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Helter Shelter 

Architectural intervention: Head for the hills or take it to the streets

Thursday, May 12 2005
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

The weatherman said it was supposed to be overcast and cool the day I went to visit Olafur Eliasson’s "Meant to be lived in" — a site-specific suite of light sculptures in a private home in Pasadena — but as I wound down Linda Vista past the turnoff to Art Center and began winding my way up Inverness, I was already beginning to feel woozy from the remorseless solar radiation and absence of air conditioning. That turned out to be the perfect preparation for experiencing the work, especially since I didn’t have any weed.

Danish-born jet-setter Eliasson — who first came to local attention by cutting a hole in Marc Foxx’s roof in 1999 and last year became an art star with his luminous, Turneresque transformation of the Tate Modern in London — has, under the auspices of Milanese gallerist Emi Fontana, compiled a mind-altering Light & Space fun house out of 10 separate works that focus, block, bend, reflect and fracture the photons into a smorgasbord of shadows and rainbows.

The funniest conceptual aspect of Eliasson’s installation is that, apart from a single 14-inch square window at the end of a long mirrored shaft, the entire space is hermetically sealed off from the hazy California sun — or any other hint of local color. The host building — a retro-modernist glass shoebox perched on a hillside — has been completely refitted with windowless lightproof walls and black foam floor pads. The initial effect is a kind of environmental decompression chamber, with an accompanying shift into a slightly dreamlike state of disorientation.

This altered state of consciousness doesn’t let up as you pad softly through the cavelike air-conditioned space, pausing to stare at room after room of gently modulating refractions from intense halogen arc lights. The most impressive is To Day (2005), which fills two rooms with elaborate curvilinear geometric permutations made of intense white light, and Eye Ceiling (2005), whose cylindrical color filter produces both a wide range of visual effects as you move around it, and — as the title suggests — a distinctly eyeball-like projection on the ceiling above.

Several of the works are strongly reminiscent of the mostly Cali light abstractions still on view (through May 23) in MOCA’s "Visual Music" show. This, along with Eliasson’s obvious affinity with L.A.’s 1960’s Light & Space movement — Irwin, Turrell, Bell, et al. — opens a different sort of window onto the local terrain: a trans-historical engagement with Los Angeles’ cultural landscape. Artworks that seem to be cut whole cloth from several decades past usually just get on my nerves, but the trippy dislocation of Eliasson’s cool prismatic womb — so unexpected in a site-specific installation — plus the very deliberate conceptual glitches let you leave the slight taint of art-world solipsism outside and get your phenomenological groove on.

Temporary Services' 'Construction Site'

Down the hill and across downtown, at the far end of the architectural-modification-as-art (not to mention socioeconomic) spectrum, a very different project was unfolding over a couple of weeks in Echo Park, as members of the Chicago-based radical art klatch Temporary Services realized the latest in a string of provocative Situationist-style actions that range from publishing plans and building prototypes of an array of prisoners’ inventions (e.g., an electrical immersion heater cobbled together from toothbrushes and metal binder tabs) to curating a citywide exhibit of artist-modified sandwich boards. Aided and abetted by the even harder-core Biggest Fags Ever collective, TS commandeered a vacant lot near Sunset and Alvarado to construct a cultural shantytown from the bounty of perfectly good headboards, used carpeting, scrap lumber and slightly moist mattresses that clog the arteries of the City of Angels.

Organized as only the third project by upstart L.A. curatorial nonprofit group Outpost for Contemporary Art, the sub-bargain-basement residency was an open-ended negotiation about the creative use of public space and the social construction of art — both conceptually and literally. Conceptually speaking, the occupation (its title, "Construction Site," was woven into the chainlink fence with plastic bags) embodies an invitation to the surrounding community to engage in the definition of art as well as a challenge to the art world to accommodate that definition. And it worked. Along with the predictable stream of curious grad students and gallerists, local families, non-art hipsters, homeless people and spillover curiosity seekers from the nearby Echo Park Film Center, Edendale Library and 33 1/3 Bookstore found their way onto the lot — some even stayed, pitching in, donating materials or beer, returning regularly over the duration.

In literal terms, the social construction of art consisted of a beehive of activity resulting in several strange architectural forms — an archway of shopping carts framing a set of bleachers — all of it teetering over a two-man tent where the BFE collective resided; a giant cloth baseball filled with balloons perched atop a rickety guard tower from which local kids artistically hurled themselves onto a pile of perfectly good mattresses; a patchwork chute made from dozens of cast-off pieces of furniture that carried a bowling ball the entire length of the lot.

As the site’s physical dimensions took shape, its function as a social hub began picking up steam, with daily potluck dinners, book giveaways (TS regularly publishes books and pamphlets, including Public Phenomena: Informal Modifications of Shared Spaces, in conjunction with this event), workshops on urban nocturnal produce foraging, campfire lectures by the L.A. Urban Rangers and a DJ set by Sergio Zenteno. One high point was when the afore-mentioned baseball was dislodged from its moorings and rolled down Sunset into Echo Park park where successive maulings by local children gutted it of its constituent balloons, which were then systematically pop-stomped into the playground dust.

On the final night, a large crowd gathered to view the documentation of that event, and a screening of The BLVD (1999), Deborah Stratman’s gorgeous experimental documentary about Chicago street racing. There’s a certain animosity to aestheticism in art that questions its own social function, a desire to strip away distracting or seductive decoration and get to the point. A lot of the raggedy-ass scrapheaps in "Construction Site" smacked of that bias, but Stratman’s film made it clear that beauty and sociopolitical engagements are not mutually exclusive domains. Exhausted and still lacking any conclusive delineation of the exact meaning of the work (or criteria for success or failure), the TS team deconstructed the site and headed home to Chicago.

Los Angeles is a strange place to try to explore concepts of community. Olafur Eliasson and Temporary Services have each addressed — in diametrically different political though formally related ways — the peculiar discontinuity of L.A.’s social structure. Eliasson offers withdrawal into highly controlled contemplative introspection while TS advocates active improvisational engagement with populations normally left out of the art-world equation. In spite of the danger of art disappearing up its own asshole, or dissolving into the same undifferentiated mess of mass culture, we’re lucky the discussion is happening at all.

OLAFUR ELIASSON: MEANT TO BE LIVED IN | 1472 Inverness Dr., Pasadena | Thursday–Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. | Through May 31

TEMPORARY SERVICES: CONSTRUCTION SITE | 2014-2022 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; www.temporaryservices.org | April 17–May 1

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