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LACMA Deconstructed 

Machine Project rethinks what a museum is for

Wednesday, Nov 19 2008
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For photographs of the LACMA Machine Project, view the slideshow here

 

Something weird happened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this weekend. A girl walked 6.4 miles from LACMA to Machine Project gallery in Echo Park, connecting the two sites with a very long piece of string. That was just the beginning. You may recall the time Machine Project buried people alive? Or the time they blasted whale songs from the radios/CDs of Cadillac Escalades? Setting aside any trepidation, LACMA invited Machine Project to take over the place on Saturday, basically to rethink what a museum is for.

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“Usually, when we visit a museum, we treat it like a slumbering organism, with priceless artifacts held in protoplasmic suspension,” Machine Project founder Mark Allen writes in the exhibition’s accompanying program. “We stay at a respectful distance, move at a measured pace, keep our voices down. Today we’re going to try something different.”

Those of us who have been going to Allen’s events for years are game — giddy, even, at the thought of the Machine Project aesthetic infiltrating the gabillion-dollar enclave of Warhols and Cezannes. Others, like one older woman in the restroom, are not. The sound of the brass trio playing in the elevator seeps into her toilet stall. “Why do they have to play that sound and ruin the effect? Ay yai yai yai yai.”

Why are the things you most want to see the ones you end up missing? I was so mesmerized by Karen Lofgren’s eerily glowing unicorn skeleton laid in state in a loving heap amidst the bamboo beneath the Japanese Pavilion, I forgot to watch Lasagna Cat do his re-enactment of classic Garfield comics. I could have strolled for the entire day and still not found the mysterious, gently breathing animatronic kitten sleeping within an existing wall vitrine somewhere in the museum.

“Should we do some centering? I think we need to center ourselves,” says the girl in the area dubbed The Loneliest Gallery. People toss balloons and confetti—then vacuum them up. Allen decided that that part of the museum seemed particularly neglected and ought to be cheered up. “It needs you,” according to the program. “It needs all of us. Nobody wants to be lonely.”

That program booklet, by the way, is a keeper. It says funny things, like “Laura Steenberge. Melancholy Contrabass Improvisations. Laura will play amongst the Dutch paintings for really kind of a lot of hours.” A performance in which 60 people try to clap once per minute for 60 minutes without using a time-keeping device, it tells us, is scheduled for: “noon-1pm’ish.”

How does Machine translate to the big stage? A little dispersed, say the Debbie Downers . Though that can be a plus. Every hour on the hour, a guy atop the building plays speed metal under a gothic arch modeled on Loiret France’s Doorway With Arms of the Counts of Chazay (which can be found on the 3rd floor of the Ahmanson Building). But he’s so far away, you have to look through a telescope (one has been provided) to see him. See the red lights? The fog? They give the guitarist a Satanic flair. “They wouldn’t let us do speed metal in the real arch,” confesses organizer Michele Yu.

“They,” meaning the museum muckamucks, have imposed restrictions. Please don’t lean on Richard Serra’s Sequence sculpture. Please, no flash photography. Emily Lacy is addressing these very issues in a performance titled “Please Don’t Touch Anything/ A Sacred Oratorio for the Precious.” The museum is electric tonight. The Machine’s critical eye is a playful one, taking itself both seriously and not, flipping our expectations of museum-going behavior on its head.

After a musical interlude inside Sequence, I slip into a kind of fruit-in-art tour of the permanent collection led by Fallen Fruit Collective’s Matias Viegener. “We were originally going to count up all the kinds of fruits in the art,” he says, “then make a fruit salad with fruit in proportion to the amounts in the paintings. That way you could actually taste the art. But LACMA thought it would be too dirty.”

Some of the painted grapes, he tells us conspiratorially, are moody, ambivalent and all about control. And, he adds, “We’re working on a theory that one of the reasons the art in this wing is so somber and serious is because there is no fruit in it.”

In one of the Ahmanson galleries, Holly Vesecky is re-creating with fresh flowers Sam Francis’ abstract painting Toward Disappearance. The scent of narcissus drifts down the corridor to where the Institute for Figuring’s Margaret and Christine Wertheim are teaching people how to crochet coral reefs out of plastic garbage bags.

Like Disneyland, it’s impossible to do, see, smell, taste or otherwise experience everything. From the kinetic sculptures and the knitting and soldering workshops to the sleeping babies in the Nap Area and —like an errant knight — Cory Fogel wandering around in a suit made of pepper cans to the papier-mâché replicas of the Hearst antiquities, a pun on Hearst’s penchant for making copies of his acquisitions. Machine’s one-day takeover of LACMA is epic. Mark Allen himself, running back and forth between buildings in hardcore master-of-ceremonies mode, seems part of one big, collective piece. Even the people in the museum courtyard–turned–Machine Mission Control rub their eyes blearily—exhausted, but sated — as evening falls and the Southland fires smoke the air like a thousand barbecues.

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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