Notes from a lifelong East Sider on a major exhibit rooted in the lives of the valley’s invisible, and indispensable, people
Quite often, I consume art and media to watch, to be impressed by the talent and craft of the artist and the work. I’m watching the game to see the athletes, not the coaching. This is maybe because of ignorance. I know there’s a hell of a lot of work that goes into making a show, but I don’t always know exactly what kind. My homies who study and make films are the only people eagerly searching the credits. They have an insider perspective, and so their wonder is in the production — the hands and minds, invisible or barely visible to the audience, that make performances possible.
Justin Favela and Ramiro Gomez’s Sorry for the Mess, a large, multi-installation exhibit at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, is what happens when the audience is directed to focus on the people who keep the show running, the performance in this case being Las Vegas itself. How do the hotels maintain their Instagram-perfect mirrors and bright white bedsheets for the almost 43 million who visit each year? How much of the glamour in people’s photos should be attributed to them? How can an artist recenter the workers and laborers without reifying the capitalist systems that marginalize and harm those workers to begin with?
ON CARDBOARD You can start by making art from cardboard, which is mostly recognized for its utility, vital but also meant to be put away, out of sight. It’s brown, too. I think a lot about cardboard, how the rate at which someone receives or uses boxes can be a sign of extreme wealth or desperate poverty. Housing insecurity has been such a large part of my life as a child of a single, working-class mother. My skin is brown like cardboard. My life was always in boxes, packed up and then unpacked, everything temporary.
Cardboard is the primary medium in the exhibit, from wall installations to a path laid through the gallery. Walking on the cardboard felt like having my life laid out in front of me. Life is messy in so many ways — how we remember it, how we move through it. Many of us believe in “a path” for our lives, but the directions are hardly intuitable. The artists put down a guide, but viewers will be unable to stay on the designated route. Where will the messes we encounter invite us to go next?
ON MOMMAS My momma was a table games dealer. My homie’s grandma worked in banquets, and my other boy’s mom worked as a housekeeper. Those women could tell you more about what really happened in the casinos than anyone. They know the official and unofficial histories of those places because they lived it, worked behind the scenes as the city was being transformed from “Dust to Gold,” as a sign in the exhibit reads. They have not just seen Las Vegas grow and expand, their jobs required them to facilitate those changes.
The widest wall piece (which visitors are likely to interact with first) presents a series of panels that depict tourists posing for photos in pristine hotels and resorts, and progresses into a scene of women housekeepers, apparently leaving work for the night, taking lamps and phones from the hotel with them. The casinos owe my mother and other mothers more than they could or would ever actually pay them. As this country is indebted to the black and brown people who built its infrastructure and supported its economic expansion, Las Vegas would be nothing without the underpaid, overworked, and overlooked men and women who built casinos they weren’t allowed to enter, and who daily do the stage work, maintaining the set between scenes, cleaning up the previous night’s mess, so the show can start all over again.
ON SOCCER FIELDS AND FLOWERS IN THE DESERT What I maybe loved most was how the show reminds viewers that laborers have dynamic lives outside the context of Sin City. The decadence of the Strip is washed out by a gigantic piñata sculpture of Sesame Street characters. Then the show opens up and offers the viewer room to breathe, which will feel familiar to anyone who has walked out of a casino into a bright, spacious afternoon.
After all the spectacle of the exhibition, the simplicity of the exhibit’s soccer field and flower stands creates a magical sensorial transition. The clutter and chaos are replaced by a large sheet of green paper and a soccer goal, adjacent to meticulously organized and stacked paper sculptures of potted flowers. The work says: There are children here. We play soccer with them in the parks on weekends. We like to nurture beautiful things. People who are unfamiliar with the desert are always so surprised things actually grow in Las Vegas, but things don’t just grow and survive here. They thrive vibrantly, against insane odds.
ON LLANTERIAS Llantas! Llantas! Llantas! That’s all I could think of when I saw the artists’ rendition of Seven Magic Mountains constructed from painted tires. The streets of the East Side are so riddled with potholes and tire-piercing construction screws that the ubiquity of llanterias on Nellis is as much a vital community service as it is a brilliant business model. No farther than a mile apart — sometimes across the street — painted primary yellow or royal blue, they announce themselves to passersby.
I had to go back to my old one to remember how beautiful of a space those places are. Young and old folks, sorting through stacks of tires when they have to help the tio or cousin who couldn’t pay, who had to get to work or school or home. Seven Magic Mountains was not the first bright monument erected in the desert. Favela and Gomez asked me to look more closely at the performance I have loved longest, and to give credit where credit is most due.
Sorry for the Mess, Justin Favela and Ramiro Gomez, through August 3, UNLV’s Barrick Museum, free, unlv.edu/barrickmuseum