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Judy Chicago's Upcoming Disappearing Environments: How Do You Make Art Out of Gigantic Pyramids of Dry Ice?

Judy Chicago, Lloyd Hamrol and Eric Orr's Disappearing Environments in 1968
Judy Chicago, Lloyd Hamrol and Eric Orr's Disappearing Environments in 1968

When Judy Chicago staged Disappearing Environments in a brand new Century City shopping mall in 1968, she was a young California minimalist, using color and space as weapons to prod an otherwise exuberant consumer culture.

For one long day, a hazmat-clad and powdered-hair team of Chicago, collaborators Eric Orr and Lloyd Hamrol and two assistants built an all-white mini-village of nine ziggurats with five thousand pounds of dry ice blocks, and at dusk, they lit pink road flares and watched their work sublimate into vapor, becoming an intoxicating visual delight.

Like the characters in Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's "Some Velvet Morning" (and its memorable hook, "learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch"), the performance of Disappearing Environments was equal parts beauty and poison, and a poignant comment on the ephemerality of the slick corporate architecture beginning to subsume West L.A.

On Saturday, Chicago returned to the work at Santa Monica's Barker Hanger, where she hosted the first of three workshops dedicated to its forthcoming reinvention.

Now based in New Mexico, Chicago, 72, has come back to Los Angeles at the invitation of Getty Research Institute curator Glenn Phillips, who asked her to reimagine Disappearing Environments for the twenty-first century. In January, Chicago and twenty-four volunteers will perform the work for the opening of the Performance and Public Art Festival -- the centerpiece of the Pacific Standard Time mega-fest -- at the annual Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair at Barker Hanger.

The format will remain the same. Over one day, nine dry ice ziggurats (large, pyramid-like structures) will be built outside a shopping arcade -- albeit one that sells high-end artworks -- culminating with an illumination at dusk. But Chicago's given her performance a twist by crowdsourcing the work to Silver Lake's Materials & Applications, an unorthodox architecture house that in turn recruited a ragtag team of volunteers. On Saturday, those twenty-four designers, sculptors, effects gurus and hippies assembled at Barker Hanger to began work on eight of these ziggurats. (Chicago will recreate the ninth with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman.)

Materials & Applications co-director Oliver Hess (left) directs volunteers at the first of three workshops.
Materials & Applications co-director Oliver Hess (left) directs volunteers at the first of three workshops.
Sam Bloch

If the original work was an argument, Chicago says this collaboration is a "discovery," something to bridge the gap between generations with fundamentally different understandings of aesthetics, the environment, and safety. As Chicago herself exclaims, "a lot has changed since then!"

After Disappearing Environments, Chicago became known less as a California minimalist and more as a trailblazing feminist and educator revered for her politically forthright performances and installations. For years she toed the line between outspoken radicalism and institutional convention. But with her reinterpretations for Pacific Standard Time, Chicago has found herself in the unenviable position of recreating legitimately hazardous works in the age of permits and lawsuits.

On Saturday, Chicago and Woodman hosted a crash course for the volunteers, explaining to them the difficulties and happy accidents that result from working with dry ice. Scrolling through a highlight reel of images from 1968, Chicago, clad in a pink hoodie and distressed blue jeans, stops at a picture of a toddler running around those ziggurats. A concerned team member interrupts.

"Shouldn't we be worried about children being near our designs?" The team murmurs in agreement. Huffing dry ice vapor is deadly and touching the block can burn your skin like a hot stove. Later, a scruffy young man talks about the necessity of building a ziggurat that collapses inward, so as to protect both team members and audience members.

"Look, I know this is part of the Getty," Chicago says. "But when we did this, there was no issue. It just didn't collapse." Behind her turquoise tinted glasses lenses, her eyes are rolling.

Woodman, a stern visage mitigated by his own pair of flamboyant pink glasses, chuckles.

"You should have seen the fireworks she used to set off in the 1970s," he says, citing the hallucinatory, pastel-colored explosions of Chicago's Atmospheres series. "She set one off on an overpass in Riverside. It looked like someone was blowing up the 405." (In January, Chicago will present A Butterfly for Pomona, a tidier version of her pyrotechnic performances, at the Pomona College football field, two days after Disappearing Environments.)

Judy Chicago's Upcoming Disappearing Environments: How Do You Make Art Out of Gigantic Pyramids of Dry Ice?

Even the name Disappearing Environments means something different today. In 1968, the title referred to the history of the site in Century City, where businesses and communities were recycled at the caprice of capital, and where ziggurats presumably sat thousand of years earlier. But in 2011, the word environment is shorthand for ecological awareness, and can mean anything from the disappearance of natural resources to issues of global warming and sustainability.

That presented something of a problem to Materials & Applications, says co-founders Jenna Didier and Oliver Hess. The collective is best known for their creative recycling of industrial materials, like mylar, or thermal bimetal, the stuff found inside old thermometers. But dry ice, which is pure carbon dioxide, is totally unsustainable. It's the perfect thing to use, for example, if you need a quick fix for a broken refrigerator.

"We tried to find the modern way to do this," says Hess. "We tried using different materials, like mixing corn starch with compressed rain water, to try to get that thick fog. But there's nothing like dry ice. We just had to use it to get that kind of ephemeral atmosphere."

Didier and Hess instead updated the performance by introducing a participatory model of production.

"When you've got an exchange of ideas and different skills, that's really fertile," says Didier.

"Or we'll just have to buy a thousand sheep or a small piece of rainforest to make up for this," Hess laughs.

Chicago (left) and crew contemplate the day's work.
Chicago (left) and crew contemplate the day's work.

During her presentation, Chicago is peppered with questions about modifications. Team members ask if they can drill into the dry ice blocks, spray paint all over them, or use something else besides flares to light the sculpture at night. She is not interested in specifics, and urges the volunteers to "please, keep it simple."

The volunteers heed this request when confronted with the dry ice in the Barker Hanger parking lot. Plopping the 60-pound blocks on the ground, unwrapping them and watching them crumble, running metal over a chunk until it emits a semi-musical screech: there is something undeniably fun about this material. The team members are acting like kids in a toxic sandbox.

Bruce Chan, 27, of Los Angeles, is stacking the blocks like a stepped pyramid. Head to toe in grayscale, with a very serious haircut to match, he steps back to watch the vapor float through holes and small tunnels. Then he grins and shoves his hands in.

"I want to maximize the thaw!" he says, pulling blocks further apart from each other. "It just feels so good."

As team members take hammers to their blocks, determined to chip at the material in the manner of traditional ice sculpture, little pieces roll away from the thick field of vapor. Scuffed and dirty, the dry ice begins to resemble old Styrofroam, fiercely resisting any tendency to disintegrate. A few feet away, in the tunnels of the test-run ziggurats, Woodman is placing lit flares. There is an undercurrent of repulsion in all of this. It's starting to smell bad here. Someone burns her arm on a block.

The team gets in a circle, watching the vapor creep away from their creation. They don't really understand what they've done, but they like it.

Chicago appears pleased.

"In January, some of the artgoers might not pick up on these contradictions," she says, her arms crossed. "They're just gonna see this as a visual present. And I like that."

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