Like with all major cities, the original oddities of Las Vegas are gradually being wallpapered over and replaced with shiny, new attractions. The Strip's biggest hotels are competing to make the loudest statement, from artist-designed suites worth more than the average person's life savings every night to music residencies with some of pop culture's biggest names: Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, and more.
It's becoming the ultimate climax, and makes maximalism seem like too weak of an umbrella to describe its addiction to all things extra.
But artist Tim Burton remembers a much different Vegas — one he'd frequently visit growing up on the West Coast, where staying at hotels meant penny investments, sometimes complete vacancy, and quiet hallways with no activity beyond squeaky cleaning service carts. For the outsider artist, revered for his surreal point of view, this environment was perfect for letting his imagination run wild: the eerie pitch black desert, soft rumble of rusting slot machines, stale scent of cigarette smoke, and gently flickering neon signs.
It makes sense, then, that Burton would choose to collaborate with the Neon Museum, a nonprofit that collects, preserves and studies iconic neons from Vegas' past in hopes of educating today's flock of green-eyed tourists. The outdoor space — or the "boneyard" — treats these tossed aside pieces like historic relics, curated along a winding path, where Burton has dropped in various site-specific creations for his new exhibition, Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum.
There are some familiar touchstones for fans of Burton's existing work, including sculptures of his wide-eyed alien invaders from the 1996 film Mars Attacks! — a Vegas-based production inspired by sci-fi B-movies of the '50s and '60s. Inside the museum, they look like they're hiding in-between signs, ready for another shot at taking over Planet Earth. "Filming the demolition of the Landmark Hotel for Mars Attacks! was one of the most powerful moments of my life," Burton says in an artist statement.
The majority of Lost Vegas, however, introduces a fresh set of characters that dramatizes the people he'd see as a kid, gambling until sunrise with cheap cocktails in-hand and dreams of leaving rich. Their eyes are swirling and brainwashed, some with springs for limbs. It's not so much critical commentary on modern Vegas, as it's a celebration of older bottom shelf generations, seen through the eyes of a curious child. Many of these cast aside figures have been cleared out by Vegas over the past decade, much like the surrounding neons.
This new work, 90% of which is site specific, was created to spotlight all things "larger than life, colorful, shocking, charming and strange" about Vegas, Burton writes. Through Lost Vegas, he wanted to reimagine "a place where everyday rules seem not to apply," and revisit an era when "unusual, magical and bizarre things were always possible."
Lost Vegas will be open through February 15, 2020. For more information, visit neonmusem.org.