Bring on Liberace: "Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas" goes for broke
America is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America.
Dave Hickey, "A Home in the Neon"
If, as Oscar Wilde once claimed, a lie can tell the truth, then what Dave Hickey writes is truer than ever: looking at Las Vegas is a terrific way to see the United States. Paul Verhoeven knew as much when he made Showgirls (1995). The fact that his old-school Euro-Hollywood auteur vision of Sin City offended so many bourgie film critics only proved its lasting, um, value. Like Verhoeven, the Italian artist Olivo Barbieri also appreciates Las Vegas from a distance. But while Verhoeven maintains his distance even in the middle of a lap dance, with site specific_Las Vegas 05 (2005), Barbieri prefers literal remoteness. He appraises the bright colors and the neon glow of Las Vegas from up above, via a helicopter.
The resulting view of the Entertainment Capital of the World, another chapter in Barbieri's ongoing project of urban portraiture, is one half of Henry Urbach's well-timed exhibition "Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas." Within Urbach's black-box presentation, Barbieri's long-distance perspective trades off with the Tetris walls, distorted mirrors, and repetitious gambling-addict flurries of Stephen Dean's warmer yet less resonant No More Bets (2004). At first glance, the amazing thing about Barbieri's videos is how unreal and utterly toy-like the cityscapes appear, and Las Vegas is no exception thanks to his tilt-shift lens 35mm photography, a rooftop antique-car rally looks like a kids' collection of model cars, and the Luxor's Sphinx and white-nippled Pyramid are mere parts of an elaborate toytown.
Today, as the US dollar seems more abstract and illusive than ever, Las Vegas' playland presentation of all that money can buy has attained a new level of honesty. (It also seems endearingly quaint in comparison to 21st century "evil paradises" to quote Mike Davis such as Dubai.) "The whole city floats on a sleek frisson of anxiety and promise that those of us addicted to such distraction must otherwise induce by motion or medication," Hickey writes in "At Home in the Neon," from Air Guitar (Art Issues Press, 216 pages, 1997). When Vegas resident Hickey notes that "there is nothing quite as bracing as the prospect of flying home, of swooping down into that ardent explosion of lights in the heart of the pitch-black desert," he may as well be writing a description of Barbieri's video, though site specific_Las Vegas 05's helicopter hovers like a dizzy bird above an old McDonald's and the Stardust's '50s-luxe marquee (where Wayne Newton is missing an e). Barbieri's debt to a site-specific avant-garde film tradition (such as pat O'Neill's 2002 The Decay of Fiction) becomes clear when he reaches the fountains of the Bellagio. There, he wryly connects waterworks out of Kenneth Anger's Eaux d'Artifice (1953) with soundtrack detonations that evoke Bruce Conner's Crossroads (1976). Bathing in the sensory overload of "Double Down: Las Vegas," one suspects that like the arcade in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's apocalyptic Pulse (2001) Las Vegas would go on glowing and chiming long after all the people are gone.
Dave Hickey begins Liberace: A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz (BükAmerica, 16 pages, $1.49), a tribute to the ivory-tinkling owner of the world's largest rhinestone, by describing his own balcony view of the Strip, where the neon logos of the Desert Inn, the Stardust, Circus Circus and other sites make the surrounding nature look "bogus as hell." As Hickey puts it, more wittily than Jean Baudrillard, "the honest fakery of the neon" trumps "the fake honesty of the sunset." Perhaps we should replace the face on the one-dollar bill. George Washington has done his time. Bring on Liberace.
DOUBLE DOWN: TWO VISIONS OF VEGAS
Through Jan. 4, 2009; $7$12.50
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St, SF