Diamond-Coated Vulgarities: The Wynn Esplanade and Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God would be at home in a window on the Wynn Las Vegas’s Esplanade. The Esplanade is an oversized arcade of designer stores, flanked by flowers and butterflies, bulbous chandeliers and draped satin, all created in highly saturated hues and an oversized scale.  In line with the tone set by the resort-casino’s brand, nearly every store and restaurant is merely a name: Louis Vuitton, Stratta, Dior, McQueen, Bartolatta. The Wynn Art Gallery was fittingly replaced by a Rolex store in 2009, due to lack of attendance.

The change of the resort’s name to Wynn aptly demonstrates its relationship to art: originally to be called Le Rêve after casino developer Steve Wynn’s famed painting by Picasso, Wynn changed the name to something more recognizable by his clientele.  As a resort intended to shed the themed environments characteristic of the 1990s Las Vegas Strip,  “luxury” became the focus of the new casino. This form of luxury differed from the version Steve Wynn created for his earlier Bellagio, which evoked the eighteenth century Grand Tour and included art as one component of the luxury experience though its art gallery (more on the Bellagio in a forthcoming post).

The new Wynn, in contrast, rebranded luxury as name cachet, created for those knowledgeable enough to have an understanding and association with the names comprising the stores, restaurants and hotel itself. Paul Verhoeven’s Las Vegas-based Showgirls  (1995) showcases the difference between the various Las Vegas audiences though the lower class character Nomi’s initial mispronunciation of Versace and lack of awareness of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant, in contrast with lead, affluent dancer Cristal Connors’s “in the know” disposition.

Wynn’s reconstruction of luxury’s signifiers was effective in both enabling his new resort to become one of the costliest on the Las Vegas Strip, and contributing to the “de-theming” future resorts, as seen in more recent casino constructions in CityCenter Las Vegas and the Cosmopolitan.

Damien Hirst. For the Love of God. 2007. Image from wikipedia.org.

Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God would be the ideal for the Wynn Esplanade because of its parallels to the developer’s own history and role as a constructed status symbol within the contemporary art field. The sculpture’s surface appearance alone aligns with the overstated opulence that characterizes the most expensive hotels on the Las Vegas Strip; however, the Wynn’s Esplanade supplies the most concentrated collection of high-end, designer shops that serve as status symbols within American society. The inclusion of a Ferrari dealer and gallery in the Wynn brings this brand of luxury to a visual pinnacle, an American status symbol recognizable by almost anyone who walks into the casino; similarly, Hirst’s use of 8,061 diamonds as an artistic medium and noted £14 million in production costs to construct an art object that immediately bestows a status of wealth and extravagance upon it purchaser. The Ferrari dealership makes high-end vehicles instantly available for the Wynn’s high rollers to purchase with their newfound winnings; how fitting it would be for For the Love of God to be on hand for a similar whim.

In reality, For the Love of God resides far away from the Las Vegas Strip, supposedly purchased by a consortium that included Damien Hirst himself, in a performative display of art market manipulation. Reportedly sold at its projected value of £50 million, the purchase of For the Love of God was covered by news outlets worldwide as an authentic sale, despite the questionable lack of documentation and public details surrounding the sale. This maneuver bears strong resemblance to Steve Wynn’s performance-like implosions of historic casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.  The casino developer’s demolition of the Dunes in 1993 included coordination with the pirate-themed Treasure Island, then also a Wynn property. The implosion’s constructed narrative included the image of a cannonball shooting from Treasure Island to detonate the Dunes. Unlike many closing casinos, Wynn also opted to include the iconic, 18-story sign in the destruction, demonstrating an overt lack of reverence for the earlier hotel’s cultural significance and clear statement of his view on the future of Las Vegas.

Wynn attempted to solicit footage of the Dunes implosion to cinematic studios, to no avail. Ultimately electing to shoot the footage himself, the filmed explosion afterwards became sought after and sold for use in multiple Hollywood films. Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino featured one of the most memorable inclusions of Wynn’s footage, in which the implosion represents the Las Vegas Strip’s transition from control by organized crime figures to the corporate branding of casinos.  As a result of Casino and other media portrayals of Las Vegas’s shift towards family oriented experiences in the 1990s, Wynn’s filmed representation became the reality; his themed casinos replaced “classic,” adult-oriented environments, and Americans bought into the rebranded city enough to start bringing their children to indulge in the pirate ships, tropical waterfalls and oversized castles of the “new” Las Vegas, thus making Wynn’s imagery a reality.

The new Wynn Las Vegas differs significantly from the initial version of Las Vegas he set out to create though the Dunes implosion; the influence the casino developer established through his performative destructions allows his powerful image to proliferate, to the point that his name alone is now enough to attract thousands of individuals to his casino daily. Likewise, Damien Hirst’s performance surrounding For the Love of God brought his name the forefront of the media and American consciousness through a similar medium and a comparable level of success within the contemporary art field. The value of a diamond is only a small fraction of the value of a name; it is safe to assume both Hirst and Wynn know this all too well.