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As We See It

The art of provoking

The LED installation at Aria is the best evidence that CityCenter dares to be different

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Jenny Holzer’s artful non sequiturs light the way at Aria.
Photo: Steve Marcus

"It's important to stay clean on all levels." "Overeating should be criminal." "If you live simply, there is nothing to worry about."

Quite a set of adages, no? The sort of thing a priest might use for the basis of his Sunday sermon or that attendees at a recovery meeting might utter.

But no. These and some 200 other truisms greet visitors retrieving their vehicles from the subterranean valet car pick-up at Las Vegas' newest, most expensive hotel-casino, Aria at CityCenter.

On purpose. Paid for by ... Las Vegas' newest, most expensive hotel-casino, Aria at CityCenter!

That's a long, long way from "What Happens Here, Stays Here," huh?

Oh, and I love it. I just can't figure out for the life of me where MGM Mirage got the guts to do it.

These aphorisms scroll across an eye-popping 280-foot-long, 18-foot-tall LED wall of the valet pick-up area, the work of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, who has erected installations on and around numerous prominent buildings all over the world and was paid millions to create this piece, called "Vegas," for CityCenter. It's part of the vaunted $40 million public art program that also includes that gigantic boat tree by Nancy Rubins and the silver representation of the Colorado River by Maya Lin.

Those and most of the other terrific pieces across the 67-acre campus are interesting, whimsical, fun. What they're not is instantly provocative or potentially offensive. Nobody staring at the colorful geometric shapes of the Frank Stella behind registration when checking into Vdara is made to feel by the piece that maybe they're wasting money, indulging in excess, living in some way immorally or inappropriately.

That's why the Holzer piece is so fascinating, brave and completely befuddling. This is what Holzer does, she plants thoughts — some harsh realities, some nonsensical, some Yogi Berra-like — into her viewers using a modern medium. She wants you to think and, at CityCenter, she's been given a special place to construct a sensational LED reader that mesmerizes both in what she's saying and the physicality of those scrolling, opaque blue letters.

Holzer was tapped by Michele Quinn, whom MGM Mirage tasked with overseeing its ambitious public art effort. Quinn describes herself as "kind of a groupie" of Holzer's, and says she thought such an LED installation could be the best use of such an awkward, dark space as this lower-level valet area. People would be waiting around anyway, so why not give them something to look at — and think about — as they departed?

To which some are asking: Are these really the sorts of parting messages that MGM Mirage CEO Jim Murren wants customers to take away after they've done all the things he hopes they do so his company can make money?

Evidently, yes. To be fair, many of the truisms in the Holzer installation are benign, notions like "Ignoring enemies is the best way to fight" or "Imposing order is man's vocation for chaos is hell." And there are some that would seem to even endorse the activities at a resort such as this, like "It's crucial to have an active fantasy life" or "If you have many desires, your life will be interesting."

But then there are passages, like those that opened this column, that could be read as condemnations of a profligate lifestyle. Doesn't Murren want people to overeat, drink and live complicatedly at Aria? This one — "It's better to be alone than to be with inferior people" — is precisely why I don't go to nightclubs!

Quinn admits she expected some pushback from the CityCenter committee when she submitted to them the list of adages Holzer planned to program into the piece. Instead, the committee, which included Murren and CityCenter president Bobby Baldwin, only asked to ax one or two out of more than 200, and Holzer acquiesced because, well, everyone has their price. The ones that were removed were seen as "a little too political," even though Quinn thought her bosses might have been misinterpreting the messages. "I can't remember what it was, quite frankly," she says. "I just remember they were reading it one way, I read it another."

There's a lot of that going around with this Holzer piece, Quinn says. When I tell her I'd heard from tourists who found certain statements like the ones mentioned earlier as antithetical to the raison d'être of an extravagant hotel-casino in Las Vegas, she says that's a matter of interpretation.

What isn't a matter of interpretation, though, is that this installation is the most courageous and forward-thinking piece of the CityCenter pie. Murren has made many unsupportable claims about what CityCenter is and has, why it exists, how both locals and tourists will interact with it. But in green-lighting this piece and plopping it in such a prominent location — there's little self-parking at CityCenter, and it's hard to find, so most people are likely to valet — the gaming executive who loves to tout that he was an art-history major in college is doing at least one bold thing to make his old professors proud. For this, they may even forgive him for wrapping a Lord Norman Foster building with a cheesy Cirque du Soleil advertisement. Maybe.

The idea of doing something that might offend visitors and make them think twice about their revelry completely flies in the face of everything Vegas has ever done before. Go down there and watch the people watching the installation; they point, they stare, they frequently turn to one another and discuss it. One group of college-aged girls turned it into that game played at Chinese restaurants where you add the words "in bed" to the message in your fortune cookie.

Yes, some will be upset. That's great art. They'll get over it. Holzer has been in Vegas before, having put the message "Protect Me From What I Want" on the Caesars Palace billboard in the 1980s. Critics gasped similar gasps but it didn't chase tourists away. They're just not that delicate. Many of them even have mothers and pastors who probably tell them the same things.

I'm proud of the MGM folks for this one, and a little concerned, too. I'm not entirely convinced Murren and friends really read the list all that carefully. I wonder how the folks who borrowed $8.5 billion to build the place and dangled over the brink of bankruptcy to finish it might have reacted to this one:

"It's not good to operate on credit."

Then again, as Quinn says, Holzer's statements can have all sorts of meanings, right?

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.Com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. Email him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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