the Venetian and Palazzo resort-casinos) Sheldon Adelson had lost $36.5 billion. Yet when Joel Stein of Time asked Adelson how long it would be before he seeks additional loans for expanding his casino properties, “…[Adelson] sits up, widens his eyes and smiles, ‘As soon as someone wants to lend it,’ he says. ‘I’ll be first in line'” (“Less Vegas,” Time 24 Aug. 2009).

Failures and losses instantly left behind, this mentality can be applied to Las Vegas in myriad forms: the casinos that continue to be blown to pieces and replaced with new incarnations of their former selves; the gamblers feeding fresh winnings back into the system in an effort to win more; the supposed reinvention of the Strip from gangsters and luxury, to tourist kitsch and simulated themes, to the architectural and art-filled CityCenter.  Between these transitions from old present to new present, rarely is anything salvaged from the past. Hence, the employees of the Bonanza need to know nothing about history in order to sell their merchandise; there is nothing special about a historical object.

II.

Mark Dombrosky, Neverland, installation view, image from Platform Gallery

The first time I visited Platform Gallery’s window this month, I kept walking, assuming it was undergoing installation.  Upon remembering it should contain Mark Dombrosky’s Neverland, a response to the artist’s recent relocation to Las Vegas, I backtracked and realized what had for a moment appeared to be installation debris was the installation. As I walked inside, the ravaged cardboard boxes, moving blanket and paper scraps spread throughout the space evoked Ed Ruscha’s vintage typewriter parts scattered along Interstate 15 during his 1967 Royal Road Test.

Initially, Dombrosky’s found objects seem to wait somberly for retrieval or a mere second glance.  A “for sale” sign made from a flattened box sells nothing, a pink paper fortune-teller resides in a box for ornaments, and a framed to-do list contains only two items: “Get signatures” and “Drop tub.” Upon closer inspection, the careful stitching the artist added within the preexisting words and images conveys a sense of permanence to these otherwise ephemeral curiosities; painstaking renderings of handwritten script and the finest of thread lines transform generic notes into prolonged experiences.

Ed Ruscha with Patrick Blackwell and Mason Williams, Royal Road Test, 1967, image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The interactions between permanence and the ephemeral at work within Dombrosky’s objects occur in parallel to the contradictions of the Mojave Desert. In reality, the famed Strip that most associate with Las Vegas resides outside the city boundaries; the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard is officially located in Paradise, Nevada. However, when one flies into Las Vegas from anywhere else, the gargantuan scale of the hotels on the Strip in contrast to every other structure in sight demonstrates the more accurate relationship between Paradise and Las Vegas: one in which the desert serves as a backlot for the mega-resorts.  Likewise, the starkness of Dombrosky’s Neverland, both as a whole and in terms of individual objects, appears more related to this “backlot” than Sin City’s mainstream glamour and glitz.

Aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip, image from planetware.com

William Fox explains in In the Desert of Desire: Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle, “Las Vegas is an intense locus of financial activity in the middle of one of the world’s most severe deserts. Like its predecessors, ranging from ancient Babylon to Luxor, and its contemporary counterparts…it is able to capitalize upon that fact by allowing people to imagine and then erect castles on the sand and into the air.” (xii)

The image of the castle in the desert morphs over time on the Strip but does so by simply reformulating Louis XIV-levels of opulent luxury. The Excalibur is the most literal manifestation, but in general most mega-resorts have ties to a castle concept of some kind, with muses ranging from the Loire Valley and the Doge’s Palace to Disneyland. Yet Dombrosky’s Crooked  Castle is likely the most enduring over time. It is clear from experience that casinos in Las Vegas will eventually be imploded, dismantled and redecorated, often without any concern for the “original;” the recent morph from the Aladdin to Planet Hollywood is one of the more obvious examples. Dombrosky’s castle is not only embroidered into a lasting existence over its pencil lines, but its framing adds an additional layer of perpetuation, transforming a scrapped drawing into art, something intended to be kept, maintained, preserved.

Crooked Castle, Mark Dombrosky, 2009, Embroidery on found paper, image from Platform Gallery

To be continued in “Desert Ephemera: Part III”

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