Las Vegas was once assessed as “the grand proletarian cultural locomotive.” It is unlikely that anyone would venture such an appraisal today, even if a demographically more precise “bourgeoisie” now stood in for the proles. But this was not a farfetched metaphor at the time of coinage: Las Vegas was originally a railway town, and in 1968 it still had a public station. Californians, always the city’s chief patrons, could arrive via locomotive in a matter of hours. Nevertheless, they usually drove. Drive-ins and -throughs were booming. Cinemas, churches, restaurants, post offices, liquor stores; never had a city catered so comprehensively to the motorist.
So when Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and their students at the Yale School of Architecture arrived in Las Vegas, much of the curiosity that drove them was automotive in nature. The group visited Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard—the Strip—to document and theorize the city’s vernacular architecture, and their findings eventually formed the counterintuitive classic, Learning from Las Vegas. “Research,” in their rigorously free-wheeling view, was often as simple as pointing a camera out of a car window. Of the many angles from which the group approached the city during their architectural census, the view from the blacktop pervades.
A winnowed selection of this automobilia (and attendant documentation) is now on display at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center as “Las Vegas Studio: Images from the Archives of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.” Notwithstanding a few virtuoso photographs, the visual documents of the city generated by the group are prosaically shot. This serves their ultimately utilitarian function: these pictures are research samples. Many are placed into charts, or as Venturi et al. named them, “schedules,” with criteria such as Panorama, Aerial, Oasis, Foliage, and Sculpture. The art historical record has it that Scott Brown found her inspiration in Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) or Thirty-Four Parking Lots (1967): collections of “artless” photographs that index Los Angeles. She referred to it as the “deadpan” style, in effect recruiting Ruscha to provide the logic for an aestheticization of academic material; card catalog as collage. There are certain inherent commonalities between their projects, and one aerial view of an empty parking lot is bound to look like another, but the most probable validation of this purported lineage may be found in the account of Venturi, bohemian chaperone, bringing his graduate students to Ruscha’s studio immediately prior to their research foray. As a field trip, it’s a little like going from Zabriskie Point’s Los Angeles to The Godfather II’s Las Vegas.
The heart of “Las Vegas Studio” is a photograph of a statue, a centurion from Caesar’s Palace, helmet plumed, company standard in hand, feet bolted to the asphalt. He looks out onto a sea of parked cars that appears to extend to the mountains. Why is this Roman still in the desert, in the land of the Sahara, the Sands, the Aladdin? As an illustration of the bathetic, the photograph transcends its moment. Empire, or its waxwork, conscripted as garage attendant.
There are other such representative contrasts in “Las Vegas Studio.” A statue of Venus at the Avis rental counter; scale models of giant, garish hotel signage; the utopian sentence, “gas station beautification.” Together, they capture the postmodern ironies of Las Vegas that we now consider emblematic. But the centurion in the parking lot is the de facto conductor of the city’s aesthetic locomotive: along with the quotation that begins this article, he graced a poster for a presentation of the group’s findings upon their return to New Haven. Image and text were crafted so as to sting the beholder. The academic who disdained Las Vegas was forced to reckon with a favourable account, years before Cultural Studies made such a position commonplace; the visitor who just wanted to see Sinatra was drafted into a social confrontation, his taste reified for the revolution.
Venturi and Scott Brown, of course, had nominal allegiances to the Sinatra fan. Despite their championing of the city, however, the visitor to “Las Vegas Studio” finds a dense palimpsest of ambivalence: the absurd contrasts of the original subjects; the photographers who condescended to locate them; and our own nostalgia, manufactured by the ’60s sepia, which runs contrary to everything we experientially know about strips. There is a cure for this equivocal affliction: exit the Pacific Design Museum Center and walk (don’t drive) on any major thoroughfare heading away from Beverly Hills for a few miles. The dispiriting psychogeography, a star map to car dealerships, will, for a change, serve as a refresher.
Las Vegas has always had these troubles. Even city boosters unintentionally condescend to the city. The come-on, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” applies equally to memory as to sexual license: the city as black hole, our experience entirely forgettable. Those promoters that don’t temper their praise—such as art critic Dave Hickey, who advocated for Las Vegas artists and the free-market sensibility the city engendered—wind up with their predictions inevitably burst.
The Guggenheim Las Vegas closed in 2003. Its sister museum, the Guggenheim Hermitage, fulfilled its contract with the Venetian Hotel in 2008; it was not renewed. In the same year, the Las Vegas Art Museum—privately funded but without casino patron—shut its doors. (Its last exhibit, a kind of white flag, was on the art of Los Angeles.) While there are small regional galleries to be found in greater Las Vegas, on the Strip one’s options presently consist of the art gallery at the Bellagio, scattered public sculpture, and the Picasso restaurant. At Picasso, they have “eleven Picasso paintings” on the walls—finding out which ones will take twenty minutes on the phone or a visit for dinner. Finding out how much they are worth is a simpler procedure, as the press regularly speculates on (and overestimates) their value.
Commerce, with the tacit acceptance of the tractable citizens of Las Vegas Boulevard, has shuttered such sources as there were for art. This process mirrors larger trends of the art market, and dwindling corporate enthusiasm for “destination” art. On the Strip, the Fountains of the Bellagio—the kinetic water show set to music, widely seen at the end of Ocean’s Eleven (2001)—comes to seem a safer option for drawing an audience; meanwhile, successful off-Strip locations, such as the immense Red Rock Resort complex a dozen miles away, suggest that whatever ineffable quality Las Vegas holds (it was recently suggested in the New Yorker that carpeting is key) may be easily reproducible. Simulacra beget simulacra. Plainly, little space presently remains for anything but the standard Las Vegan fare of kitsch and replica. It is at this cultural moment that the Italian photographer Olivo Barbieri flies over the city.
“That looks fake.”
“That looks fake.”
“That looks especially fake.”
So murmured the public at a 2008 SFMOMA screening of Barbieri’s Site Specific Las Vegas. Corroboration of this feeling, when it came, from patient parent or learned aesthete, relied on two pieces of evidence: “Well, that’s because Las Vegas looks fake”; or, “Well, that’s because Barbieri uses a tilt-shift lens, which blurs the periphery of the subject and makes things look fake.” Both are accurate. Barbieri flew his hired helicopter over Las Vegas and its desert cradle and used his camera to manufacture a miniature, dioramic Strip, a puddly Hoover Dam. Barbieri crafted an ersatz version of what is already, arguably, the most bogus city in America.
Venturi had said of Las Vegas, “If you take the signs away, there is no place.” But his was a different Strip, one of textual plenitude. It was as though all of the back-page advertisements of a newspaper had been put onto stilts and crowded together on a few blocks. Since then, as Venturi forewarned, the buildings of the Strip have incorporated these signs into their design, and the architecture itself now functions as advertisement. A shrunken pyramid at the Luxor; a half-measure Eiffel Tower at the Paris: as the Nevada Commission on Tourism, with its annual advertising budget of $4.7 million, often reminds us, scaled-down monuments are part of Las Vegas’ stock-in-trade.
Las Vegas closes with Barbieri circling the Luxor from his celestial vantage, the hotel’s black glass, a birthmark of its ’90s genesis, glittering in the night. The Luxor is the coda to a tour that begins above the desert, while the sun is high; moves over what Venturi called “the zone of rusting beer cans,” the city’s ontological beltway; and culminates at an evening display of the Fountains of the Bellagio. It is a connoisseur flyover, although city boosters would never use this aerial film as they have Barbieri’s similar work in other large cities (Rome, New York, Montreal). Miniaturizing the already miniature: there is implicit condescension directed at Las Vegas in its very selection as subject—how a real clergyman might feel conducting a Tom Thumb Wedding.
Yet Barbieri is also mesmerized by the hyperreal bauble he has cast. The blurred edges of the frame soften what is rebarbative at street level; he shoots scenes at dusk, that generous hour; and the camera lingers too long on the Bellagio’s crowd-pleasing fountain show. There is no deadpan conceptualism here. Barbieri has likened himself to an architect, selecting what does and does not work in a set of buildings, and his ambivalent position toward Las Vegas bears this out. His is a reluctant attraction to the city; his notional aims are familiarly diverted. Las Vegas, with forty years of accelerated change since Venturi and Scott Brown’s tour, still confounds all comers.