When I recently attended the Americans for the Arts annual convention in Las Vegas, I planned to be on the lookout for any instance of art from the moment I arrived. My first encounter came at the airport, where sculptures of giant crabs and lizards came creeping out of the floor, with surfaces reminiscent of cracked desert earth. They were coated in an indiscernible dusty black film that was either intentional or the result of poor maintenance -- I assumed it was the residue of smoke and lost wages in the air.
Small silver airplane sculptures flanked the escalators, and though they were fairly sweet, the idea of airplanes at the airport is a bit pedestrian. Outside the baggage claim shuttle, tiled murals designed by school kids decorated the walls. The murals surrounded clocks displaying the times in different cities and had themes related to those locations. Symbols chosen to represent Chicago included a basketball player and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo studios. Kids today...
The conference's opening reception was at the Clark County government building where taiko performers greeted us and costumed theater students stood smiling like Stepford children along a hallway that led to a buffet of fruit and pink whipped cream. The buffet table's centerpiece was a life-sized Styrofoam showgirl mannequin. Nice.
In the government building's Rotunda Gallery was a collection of ceramic sculpture by urban artist, Kevin M. Bays. A piece called Ghidora Ducky was the first to catch my eye -- it had a molded, leafy base, little white columns with fake grass poking out on top, and a chartreuse 3-headed duck. The columns had spray painted tags on them as if they were tiny architectural replicas vandalized by a gnome. Garbage Fairy was another lovable piece with a fairy standing over a garbage can of silk flowers. The can had tiny wheat-pasted images of beer bottles, a toilet, and a can of sardines, and on the back of the sculpture's base was a stenciled hamburger. The obscurity of the iconic vintage ceramic pieces mixed with a miniature nod to graffiti was alluring, though due to Bays' repeated use of skull imagery, some colleagues mistook the work for a Day of the Dead tribute.
Later that evening, I checked out downtown Vegas' Fremont Street Experience where Viva Vision, a seventeen million dollar video-screen canopy made up of 12.5 million synchronized LED lights, is installed outdoors. Five city-blocks long, it turns the old town strip into an open-air mall. Though the canopy was noticeable, I was distracted by vendors drawing big-headed caricatures or painting people's names on grains of rice. Another vendor was making custom, spray can paintings on diamond plate, and yet another was selling gold charms, one of which said "Poverty Sucks." Suddenly, the lights went down, and drunken conversations came to a halt as the crowd looked up and stood, mouths agape, watching an enormous video called Drop. Ambient music and splashy water sounds played as futuristic floating shapes of color drifted by, reminiscent of the computer generated water blob in The Abyss.
Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer's video art piece, For Las Vegas was next in the Viva Vision program. In order to get Vegas visitors' attention, you must make work to be projected on "the biggest big screen on the planet," art that is overpowering and gives you no choice but to notice it. Public art is debatable because it is essentially forced on its audience, but this particular public piece could spawn a new genre of art perfect for football stadiums and monster truck rallies -- Superdome Art. Holzer's video consists of animated text flying through the fabricated LED sky, stating her signature, briefly profound notions (coined "truisms") such as "People are boring unless they're extremists" and "It is in your self interest to find a way to be very tender."
Disappointingly, I learned that Viva Vision was not created solely as a canvas for media artists. Holzer's piece is temporal, but if you visit Fremont Street, you will likely see a giant tribute to racecars or showgirls projected 90 feet above your head. Though Vegas can be overwhelmingly trashy, the city does its part to support and nurture the arts, a reminder that interesting art experiences happen almost everywhere you go. And, in the giant, projected words of Jenny Holzer, "Everyone's work is equally important."