Covered in Sugar:

Imagining Las Vegas as the Capital of the Art World.

The Shed and the Duck

The following text elaborates on how cultural practitioners create a world of amuse- ment in order to seduce the visitor and questions if— in this world of amusement— critical thoughts are trapped underneath a sugar coating.

In their book Learning From Las Vegas: The forgotten symbolism of architectural form, released in 1972, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour analyse modern architecture through the lense of the architecture of Las Vegas in the 1970s. They describe how casinos had to be creative and loud in order to stand out and to seduce potential visitors with their daily attractions. In stating that “symbol dominates space”1 the authors make clear that in the 1970s’ Las Vegas not the building of the casino itself is important but the message it communicates. The brighter and bolder they scream their attractiveness at the individual who is deciding which casino to choose, the more the individual is attracted to forget the danger of losing money and is being pursued by the amusement waiting behind the entrance.
        In order to investigate “the Architecture of Persuasion”2 the authors differentiate between the Shed and the Duck. They introduce the casino as the Shed. The casino itself was built taking into account that Las Vegas is located in the desert of Nevada. Therefore the buildings were designed low, in order to minimize the costs for air conditioning. Additionally, the casinos were hidden behind a huge parking lot. Because there was no way of arising attention with the building of the casino being a “modest necessity,”3 the casinos had to find other ways to attract visitors in order to function as a business. Thus, they had to become visible, despite their unobtrusive characteristics. Their solutions were big signs, which were sometimes three-dimensional and partially revolving, most of the time high and brightly illuminated in the night.4 The casino being recognized was highly dependent on the signs the authors describe as a “vulgar extravaganza.”5 As soon as they are taken away, the casino is nothing but a shed. Combined with the signs, the casino becomes the amusement-institution it is announcing itself to the visitors.

The idea of the Duck as a metaphor is based on a store shaped as a duck, selling ducks.6 This shop was built in Flanders, New York and called The Long Island Duckling or The Duck.7 Here, the building as an “architectural systems of space, structure, and program”8 functions as the sign.9 The authors describe this as a “building-be- coming-sculpture.”10 The main difference between the Duck and the Shed is that the Duck “is a symbol” andthe Shed “applies symbols.”11 The Duck communicates by itself, whereas the Shed is dependent on its sign.

Duck and Shed in Today’s Art World

The upcoming paragraph will compare the signaletic and way of communicating of the Shed and the Duck with today’s Blockbuster-Exhibitions and Biennales to analyze their impact on today’s art-world. In order to do this, the basic characteristics of Blockbuster- Exhibitions and Biennales will be explained.

The Blockbuster-Exhibition as the Shed

Blockbuster-Exhibitions are made to attract many visitors into the museum in order to claim the museum’s relevance in today’s art sphere.12 They are most of the time built around huge names or topics of high popularity. Blockbuster-Exhibitions have high maintenance-costs and often leave the museum in a hangover as soon as the exhibition is over. The big question following each Blockbuster-Exhibition is: What comes next and what are we without the exhibition?13
        Museums are turned into Sheds by Blockbuster- Exhibitions. They degrade the permanent exhibitions of the museum as less worthy, in claiming the impressiveness of the one exhibition highlighted as the exhibition of the year. It does not matter how expressive the architecture of the museum, or how impressive the permanent exhibition is, the big signs announcing the Blockbuster-Exhibition attract the people in and turn the museum itself into an hollow shell carrying the sign.

The Biennales as the Duck

To speak about Biennales, the text will have a closer look at the Venice Biennale, which is considered as one of the most important meeting grounds for architects, artists, and cultural practitioners in general.14 Alternating between having architecture and art as an overall frame every year, the Biennale Arte is often characterized as “the Olympics of the art world.”15 Loosely described, the Biennale consists of a central exhibition, situated in the public gardens called Giardini and in the former dockyards named the Arsenale, as well as the national pavilions-exhibitions organized by the participating countries by themselves. Additionally, independent, but official collateral events are situated in Venice, next
to several events happening within the time-frame of the Biennale, aiming to benefit from the Biennale perceived as the place to be.16 Taking a closer look at the Pavilions in Venice, 30 of the around 80 countries participating every year are situated in the Gardini. These Pavilions were built in the 20th century—Belgium opened the first Pavillion in 1907—and due to space problems, South Korea opened the last Pavillion in 1995.17 Each country is responsible for their own Pavillion and so each country aims to communicate the image they want to present of themselves.
        The metaphor of the Duck can be used to talk about Biennales and their impact on the artists and the art world in general. Biennales are set up as an event func- tioning in a whole as a symbol—as a Duck—creating an image of themselves with the aim to attract people. To extend this picture, one could describe the Venice Pavilions as the little ducklings following the big Duck around, learning from and imitating the mother duck. The Pavilions do not need to have big signs. Instead, the country’s names on the front of the building, the architecture of the building and marketing before and during the Biennale to promote the filling of the Duck—the exhibition inside the Pavillion—attract people into the building.

How the Shed and the Duck cover critique with sugar

As expressed before, Shed and Duck, or Blockbuster- Exhibitions and Biennales, aim to seduce the visitor. The following passage elaborates on how cultural prac- titioners create a world of amusement.

In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman describes consuming places as spaces who offer a “colourful, kaleidoscopic variety of sensory sensa- tions.”18 In order to be able to create this world of amusement, Bauman illustrates the necessity for the content to be harmless and “free of dangerous in- gredients.”19 There is no risk in visiting those places, which can be characterized as “pure, unalloyed and uncontaminated amusement.”20
        Stuart Hall emphasizes that cultural institutions are often linked with traditional artistic elites and work within political frameworks, instead of representing cultural diversity. Thereby, they degrade global dif- ference into a “simulacrum” of diversity, driven by the market.21 Following his thought, cultural institutions and practitioners think (or are forced to think) more about what the cultural elites want to see. They please in order to pay the bill and to fund their status within their network. The German saying ‘What the farmer does not know he does not eat’ (Was der Bauer nicht kennt frisst er nicht), arises the impression that in order to attract many people they have to be fed what they want.
        Cultural institutions invite the visitors to have fun in a multicolored world of amusement, which could be pictured similar to the edible garden in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Fabric, by Tim Burton. Just as Augustus Gloop—the character falling into the chocolate lake and getting sucked up by the choco- late-extraction tubes—nobody gets harmed.22
        In his text The Venice Effect, Olav Velthuis describes that one main point to attract people to visit the Biennale is “the consumption [...] of contemporary art [being] [...] packaged as a social and cultural experience.”23 The art is covered by a glaze of prestige, aiming to attract the cultural elite. The more exclusive, the more status is produced. Additionally, he introduces the term symbolic capital which was first described by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. According to Bourdieu, no visible economic capital is floating through the art world. Instead, symbolic capital consecrates the artworks.24 Velthuis illustrates how symbolic capital is created at the Venice Biennale: Curators and critics pro- duce symbolic capital by indicating their independence from the market evolving around economic capital.
        The Venice Biennale is highly effective in establishing the image of their exhibitions being an “experiment rather than commerce”25 and a space open for critique and reflection. The Biennale hides their impact on the art market underneath a sugar coating built by the impression of being dedicated to art whilst being resis- tant to capitalist interests.26 In the same way symbolic capital is created in the Gardini by claiming not to have any interest in commerce, Blockbuster-Exhibitions aim to create symbolic capital by attracting people into the museum. Their symbolic capital is created by the attention the Signs arise for the museum.
        Zygmunt Baumann quotes Claude Levi-Strauss, who introduced two strategies to deal with the otherness of others, called “anthropoemic” and “anthropophagic”. The first coping mechanism aims “at the exile or annihilation of the others”, whereas the second strategy aims “at the suspension or annihilation of their otherness.”27 Following his thought, there is no way of dealing with the otherness, the unknown threat, the uncomfortable question, the critique, without either spitting it out, or swallowing it without any second thought. In order to form a community, heterogeneity has to be turned into homogeneity. They create a balance of inclusion in a group of similar people, all attracted by the fear of being alone on the outside and the wish to be part of the inside.
        To build a community within the Sheds and Ducks, curators select artworks which are easy to consume. This does not automatically mean that the content of
the artwork is not critical or does not speak about important matters. But assuming that a certain group of visitors form the audience, in order to please those visitors, artworks reassuring their opinions are chosen. This means that the posed critique is easily digestible, because the visitors agree. In the end, there is no space left to reflect on the ingredients in the short amount of time between seeing, eating, chewing, and swallowing.

Hansel & Gretel Eating a Spoonful of Sugar

In the 1964 released movie Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins played by Julie Andrews tries to convince the children Jane and Michael, that done the right way, “[...] every task you undertake Becomes a piece of cake.”28 Therefore she sings the song A Spoonful of Sugar:

A Spoonful of sugar helps
the medicine go down
The medicine go down-wown
The medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar
helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way.29

The message is clear: Coated in sugar, every bitterness goes down the throat within a second and without even being recognized.

The fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, written by the Grimm Brothers was published in Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812.30 The fairytale tells the story of two children. Their family is very poor, and the only solution the mother sees is to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the forest.

It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house. They began to walk again, but they always came deeper into the forest, and if help did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness.

When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sit- ting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them,
and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted. And when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar. “We will set to work on that,” said Hansel, “and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and you, Gretel, can eat some of the window, it will taste sweet.” Hansel reached up above, and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted, and Gretel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes. Then a soft voice cried from the parlor:

“Nibble, nibble, gnaw
who is nibbling at my little house?”

The children answered “The wind, the wind, the heaven-born wind,” and went on eating without dis- turbing themselves. Hansel, who liked the taste of the roof, tore down a great piece of it, and Gretel pushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyed herself with it. Suddenly the door opened, and a woman as old as the hills, who supported herself on crutches, came creeping out. Hansel and Gretel were so terribly fright- ened that they let fall what they had in their hands.The old wom- an, however, nodded her head, and said, “Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.”

She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretel lay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.

The old woman had only pre- tended to be so kind. She was in reality a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and can- not see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near. When Hansel and Gretel came into her neighborhood, she laughed with malice, and said mockingly, “I have them, they shall not escape me again.”31

The children realise quickly that the nice old woman is an evil witch in disguise. She feeds up Hansel and forces Gretel to help her with the chores. One morning she decides it is time to cook the boy.

“We will bake first,” said the old woman, “I have already heated the oven, and kneaded the dough.” She pushed poor Gre- tel out to the oven, from which flames of fire were already darting. “Creep in,” said the witch, “and see if it properly heated, so that we can put the bread in.” And once Gretel was inside, she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it, and then she would eat her, too.

But Gretel saw what she had in mind, and said, “I do not know how I am to do it. How do I get in?” “Silly goose,” said the old woman, “the door is big enough. Just look, I can get in myself.” And she crept up and thrust her head into the oven. Then Gretel gave her a push that drove her far into it, and shut the iron door, and fastened the bolt. Oh. Then she began to howl quite horribly, but Gretel ran away, and the godless witch was miserably burnt to death. Gretel, however, ran like lightning to Hansel, opened his little stable, and cried, “Hansel, we are saved. The old witch is dead.”32

Hansel and Gretel face cruel threat and danger, but are able to escape using their intelligence and be rewarded with many treasures. They return to live with their father and never have to fear hunger again.

The Impact of Sugar on the Filling

Is the sugar coating created by these exhibition spaces pairable with the self-perception of the arts and culture to be the “‘natural’ space”33—as Ivan Krastev describes it—to contribute to social change?34 The big question here is: Are artworks able to send their information, or will the information be caught within the sugar-coating, not arriving at the sugar-addicted and mid-digesting visitor?
        Christoph Büchel exhibited the wreck of a fishing boat at the Venice Biennale 2019. This artwork was called Barca Nostra (‘Our Boat’). The fishing boat sank on April 19, 2015 after a collision with a Portugese container ship that aimed to rescue the migrants on the boat. All 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean sea.35 The artwork was placed on site of the Biennale area, at a location next to a refreshment-ar- ea most people crossed heading towards the next exhibition. Some of the visitors took pictures in front of it, attracted by the visual and not reflecting on the content of the artwork. The artwork did not pro- vide any signature or explanation.
        One could argue that the boat paired with the behaviour of the pedestrians might have embodied the goal of the artwork: As Matthew Collings argues: “people not knowing or caring about what is right in front of them, a thing they could in fact quite easily investigate, is surely the whole problem of the migrant crisis. It is the reason it remains a crisis.”36 Nevertheless, the placing of the artwork, the missing signature and the poorly interested visitors of the Biennale speak for the argument of the sugar coated artwork: The incorporated message did not, or only seldom arrive the visitor of the Biennale. The artwork does not transition into a memorial. Instead, the grave of 800 people is displaced in the sunny setting of the Venice Biennale and thereby exposed to an audience far from feeling empathy.

Baumann illustrates that the inhabitants of our society are aiming to gratify desires fastly. Additional to that he outlines the expiration date of desires happening short- ly after their appearance. As a consequence to that, desires and gratification are shortly renewed after each other. Everything has to be new, modern, and contemporary. 37 He names this culture “casino culture”38 after George Steiner and interprets the call ‘Rien ne va plus’ as the setting tone for our need to satisfy ourselves rapidly, longing for immediate gratification.39
        However, as Stuart Hall expresses, “learning through culture and the arts works by indirection.” He describes this process as a “slow mutual dialogic unfolding of reciprocal understanding.”40 Culture and the arts should not impose their opinion, but open the space for a dialogue between the artwork and the visitor of the cultural institution and between the visitors meeting in front of the artwork. In a community which is formed around sugar coated realities and the fast gratification through easy digestible and tasty information, no dialogue is possible.

Should We Swallow Bitterness, Or: Should We Spit it Out and Look at it?

Stuart Hall describes that “without institutions, creative efforts [...] come and go, often leaving no trace behind them; or alternatively they become monuments to themselves.”41 Therefore, institutions need to manifest social change. But, are art-works included in an institution aiming to attract as many visitors as possible able to show different perspectives? As soon as criticality arrives in a cultural institution and is exhibited—especially in exhibition spaces aiming to be most attractive to the visitor—this criticality, or as Hall describes it, this creative effort, is approved by the institution and got mainstream enough to be presented to a wider audience while being sure it will not offend visitors and thereby will not have a bad impact on the attendance figures. Following this thought we could ask if institutions are always a little late, and only exhibit old—or older thoughts—which bore or disgust those heads longing for something new—probably the minority—but attract those who want to be reassured of their position towards public matters—probably the majority. They function more as an archivist, instead of an influencer, promoting new ideas. Shed and a Duck invoke their vis- itors to perpetuate pre-formed and reassured opinions. They conserve a certain reality under the sugar coating they carefully created. They manifest present and history, but do not aim to reimagine the future.

Olaf Velthuis describes that curators include critical and hard-to-sell art within the Biennale in order to position themselves as being independent from the art-market.42 Can we as viewers of arts now assume that criticality only enters the museum or Biennale when the curator can be certain not to risk losing the attractiveness of the institutions or the event and is instead able to secure the advantage of claiming to be critical enough? Is expecting to exhibit the newest ideas too much to ask? Do we need to accept that their only participation in social change is storing culture for the masses (those masses considering museums as part of their life), whilst change is already one step ahead, and maybe even two? Should we accept Biennales and Blockbuster-Exhibitions as places which are only re-empowering our own, secured thoughts, without shifting our perspectives into new territory? Are they just not the right setting to expect criticality or a desire for social change, as Ivan Krastev emphasizes it?43
        Art should not always aim to lead towards reflection. It can bring up positive emotions, without expressing anything critical and having to justify its existence. Art can, and should make us happy. We do not want to be confronted with evil—do not want to reflect on negative side effects on a daily basis. We do not want to taste the bitter medicine Mary Poppins feeds us. Coated in sugar, we can ignore the bitterness and live on easily, without caring, without being fully responsible for our life, and thereby without being independent from others, or reliant on Mary Poppins caring for us. Nevertheless, just longing for the next sweet surprise does not equip us to deal with obstacles and challenges. Thus, we have to find a way to acknowledge the nurturing potential of facing the bitterness, as Hansel & Gretel faced the witch and came home not only well-fed, but with the perspective of never fearing hunger again.
        Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović demand the recipient of art to actively interact with the artwork. Everytime we look at art they want us to ask: “what would society be like after his work of art?”44 In order to pose this question, the recipients of art need to think, not to con- sume. Maybe, by imposing this question while visiting Sheds and Ducks, we as the visitors are able to differentiate between art aiming to reassure our reflection on society—and thereby comforting us—and between art aiming for change. And maybe, we as cultural practitioners should impose the same question on the artwork, in order to unmask our own sugar coated tactics, but also to find the right setting to position our artwork in.

Is There a Way For Sugar to Protect, and not to Destroy?

Stuart Hall questions the capability of cultural insti- tutions to become “part of a solution instead of the problem,” if they are “enmeshed in the ‘spectacle’ of the festivals and biennales.”45 He implies that as soon as cultural institutions sugar-coat their exhibitions, they hinder themselves from working critically and setting the tone for the event as a leisure-destination. While the Blockbuster-Exhibition as a sign puts pressure on the museum and thereby turns it into the Shed, the Biennale works holistically as an organism—the Duck, letting the visitors participate in la dolce vita in exchange for the Biennale-ticket. Both institutions suffer from working against themselves, struggling to reach ever greater goals.
        The attractiveness of Sheds and Ducks is created by symbolic capital, which consecrates the artworks, as well as the curators, dealers and the setting the artwork is placed in. This symbolic capital working as the sugar-coating might not be problematic, but artworks which are created with the ambition to target change by impos- ing critique on the viewer and thereby asking the viewer to reflect on certain parts of their life, might not be able to function in the way the artist or curators imagined. The sugar paralyzes the communication between the artwork and the viewer.
        Biennales and Blockbuster-Exhibition should work as protective shields for those art-works aiming to critique, without covering content and message. It is important to find a balance between attracting visitors, but also risking to set them off with critique they do not want to face. This might not always have a negative backlash. As Brian Droitcour describes it, Pavilions at the Venice Biennales are most memorable, if they max out the limitations set up by the Biennale, in his words: “like a child coloring outside the lines.”46 If the artist or curator reflects on their role and the content of the artwork, without being blended by the sugary offering of glamour and prestige, they can use the attractiveness to invite people to interact and reflect, initiated by the artwork.

︎︎︎ Sugar Coated 

1 Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, 13.

2 Ibid. 9.

3 Ibid. 13.

4 Ibid. 51.

5 Ibid. 13.

6 Ibid. 13.

7 Non Architecture Editorial Team “The Duck Rules!!! (From Venturi to BIG).”

8 Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, 87.

9 Ibid. 13.

10 Ibid. 87.

11 Ibid. 87.

12 Tarsi and Marlow “What Makes a Blockbuster Exhibition? - Google Arts & Culture.”

13 Carlsson “Go big or go home: how blockbuster exhibitions are saving museums”

14 Velthuis, “The Venice Effect”

15 Russeth “The Venice Biennale: Everything You Could Ever Want to Know”

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 99.

19  Ibid.

20  Ibid.

21  Hall, “Cultural Diversity,” 31.

22  Wikipedia, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (film)”

23  Velthuis, “TheVeniceEffect”
24  Ibid.

25  Ibid.

26  Ibid.

27  Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 101.

28  Lyrics “A Spoonful of Sugar”

29  Ibid.

30 Wikipedia, “Hansel and Gretel”

31 Grimm and Grimm, “Hansel and Gretel”

32 Ibid.

33 Kraste v, “Foreword,” 7.
34 Ibid.

35 Wikipedia, “Barca Nostra”

36 Collings “What you need to see at the Venice Biennale 2019”

37 Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 159.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Hall, “Cultural Diversity,” 30-31.

41 Ibid. 31-32.

42 Velthuis, “The Venice Effect”

43 Krastev, “Foreword,” 7.

44 Cvejić and Vujanović “The crisis of the social imaginary and beyond,” 148.

45 Hall, “Cultural Diversity,” 31.

46 Droitcour “PavilionProblems”

Pictures in order of appearance: 
︎︎︎ Stardust Casino, Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections., 2018
︎︎︎ That’s A Big Duck,, 2019

Picture on Archive-Page:
The Duck Rules!!! (From Venturi to BIG), 2020