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Finned spectacle
Clint Jenkins Photography for Palms Casino Resort

Thoughts on Damien Hirst’s finned spectacle at the Palms, and casino art in an Instagram world

As luck would have it, I attended the opening night at the renovated Palms, when they dramatically unveiled Damien Hirst’s floating shark piece, “The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded)” in the Unknown Bar. “Oh, hey, that’s a Damien,” I remarked, more concerned with the Dom Perignon. It was an absurdist inevitability — it made no sense, so it made absolute sense. It was flashy, but after the initial eyecatch, it was just a shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde. I was far more impressed with the ice sculpture full of caviar.

On my second visit, I paid more formal attention to the details of the bar and the piece, as well as the adjacent Hirst dot paintings — the artist designed the whole bar, right down to the cocktail stirrers — and considered it as a whole. The shark piece doesn’t hold water once you spend time looking at it. You’re too far away to appreciate its details, especially with other distractions like pretty cocktail waitresses with side-boob or a rapper at a nearby game. But it’s not just a trickling off of impact; it has more to do with its inscrutability. You look for answers, a context. But there is nothing around you but dots and slots.

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But clarity isn’t the point, I think. While art in casinos is not new, what the Palms is doing, under new owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, is clearly catering to selfie culture. The more striking and dynamic photo opportunities a venue has, the more attractive the space is to consumers. And a trisected floating shark certainly makes for a social-media moment that shines with the glamour of high art. It’s sure to have followers asking, “Where are you?!” A fellow guest at the party pointed out an Instagram influencer with 5.2 million followers posing for pictures nearby. An influencer’s proven social media impact gets them flown out to openings like these, and, sure enough, days later I found her posts of that night fetching tens of thousands of likes.

One can compare Palms’ use of the Fertittas’ extensive art collection to the art at The Cosmopolitan, Wynn, and even the Bellagio. Those resorts impart a certain sense of reverence to their major works — they are labeled as in a museum, separate from where gaming and drinking occurs. At the Palms, the distinction between decoration and art isn’t so clear, though I wouldn’t chalk it up to lack of reverence. They’re just falling in line with the trend to move fine art from the sterile chambers of museums to unexpected places.

But the collection is not only serving the casino. The casino serves the collection, too. By activating buzz around these works and their artists, the casino is increasing their appeal to a wider public. Works like Hirst’s balloon in value with every photo op — the shark tank could be fitted with a progressive jackpot meter displaying its increasing worth.

When I was looking for a bathroom on the night of the opening, an employee recommended I try the middle stall for a surprise. In there was an installation by artist Scott Hove, who creates rooms decorated to look like elaborate cakes and pastries, complete with mirrors. Selfie heaven, even in the bathroom. One more concept for this city to explore, explain, and explode.


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