Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Interview with Erin Stellmon

Stellmon's exhibition Reign of Glass is on view at CAC through July 20. Erin graciously donated her time recently to respond to a series of questions (via email) from John Bissonette and myself about her exhibition, Elvis, and the mutable nature of community.

Marc: Do you remember the first time you saw CityCenter and, more recently, the first time you went to visit?

Erin: I remember going to see the model of CityCenter at The Bellagio. I had seen some renderings on the local news before the model, but the model really made me think of George Romero’s last film Land of the Dead in which an all inclusive condo structure becomes more of a prison than a refuge when the zombies attack. The first time I made that comparison I was secretly thrilled to see it come to fruition.

The first time I actually walked through the CityCenter, my family was staying at Aria and I went to pick them up. Navigating into the core was next to impossible and no ones cell phones worked inside, so once we finally found each other after an hour, they begged me to take them out and away. I couldn’t go with at least a peek of their room and Crystals, and they reluctantly indulged me. I was really disappointed in how dated Aria already seemed, the decor feeling more than a decade old, but their room had some cool Jetson’s automation, and the bed was like a giant marshmallow, so the Pier One influences were easily forgiven.

As for Crystals, I had heard quite a few people describe it as an airport terminal in a negative way, but that is what I probably liked most about it initially. It was cold and empty and full of potential…it felt like a futuristic lair with a couple of natural elements thrown in to keep you from losing your sense of balance. After taking time in later visits to explore the entirety of City Center, Crystals comes the closest to my spaceship fantasy of what a sterile palace should feel like.

Marc: In an interview with 944 Magazine, Daniel Libeskind recently described his plan for Crystals [the mall at CityCenter located on The Strip] as being analogous to a jewel in the Center Strip, reflecting the Strip back onto itself and projecting outwards in numerous (and perhaps conflicting) ways. This question is a bit outside of the others perhaps, but as your recent work (intoned by the accompanying statement) offers a collective project designed to question CityCenter, are there any works at CityCenter that you feel are helping you in situating or negotiating or informing this type of critique? Is there a kinship in your approach to sculptural works by, say, Nancy Rubins or WET Design or Isa Genzken? And, as those works are located at CityCenter, do they share a privilege in their context for commenting on their location (locational identity)? Are they inside Liebskind's reflective surface?

Erin: I imagined the collaborative piece If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now to do just as Libeskind intended actually, but instead of it reflecting the Strip, to reflect the memories of visitors and residents of Vegas. It really is visually stunning to see the strip refracted in Crystals, but all in all, a giant broken mirror doesn’t have anything to offer intrinsically other than an inverted way of seeing things you’ve already seen. After a certain age (adolescence?) mirrors lose their “magic” and something more is desired. Those individual drawings in the collaborative piece are an offering to that desire.

As for the sculptural works at CityCenter, I do feel that they offer some sort of emotional identity to the place even though they come off as struggling to be noticed. Richard Long’s mud drawings “Circle of Life and Earth”, Maya Lin’s “Silver State”, Nancy Rubin’s “Big Pleasure Point” and Isa Genzken’s “Rose II” are so awesomely subversive in their effort to discuss nature, memory and touch within this corporate behemoth. Unfortunately it was as if the artists’ master plans were purposely squelched by their placement. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to see some great art in Vegas without having to pay $20 inside of a casino, I just wish the pieces were given the reverence they deserve. It is as if there was a list of things to be checked to make a giant corporate home. Fountains? Check. Public art that you don’t have to see if you don’t want to? Check. Anyway, this is why I have tried to avoid talking about this subject…but the cat is out of the bag now (gee thanks Marc).

Marc: When reading the press descriptions of CityCenter, it immediately makes me think about Disney’s engineered city Celebration, Florida and the risks (and rewards?) of planned communities. How does this sense of community respond to the communal approach you’ve taking in designing your collaborative drawing project If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now for this exhibition? Are these notions of community intrinsically separate or conflated? Community and community? Us and them? All of us together now?

Erin: I like that “all of us together now?”, how really terrifying. Community should never be forced otherwise it resembles an institution. Thinking about it now, I suppose that is why I wanted there to be spaces between each of the drawings in the collaborative piece. I don’t feel you can have an active and flourishing community without each person being celebrated as an individual. The biggest problem I have with planned communities is the erasure of the individual by forced uniformity. I think that there is a safety felt by some when choices are limited and rules are posted and that is fine, those people are free to live in institutions, I just choose to fight that inclination a little bit harder.

Marc: Have you seen Viva Elvis and could you speak about Elvis’ role in discourse around CityCenter? Do you seem him as a symbol for the project?

Erin: Ha! This question is awesome. Honestly I haven’t seen it and have kind of dismissed it as a half-hearted attempt at bringing old Vegas to CityCenter. I guess the fact that they fired the original director could be compared to the project’s problems with construction, and the lack luster reviews of the show could represent the underwhelming critical opinions of CityCenter as a whole, but I’m not sure that I see Elvis’ life as a symbol for the project. I think a big reason why Elvis was so loved was due to his small town charm/naiveté and the CityCenter really has little of that authenticity. If anything, maybe that’s why they chose to “celebrate” him?

John: Planned communities? Awesome. I wonder if CityCenter is better suited to exist than Celebration, Florida because it is still more geared toward the transient. Living- really "living"- in city center seems like hell, or a horror movie to me.

Erin: That’s funny, did you see Romero’s Land of the Dead too? Or maybe Argento’s Suspiria?

John: Here are some thoughts, sort of questions: The concept of “home” is in my mind tied to a number of different things: belonging, nostalgia, memory, place, etc. Is this a concept that was born or nurtured in Las Vegas?

Erin: The concept of “home” has been present in my work for a long time, but I think one of the reasons I came to Vegas is to really investigate what that means/could mean. Like in the song New York, New York: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”, I felt that if I could feel at home in Las Vegas, the city of transience, I would never feel homeless again. Of course I have surrounded myself with not only locals, but people who really take advantage of the city and try to make the best of it. It is hard not to feel some sort of comfort when you are around such positivity and when it sucks, an understanding for how harsh this town can be.

The Neon Museum is an extremely positive place to work with awesome people coming from all over to embrace their memories of Vegas or what they would prefer it to still be like. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing when it whitewashes things that shouldn’t be forgotten, but I think it helps people to feel part of a larger collective unconscious.

John: I tend to think that nostalgia is an interesting thing to consider in relation to Las Vegas. It would seem to me that the strip (and city center is an excellent example of this) is invested in the commodification and delivery of some form of nostalgia. We don’t visit New York New York because it is in any way.. NY, but rather we do because it reminds us of the place. Memory trumps actuality. It would seem to me that your installation of drawings functions in an oddly similar manner. Thoughts?

Erin: I was hoping the installation would function in a similar way, pointing out that memory has a intrinsic weight that shifts depending on it’s value. I made the rule that the artists could only use contour line, no shading, to represent their memory thinking that a series of line drawings would visually represent my idea in a cohesive way, but in the end I was happy to see some of them break the rule; having different visual weights worked with the idea of memory being intrinsically transient as well.

John: (I’m trying to avoid Baudrillard or Hickey, but am having trouble) I have always found the comments from people visiting the city like “do you really live here” to be particularly amusing and relevant to the condition of existing in this place. I wonder if notions of home and community are magnified in the minds of residents of Las Vegas because of the nature of the city.

Erin: I know. I love that people still think that everything exists on the strip and that UNLV is in a casino and that I live in the Bellagio….no wait, I guess I would live in Circus Circus probably…oooh! That is a potential Facebook quiz, but I digress….There is something special about the people that choose to live here I think. I was just talking to a friend that was visiting from New Orleans and he was explaining that moving there had squelched his feelings of wanderlust due to the many different worlds within that city. There are elements to Las Vegas that are similar, the separations of communities and lifestyles keep things interesting, and unlike a lot of other cities, there are a lot of free things to do and explore. (I’m not sure if this answers your question)

John: Despite its scale, is city center any different that other resorts in Las Vegas? I’ve read statements that it is not a themed resort but take a staunch opposition to that notion. It is the ultimate simulation, NYNY 2.0. Being inside of city center is like being in a comic book to me, the skewed perspective, the fleeting feeling of a metropolis. I find it spectacular in its inability to convince me, and maybe that is why I like it. (I think there is a question in there somewhere)

Erin: I think I feel similar, the place has a bunch of problems, but there are moments that are really cool, like the public parking structure with its dance club accents. My boyfriend Aaron went to the sportsbook in Aria (which he loved), and saw a gaggle of hoodlums skateboarding in front of Crystals. He said it warmed his heart…maybe the City Center has some potential yet!

A collaborative installation that is part of Erin Stellmon's exhibition "Reign of Glass" and is on view in the gallery through July 24th. The proceeds of most sales will generously be donated to the CAC. Describing the project, Erin has written,

It is impossible to build a city out of nothing. As much as it seems so, Las Vegas did not spring from the middle of the desert overnight. It was built on the impossible dreams of many both living and visiting here and survives as a town of memories (fuzzy as they may be) and extreme realities. I am striving to create a counter to this forced society that is CityCenter with a structure built of memory, touch, and community. For this installation I have asked artists that have lived here, live here currently, or have visited in the recent past, to participate by completing a simple black and white contour line drawing on an individually cut piece of archival paper that I supplied. Each artist had the option to either have their work donated (with proceeds going to the CAC, a 501-C3 non-profit), or to have them returned. The CAC has been a Las Vegas institution for over 20 years that feeds the community in numerous ways. I am hoping to help the CAC raise funding to keep its doors open and to help ensure its future growth.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this insightful interview with Erin Stellmon. I am pleased that she has the courage to share her compassion for art and Las Vegas.

    I won't be able to see the show because I am on Maui at the moment, but I am happy that I joined CAC.