If you live somewhere long enough, you get used to a region’s particular brand of natural disaster. Atlantic and Gulf Coast residents have oddly familiar first names for the storms that ravage their coastal towns and cities. To tornado alley residents, the mournful wail of a warning siren is a commonplace sound in summer months. And in California, cars blanketed in soft ash and blood-orange sunsets are regular companions to the raging threat of fire.
I’m still relatively new to California, so in early September, when I saw the mountains behind Burbank ablaze from the backseat of a Lyft car driving down the I-5 freeway after dark, I was stunned.
Too close for comfort. And I couldn’t take my eyes off it. There were the ridges of the mountains that I see every day, capped with an impossibly large, blazing orange mohawk of fire.
The La Tuna fire was one of the largest in L.A.’s history, scorching more than 7,000 acres of land in the hills and canyons behind Burbank and Glendale. Yet it’s easy to forget. No lives were lost, and only a few structures destroyed. Compared with the massive, devastating, life-taking fires that swept mercilessly across residential areas of Northern California a month later, the La Tuna fire was a blip on most people’s radar.
Earlier this week, I parked my car in a dirt lot behind a residential area just off La Tuna Canyon Road. Out of my car, I immediately noticed the lingering smell of the fire, still strong and distinct. As I walked up a clearly marked sandy pathway, more and more of the blackened, naked earth revealed itself. The bright California sun illuminated the massive swaths of charred hills that popped like ink against the deep blue sky.
Tucked into one crook of the canyon, I arrived to my destination: an art installation.
Lost and Found L.A. is a hidden oasis where the gnarled corpses of burnt trees are coated in glinting gold wax. The delicately applied golden layers were inspired by kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by filling cracks with lacquer dusted with gold.
The more you look here, the more you see: Shards of dead black and gold branches shoot up from the ground and catch the sun’s rays on a nearby hillside. Beautifully blackened wood, provided by the Theodore Payne Foundation and adorned in more gold, has been repurposed as rope swing seats and benches. Tiny mailboxes offer visitors packets of seeds to plant after the next rain. A river of sooty rocks traces the canyon’s crevices.
The installation is the latest from an anonymous art collective that has been creating aesthetically similar works in unusual locales around L.A. for several years. In 2015 it made its first big impression on the city with the surreptitiously installed Griffith Park Teahouse. That piece, too, dealt with the aftermath of a fire: The structure was built in part from reclaimed wood the group gathered from around the Greek Theatre after a 2007 blaze.
In 2016, the group focused its attention on L.A.’s bountiful flora with Petal Drop L.A. (01) and Petal Drop L.A. (02). Most recently, it invited visitors to an installation at Dockweiler State Beach for Night Life L.A. (02). There, visitors arrived after sunset and sipped tea in beach chairs while their eyes adjusted to the dark. Then they were led bare-footed into a completely dark, wooden lifeguard structure. Inside, the floor was filled with water populated by bioluminescent algae. With every step or movement of a foot, the algae were activated and the water around them became a glowing, iridescent blue.
At each of these performative, interactive installations, the public has responded to writing prompts. Visitors to the Teahouse were given wooden shingles on which to record a wish for, love letter to, memory, observation or constructive criticism of the city of Los Angeles. At Petal Drop L.A. (02), visitors were given a “job application” on which they wrote down “a moment when Los Angeles revealed a secret that was hiding in plain sight.” And on Dockweiler Beach, participants sat at desks overlooking the dark Pacific Ocean and answered questions over analog phones. Those answers were then typed up on typewriters and inserted into glass bottles.
In Tuna Canyon, visitors are invited to write their answers to a prompt on a piece of paper, dust them in gold and then place them in little holes carved into blackened wood (that same wood will become a hive for solitary bees after the installation closes). This time we are asked to reflect on things lost: “Write a note about a time when you experienced loss in L.A. Keys, a wallet, a relationship, a beloved canyon.”
In the beehive, answers range from the mundane and concrete to the abstract and profound. One note tells of a beloved cat that was snatched up by local coyotes. Another spells out how an illness led to someone losing their mind. Friendships. Relatives. Money. Innocence. Youth. This city has taken a lot from its residents.
“In a lot of ways these projects are an attempt to keep a love affair with Los Angeles alive,” says one of the anonymous artists behind the piece. “Los Angeles isn’t always the easiest city to love. But finding these amazing places and drawing people in to experience them, that works for us.”
If you wrote down a wish at the Teahouse, sent a message into a bottle at Dockweiler Beach or slipped a story of something lost into a beehive in a canyon this week, your words are not lost. The artists, who recently unveiled a new website, are meticulously archiving and preserving every answer they collect at their events.
“We are just archiving them,” says one of the artists. “That’s the amazing thing about archives –– sometimes you have ideas about what they’ll be for in the future, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes we refer to the messages in different ways. Who knows. We might use them or potentially display them at some point. But right now we are just saving them.”
If you’ve visited one of this group’s installation/performances before, Lost and Found L.A. will feel familiar. There are recurring themes: vague bureaucracies, a focus on hidden places within L.A., nature, personal reflection, beauty. You’ll recognize the aesthetic, which is serene and impenetrably hopeful. There’s a sort of pie-in-the-sky optimism to this art. It is not political or aggressively provocative. It is designed to inspire wonder. At times, it feels like art therapy.
This is also art that is best experienced in person. Unlike the Instagrammable installations that have become so popular of late, Lost and Found L.A. looks best in real life, perhaps when you are swaying in the breeze on a tree swing, watching the glint of the sun reflect off the gold that adorns the burnt wood. For these artists, the journey is as important as the destination. You have to walk past the fire’s destruction and smell the smoky remains and the nearby horse manure. You have to explore your city in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise.
And that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to these installations whenever and wherever they pop up. I am typically cynical and prefer art that is political or provocative. Petals dropping from the sky just because? Come on. I don’t need that saccharine shit.
Or do I? Because out in the canyon earlier this week, I felt soothed in a way I wasn’t expecting. Forced to explore a place I wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and to think about things I’d lost since moving to L.A., I also had time to think about how much others have lost this year at the hands of nature. The floods. The fires. They take so much. But here in the devastation of one fire, Lost and Found L.A. provides a place to think about the future. Near the lines of gold and punching its way through the black sand, new green plant life is already emerging.
“Kintsugi is the process of repairing something while marking the damage,” the artist says, while looking around and pointing out that new growth. “Noting the damage as a way to remember it. That’s part of what we’re doing here. This fire, it happened, it got some attention. But there have been so many other crises one after another since then. People are already turning their attention somewhere else. It’s incredible to see the loss. But also, there is a lot of hope in this canyon.”
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In addition to drawing visitors from around L.A., local residents whose homes were threatened during the La Tuna fire are frequenting the work.
One neighbor on a dog walk stopped as I chatted with the artist. “I wish this could stay,” she said, looking at the gold-lined trees, at the beauty that has replaced the devastation.
The artist smiled knowingly. And once again, at the hands of these anonymous artists, my cynicism softened, and I felt exactly the same way.
Lost and Found L.A., see website for location map; Nov. 4-12, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; free. archivesandrecords.info/upcoming/.