Koki Tanaka had been living in L.A. for just two years when the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan on March 11 last year, triggering the devastating, 133-foot tsunami. When the artist returns home to Tokyo these days, he feels strangely out of place. "I feel like people think, 'You do not physically understand,' " Tanaka says, and they're right — he didn't feel the shaking or have to find his way home amidst post-earthquake chaos. Instead, he was in SoCal and on Twitter, the only communication outlet that seemed to be working in Tokyo that day, using it to help people find escape routes out of train stations and out of the city. He was stuck in an "in-between situation," not there but fully involved.
In a sense, he's still stuck between two places. Just two weeks ago, on May 14, the Japan Foundation announced that Tanaka would represent Japan at the 2013 Venice Bienniale. That same day, he was finishing the installation he developed for "Made in L.A.," the inaugural Los Angeles biennial that opens at the Hammer Museum, L.A. Municipal Gallery and LAXART on June 2.
It surprised him when, a year ago, the biennial's curators — Anne Ellegood and Ali Subotnick of the Hammer and Lauri Firstenberg, Malik Gaines and Cesar Garcia of LAXART — asked him to participate in the exhibition. "No artist that had lived in Japan for so few years would be asked to be in a show like this there," he says.
But "Made in L.A." takes a loose approach to regionalism.
If Pacific Standard Time, the six-month celebration of postwar SoCal art that swept through Greater L.A. from last fall to this past spring, aimed to prove that important, historic things have happened here, "Made in L.A." is out to show that what's happening here now is important everywhere.
It's also out to make sure important art keeps happening here, and a jury will select five of the show's 60 artists to be voted on by the public, with the winner receiving a $100,000 prize.
The epigraph to the "Made in L.A." catalog essay, from urban planner Ed Soja, begins, "Everywhere seems also to be in Los Angeles," and the five curators titled their co-written essay "Los Angeles Is Everywhere."
This city's art "deviates" from norms, they suggest; it collides "myth and experience," feeds on "transnational experience," welcomes "contamination."
L.A. art starts to sound like contagion, infecting the rest of the world with chaotic creativity, and then wooing the world's artists to L.A.
So it makes sense that a fair number of the 60 artists chosen for the show would have ties to other places. Of the three profiled here, Meg Cranston has exhibited mainly in other cities, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle does work about a faraway world buried in the past, and Koki Tanaka recently arrived from another country.
Meg Cranston: The unsung Californian
The first thing you see when you enter the Hammer for "Made in L.A." is Meg Cranston's mural-sized California image of a blond girl with two mouths, red polka dots over her eyes and nose, and huge, pear-shaped earrings, one yellow and the other blue. There's an ad for $3 off Tylenol PM in the bottom corner. Cranston first collaged the image together six years ago, for a New York exhibition that would be sunny and full of pop references and spruced-up junk. "I wanted to engage all these clichés about L.A. and show them in New York," says Cranston, who has been working here since the 1980s, when she graduated from CalArts, and teaching here almost as long.
Anne Ellegood, chief curator at the Hammer, remembers talking about Cranston with other "Made in L.A." curators. They all admired the way Cranston could infuse abstract work about issues like death and capitalism with so much casual personality. But they assumed she was too established for their show — after all, she'd won a Guggenheim Fellowship — until they tried remembering the last solo show she had in L.A. They could think of only three since 2000, and her one survey exhibition had been in New Zealand. "She'd be perfect," they realized.
"She's this really important artist," Elle-good says, "but a lot of people don't know her."
They asked her to develop something for the lobby stairwell, a notoriously difficult space for artists.
"There's a lot of marble, a lot of white," Cranston says.
At first she wanted to interrupt the stairway with something sculptural. But when curators encouraged her to think two-dimensionally, she remembered the California collage.
"To me, it's always been about aspiration," she says, like L.A. itself, perpetually on the brink of becoming whatever it's supposed to be.
Next to her double-mouthed, smiling California girl, on the way up to the main landing, she hung an image of disposable Bic lighters, all colored in hues Pantone predicted would be popular. Companies like Pantone command thousands of dollars for color forecasts into the far future, but she used predictions for now, June 2012.
"Artists really aren't the trend forecasters," she says. They respond and try to figure out what trends mean. The Bic lighters are a response. "I like that tradition of lighting lighters at the end of a concert," she says, and here in a museum built by Armand Hammer's oil money, which is trying to divine which art matters now and where L.A. art is headed, the lighters are about "energy, fuel and heat." They're about anticipation and trepidation.
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle: The ethnographer of a mythic place
If Cranston seemed too established for the show, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle seemed too unestablished. The rule had been to avoid students, but Hinkle was still in school when curator Cesar Garcia walked into her CalArts studio (she has since received her MFA). "I saw all these amazing drawings and objects," he remembers. "It really felt like a cabinet of curiosities."
He couldn't tell if she had found or made the musical instruments, intricately embellished headdresses and wooden artifacts on display. She told him they were from her ongoing Kentifrica project, that she was developing research about this place hardly anyone had heard of. The way she collapsed history and fantasy fascinated him, and he brought the other curators in to see her work.
Hinkle grew up in Kentucky, the state that, in 1828, sent a few hundred free-born black Kentuckians and newly freed slaves to start a colony in West Africa, in present-day Liberia. They founded a township named Clay-Ashland after a Kentucky slave owner (Henry Clay) and his estate (Ashland). In the same way that African-Americans in the United States have been studying their West African roots, there are stories of children in Clay-Ashland singing campfire songs about faraway Kentucky.
Overlaps like these, between Africa and the culture she grew up in, fascinate Hinkle. But Kentifrica isn't the same as Clay-Ashland, or even a convergence of Kentucky and West Africa. It's a mythic continent, "a contested geography," as Hinkle calls it, that's both "contemporary and ancient," a "diaspora that's constantly shape-shifting." It exists because Hinkle has decided to create its archive — not out of thin air but out of genuine interest in how long-ago, now-invisible cultures might be manifesting now — and the more research she creates, the more real it all seems. Hinkle has collaborated with scholars, one who suggested that the beaded braids girls wear in Kentucky are Kentifrican in origin, and presented clinical photographs to support her point. Musicians have invented or repurposed Kentifrican instruments.
A year ago, at CalArts, Hinkle hosted a panel discussion called "Kentifrica Is or Kentifrica Ain't?" with writers, historians and musicians. Panelists were supposed to argue over whether Kentifrica could exist. "But everyone wanted Kentifrica to be real," she says.
The first Kentifrican ethnomusical event in L.A., called Kentifrica Is, will happen in the Hammer courtyard on June 14. Hinkle will perform alongside 10 others, including composer Kevin Robinson and musician Eugene Moon. "There's going to be lighting, costuming, dancing," she says.
She plans to reinvent the whole space.
Koki Tanaka: The everyday mystic
In 2011, Koki Tanaka rented a booth at an L.A. flea market and sold palm fronds he had picked up off the street. "Are you serious?" said one man, annoyed. "I have these all over my yard," said another. "If you buy something really strange from a flea market," Tanaka explained to one curious customer, "that memory never, never disappears."
Curator Ali Subotnick saw the video of Tanaka's palm-frond experiment at the Box gallery in 2011, and Malik Gaines heard about Tanaka from a friend in New York. They liked how he tried to make simple experiences extraordinary, and when they asked him to do a project for "Made in L.A.," he asked if he could take animals from a zoo and install them in museum galleries. Then he would put art into the animals' cages, so museumgoers and zoogoers would be equally astonished. When that wasn't feasible, Tanaka went with a back-up plan.
He posted on a UCLA website, asking for two musicians. When grad student Ariel Campos volunteered himself and undergrad Matt Sumida, both marimba players, Tanaka filmed them as they improvised, asking one to play while the other watched. Tanaka hung two videos facing each other in the Hammer's lobby gallery, and when you enter, you see one musician watching on one screen while, across the room, another plays. At one point, you see only Ariel on both screens, watching and playing at the same time. In making these videos, Tanaka remembered his own experience of the Japanese earthquake, how he had felt both involved and not involved. "We were all sort of having a different experience," he says.
Between the two videos, he has staggered 20 chairs and hung round, twirling mirrors at eye level. If you sit in a chair and look around, you see the videos reflected in at least a hundred ways. If you come on Aug. 5, when Tanaka invites 10 flutists and 10 visitors to sit randomly in the room, the flutists playing amidst their audience, the mirrors will reflect a different view of the room each time they turn. Everyone will be having a different experience of the same thing.
MADE IN L.A. 2012 | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd.; LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City; Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz | June 2-Sept. 2
More to see in "Made in L.A."
Other artists to watch for in the "Made in L.A." exhibit:
Sarah Cain: Space cadet
For Sarah Cain, a painting on a wall is not an isolated object; it is intimately a part of the architecture around it. That's why her paintings — which use ephemera such as beads and glass bottles — allow bright colors and almost cartoonish shapes to bleed fluidly from the canvas onto the wall, floor and window.
Simone Forti: Body language
The dances of postmodern choreographer Simone Forti often verge on moving sculpture: In Huddle (1961), a cluster of dancers slowly climb over one another, producing an undulating sea of bodies. For the biennial, Forti sketched her daily viewings of the news to inspire six improvisational dances that link writing, drawing and movement.
Ashley Hunt: Not your average post-Katrina activist
Before a live audience, a narrator sits next to a slide show and begins to talk about the mistreatment of prisoners during the Hurricane Katrina evacuations. What starts out as a lecture quickly becomes storytelling, woven together with videos, witness testimonies, photographs — and the contributions of the audience itself. Artist-journalist-activist Ashley Hunt's ongoing and ever-changing performance Notes on the Emptying of the City uses this multilayered approach to flesh out racial issues in a post-Katrina landscape.
Michele O'Marah: Cover girl
Michele O'Marah's videos simultaneously parody and pay homage to iconic rockers, cult teen movies, comic books, televised political debates and Hollywood B movies. Her new project looks at the ideals of style and beauty through the late fashion icon and magazine editor Isabella Blow, who committed suicide in 2007, three years before the suicide of her protege, Alexander McQueen.
Miljohn Ruperto: Hitchcock on the beach
What happens when you mix an episode of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a copy of a German Romantic painting? Miljohn Ruperto's multichannel video installation Seven and Five features a rewritten teleplay of an episode of the show, exploring an existential drama on the beach staged in dialogue with photographs of giant Caspar David Friedrich paintings.
David Snyder: Terror-vision
David Snyder takes the insidiousness of television watching to a new level: His project for "Made in L.A." features a house literally being split apart by a glut of electronic media — talk shows, sitcoms, reality shows — all of which Snyder himself acts out and produces. The line between man and TV grows ugly and blurred: "TV lacks empathy. TV might be a sociopath," Snyder has said.
"Made in L.A." takes place not just at the Hammer Museum but at other venues:
Slanguage at LAXART
Founded by L.A. artists Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra Jr., Slanguage is an artist collective that approaches art making through education, community building and interactive projects. LAXART will host Slanguage's This Is a Takeover! A 10-Year Survey of Slanguage, which includes a public billboard project and a site-specific mural to be designed.
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park
For Eastsiders who don't want to trek west, LAMAG at Barnsdall Park will feature 16 "Made in L.A." artists throughout its 10,000-square-foot space, including Cain (see above), the "found object" guru Ry Rocklen and the photographer-cum–text-based-sculptor Brenna Youngblood.
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Venice Beach Biennial
From July 13-15, Venice Beach will transform from tourist hub to art destination with its Venice Beach Biennial, a playful allusion to the world-famous Venice Biennale in Italy. The boardwalk will host an outdoor art exhibition featuring nearly 40 established artists from the fine art world collaborating with boardwalk art veterans to present new works and live performances.
—Lenika Cruz and Madison Poulter