Paul Kneale’s installation and its integrated sculptural forms engage with the material textures of Las Vegas’s urban sprawl and its points of intersection with contemporary digital culture’s metaverse of circulated images. Like the city’s prefab, generic, and now often foreclosed houses, there is a certain emotionally vacuous uniformity that comes with the gridded, square browsing of Instagram or the endless scroll of Tumblr. As Vegas casino goers have sat and stared at the slot machine for many years, this hollow and inward circumspection finds new meaning through our interaction with mobile devices, with swiping right, replacing, pulling the lever. The schizophrenic nature of the Strip, with its myriad hedonic but unfulfilling distractions is archetypal for the never wholly satisfactory browsing experience, from dank meme to the blog of a teen imitating the image world of the latest fashion starlet. Kneale’s contribution mines this rich constellation of parallels, while also continuing his ongoing investigation into the ‘new abject’.
The exhibition project presented by Paul Kneale in Moscow functions as a proposition. Indeed, it follows up from his ‘artist-fiction’ short story, published in Frieze in 2011, ‘Ex Oriente Lux’. In the story, the artist is visiting one of Las Vegas’ foreclosed houses with an estate agent in order to purchase it – thanks to the crisis-induced low prices and a tightrope line of credit – and make it the stage of an art exhibition. The Moscow installation can be seen as a preface: the introduction to the show imagined in the story, which Kneale aims to realise in real life as well.
Paul Kneale describes the ghost towns of Las Vegas’ urban sprawl like isolated images without a world around them: simulacra of society’s constituents dropped in the middle of the desert. Similarly, this exhibition was eradicated from its intended context (one of Las Vegas’ houses) and shown in Moscow. Although the two locations might appear far away from each other – geographical and historically cultural antipodes – Kneale’s project draws attention to a contemporary condition and taps into feelings that are perceivable anywhere in the globalised and connected world.
“This temporary installation at the Moscow Biennial is a proposal for a permanent work.
Years ago, just after the financial collapse of 2008, I visited Las Vegas for the first time, while working on another project. I was struck by entire neighbourhoods of houses along the outskirts of the city that had either been foreclosed, or recently built and never occupied. These ghost towns created a kind of prefabricated ruins; a film set for an invisible disaster. With a whole section of the narrative of boom and bust removed — it kind of busted while it was booming. Time here seemed particularly warped. Where I grew up, on the East Coast, there were industrial ruins, rotting, dark and dank. However, in Vegas, the infinite desert sun beat down on the stuccoed, two car garages and empty swimming pools issuing a very particular kind of feeling, like when happy music plays during a murder scene in a movie. All of this was just a few kilometres from the billion dollar casinos and giant LED walls, themed restaurants, addictions and scabby dreams; the American existential in a vacant suburbia. It felt innately connected with an online world of images and memes that you might find on tumblr. Where users are exploring deeply meaningful questions through recycled images and language. A pop-psychology slanted combination of life’s big questions mixed with the mundane materials of the contemporary dwelling. Drywall, tupperware, garden chairs — all now in sunny ruins: trash piling up, gang graffiti scrawled on the garage door, as well as squatters and meth labs moving in. When the everyday becomes corrupted, it takes on a dreamlike quality.
I wrote a short story for Frieze Projects about a year after my trip to Las Vegas. The story drew upon the idea of me imagining myself (or myself as a character) there, in that blank/loaded environment (same binary as the art gallery). The houses were all so cheap that you could buy one there for almost nothing, and, with some shady refinancing, even have a cash flow.
I like the idea that there is no blank slate anymore. You’re always putting something on top of a context, even if it’s indirect. In a way, Las Vegas highlights this because the suburbia that is there has no connection to the desert it’s in; it happens against it really. So, here, and more generally, it leads to scenarios where readings are kind of ‘stacked’ rather than linear or deconstructive. A rhizomatic reading that’s similar to a choose-your-own adventure. You decide to link certain things that are in proximity and ignore the links of others. This is part of a new narrative of globalisation – how a Neoclassical column ends up stuck to the garage of a house in the American desert, with Central American gang graffiti sprayed on it. I think the decline of the West happens like this – in chunks, and in certain places and times.
I hope that someone will buy me, or give me, one of these foreclosed houses. I’ll fill it with works, and it will be there permanently as a time capsule for the out-of-time. An endless scroll for a detached, 3-bedroom house.”