By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Iconic books about L.A. history have titles like History of Forgetting, Canyon of Dreams or — my favorite — The Truth About Los Angeles, which makes it sound like everything you thought you knew on the topic might be a lie. If you're out to dinner in this city, and you tell people about an artist you know who's interested in artifacts from film sets or how invented histories blur with real ones, they'll likely say, "That's so L.A."
In L.A., artist Eve Babitz, a kind of casual historian of this city wrote, "It's hard to tell if you're dealing with the real true illusion or the false one." But Babitz wrote that in '77 and, while people still give their books about this place the slipperiest-sounding titles, L.A.'s cultural blurriness has started to seem less specific to here, more of a stand-in for the blurriness that's everywhere.
Maybe it's the Internet, and the growing credibility of things editable by anyone, like Wikipedia. Maybe it's in reaction to that trend satirical news anchor Stephen Colbert termed "truthiness" — in part referring to Americans who, after war began in Iraq, equated their opinions with fact because they wanted to believe certain ideological spin that "felt true." The term is just as relevant now, after a presidential election characterized by "cavalier disregard for facts on both sides," as FactCheck.org put it.
But whatever the exact confluence of reasons, the L.A. art being made right now that explores the border between facts and fantasies — and there is a lot of it these days, some of it exceptionally smart — does not first and foremost feel "so L.A." It feels like it's speaking to a bigger trend in arts and letters, the same one that produced things like John D'Agata's book The Lifespan of a Fact — about a drawn-out battle between a fact-bending essayist and a fact checker — or Ander Monson's Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, a website/book that's partly personal history and partly an assemblage of other people's histories.
Among examples from this year alone is Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's Kentifrica project, featured in the Hammer Museum's inaugural biennial, dubbed "Made in L.A." Hinkle has started a growing archive of artifacts, like hairpieces or handmade instruments, from a continent where the histories of Kentucky and West Africa converge and overlap. This continent, called Kentifrica, is an in-between space that does exist in metaphorical terms, if not as an actual plot of land — certain Kentuckians do have West African roots and it was African-Americans from Kentucky who originally founded the West African country Liberia. But the "artifacts" usually are things made or found in the present and attributed by Hinkle and her collaborators to Kentifrican culture.
There's Kerry Tribe's film There Will Be ____, a period drama, the script for which consisted entirely of dialogue from the many Hollywood movies shot in the Greystone Mansion. Tribe's drama chronicles a murder that really did occur in the mansion in 1929, and implies that maybe the wrong man took the fall back then. So in the film, all the fictions that have played out in an actual historical site work to reveal a potentially hidden truth.
Then there are Zoe Crosher's Transgressions photographs, all taken at the approximate places where fictional and actual L.A. icons like Natalie Wood or Beach Boy Dennis Wilson drowned or disappeared in the Pacific. Crosher hung the photos for one night only in a Chateau Marmont penthouse (after displaying them at Las Cienegas Projects last year). She called the one-night event An Evening With Eve Babitz, referring to the writer, the same one quoted above, who wrote so beautifully about the fantasies that played out in L.A. and in the Chateau in particular but who had herself disappeared from the art scene in the 1990s. The hope was that placing these photographs of past disappearances in a place full of so much L.A. lore might lead to a reappearance of Babitz, who still lives in L.A.
Artist Daniel Small works with what may be the most absurd "true illusions" of any of the history-reworking artists I've encountered this year. One of these is the history of the Luxor Las Vegas hotel, which used to have an Egyptian theme and a 110-foot-tall Sphinx of Giza at its entrance. Then in 2007, around the same time Egypt moved to copyright its pyramids and antiquities and charge royalties to people who reproduced them, the Luxor decided to rid itself of its former gimmick. It deaccessioned faux Egyptian artifacts, moldings over doorways and a series of murals.
Because workers rushed to move objects, they broke some, which means certain objects looked like "ruins" by the time they arrived at their new home, the Las Vegas National History Museum. That's where Small found them, displayed alongside actual antiquities in the museum's collection. When he pointed out the strangeness of this display to the museum, and asked if he might be able to acquire some of these pseudo antiquities and murals from the Luxor, the museum acquiesced.
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