Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Private fears of unrequited love, heartbreak, and dying alone are put on display for all to see.
In a city that's spent years successfully branding itself as the place where people go to keep secrets, Candy Chang’s proposal was totally novel. She wanted instead to ask everyone in Vegas – or at least in the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip – what they had to confess.
Chang has made a name for herself as an artist by inviting communities to voice their hopes and ideas (and monthly rent payments) on shared public canvasses. You may know her work from the Post-it-sized “I wish this was…” campaign in New Orleans, or from this massive community blackboard enticing passersby to chalk in the blank “Before I die I want to ______.” Her projects, Chang says, are like "self-help in public space."
The Cosmopolitan (its current marketing campaign: "Just the right amount of wrong") happens to have a gallery space and an artist’s residency program, run with the help of the Art Production Fund. When Chang was invited to stake out the space there for a month this summer, while living in the hotel, she turned her trademark interactive art toward the famed winking permissiveness of this city.
"When you think about Vegas, you think about 'What happens here, stays here,'" she says. "It made me wonder, what would I want to know from all the people around me in Vegas? Was there a way we could actually share our confessions in a safe way in public space together?"
The resulting live exhibit, which runs through Aug. 12., is frank and cheeky and sincere at the same time. As it turns out, for all our private fears, a lot of us have confessions to make about pretty similar transgressions. More than half of them, Chang says, have so far been about sex, unrequited love, heartbreak, longing, and fears of dying alone.
The plaques are all anonymous. Unsuspecting gamblers and hotel guests who wander into the gallery can peer through the admissions of other strangers. And then they have the chance to duck into voting-booth style confessionals where they can scribble down their own disclosures for Chang to later collect and hang on the wall. It must say something about our default expectations in such public places that Chang is most commonly asked these two questions: It’s anonymous, right? And free?
The whole idea was partly inspired by Japanese Shinto shrine walls, where visitors may write prayers and read those of the faithful before them, although Chang has tweaked the concept by highlighting some of the most heartbreaking and humorous sentiments on larger-than-life canvasses.
"Part of it is catharsis, part of it is voyeuristic," Chang says. "But the part I’m particularly interested in is just seeing that we’re not alone. We’re not alone in the things that we struggle with in our lives."
The experience of being surrounded by so many people, she says, is one of the greatest resources of cities and the public spaces in them. Chang herself penned one of the confessions (hers is anonymous, too). After we spoke, she emailed us this follow-up note, which reads a bit like a confession on her part, too:
I've been circling around a lot of questions about life and death and personal well-being, and I've been yearning for more time to pause and reflect. And then this opportunity came up and I thought well, can you have a Walden Pond experience in Las Vegas? I'm living here for a month, in a room on the 57th floor with a balcony where you can see the entire city of Las Vegas and the desert and mountains beyond. It's both grand and melancholy. This physical perspective has really helped me maintain mental perspective. And then I'm working in this gallery every day, surrounded by some of our most private thoughts and experiences. So much longing and regret and fear and wonder.
If you’re not going to be in Vegas yourself at some point in the next week committing sins or confessing them, you can enjoy these images of what people there are privately thinking:
All images courtesy of Candy Chang.