Downtown in Flames

Tony Hsieh wants to bring fire art to Las Vegas. How should Las Vegas feel about that?

Photo by Jim Laurie

Photo by Jim Laurie

Sometime last spring, Tony Hsieh quit surprising me. That’s not to say that I lost respect for him. I only mean that I believed there was nothing that he could do that would shock me. Build a retail park from portables and shipping containers? Sure, makes sense. Launch a massive music festival with less than a year’s preparation time? Godspeed, you Zapponian emperor.

But that was before last week, when Hsieh stood in front of a crowd at the SXSW V2V tech conference at the Cosmopolitan and said that he wanted to make Las Vegas into a living gallery of fire-based art.

“One of the things we’re excited about is bringing a lot of fire-burning elements Downtown,” he said. “There’s no city that really owns the concept of fire yet.”

Well, after I double-checked to make sure I wasn’t reading The Onion, I had a few initial reactions, and I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share all of them with you. I thought, “Wrong. Detroit owns the concept of fire, much to its chagrin.” Then, “Wait, does he want to make Downtown look like the first five minutes of Blade Runner? Because I might be OK with that.” Then I thought, “What was wrong with our foolish, decades-old dream to make this the neon-art capital of the world?” And finally, “Why didn’t we think of introducing propane tanks and live fire elements to the oldest part of the city years ago?”

But then I thought of The Mantis. A piece of Burning Man fire art created by Kirk Jellum and Kristen Ulmer, this giant-insect-about-town has been a regular fixture at First Friday and at many other Downtown Project-sponsored events, and is now a permanent resident of the under-construction Container Park. She is 40 feet long, 30 feet wide and stands 55 feet tall at the very tip of her feelers, which are the bits that shoot fire into the air. The Mantis, in action, is a breathtaking sight, and the first dozen times I saw it, I photographed it as if it were the last time I’d ever lay eyes on it. I shot The Mantis like it was going extinct.

But then, you know, it didn’t. The Mantis began showing up everywhere, even places it had no reason to be. The last straw for me was when it was deposited in front of La Comida for that restaurant’s grand-opening party. Every time I tried to have a conversation with someone, it was punctuated by loud pops as someone triggered the flame mechanism. And it wasn’t a continuous burst every 30 seconds or so; it was a staccato series of bursts—pop-pop-pop-pop-pop—repeated ad infinitum. At one point, I could swear the operator was using The Mantis to play “Jingle Bells.” At that point, The Mantis moved from my dreams to my nightmares. As recently as last night I had to fight the thing garbed only in my underwear, armed with a turnip.

Once I thought of the La Comida incident, I flashed back to the Blade Runner scenario. Why should Las Vegas be a hell only in Stephen King’s The Stand and the Resident Evil movies? If Tony Hsieh wants to make Fremont East a place where shit is constantly and annoyingly blowing up, I should embrace that, right?

Fortunately, I spoke with artist Robert Beckmann, whose acclaimed series of paintings The Body of a House pays stunningly beautiful homage to our state’s original fire-art installation, the Nevada Test Site. His initial reaction to Hsieh’s announcement echoed mine.

“I thought, ‘Why do we need more heat here?’” he said, chuckling. “And I thought, we have all kinds of problems with water … isn’t that a more appropriate elemental art focus?”

But then he gave some thought to what “fire art” could mean in a Las Vegas context:

“On further reflection, I realized that fire is appropriate. It’s always been a symbol of purifying, of regeneration,” he said, adding that fire has significance in alchemy (“The alchemist forges his or her transformation in the fire of the furnace, or in the inner crucible located in the solar plexus”), in Buddhism and in Christianity. “Transformation is an entirely appropriate symbol for the desert. So many people travel to Las Vegas to start anew, just as mystics used to travel to the deserts to burn off the dregs—the fog of illusions, if you will.”

I like that. In the space of five minutes, Beckmann turned my apprehension into anticipation, and even though I don’t know what shape this fire-art gallery will take (the Downtown Project did not respond to my request by press time), I’ll be keen to see the coming of the fire, provided it’s not too close to where I’m trying to eat dinner. And if Tony Hsieh really wants to engender the goodwill of the neighborhood, here’s my suggestion: Set Slotzilla on fire—safely, with all the proper permits; we bet he can get them—and let Fremont Street rise again, freed from the fog of illusion.