Photo by Fredrik Nilsen
The weatherman said it was supposed to be overcast and cool the
day I went to visit Olafur Eliasson’s “Meant to be lived in” — a site-specific
suite of light sculptures in a private home in Pasadena — but as I wound down
Linda Vista past the turnoff to Art Center and began winding my way up Inverness,
I was already beginning to feel woozy from the remorseless solar radiation and
absence of air conditioning. That turned out to be the perfect preparation for
experiencing the work, especially since I didn’t have any weed.
Danish-born jet-setter Eliasson — who first came to local attention
by cutting a hole in Marc Foxx’s roof in 1999 and last year became an art star
with his luminous, Turneresque transformation of the Tate Modern in London —
has, under the auspices of Milanese gallerist Emi Fontana, compiled a mind-altering
Light & Space fun house out of 10 separate works that focus, block, bend,
reflect and fracture the photons into a smorgasbord of shadows and rainbows.
The funniest conceptual aspect of Eliasson’s installation is that,
apart from a single 14-inch square window at the end of a long mirrored shaft,
the entire space is hermetically sealed off from the hazy California sun — or
any other hint of local color. The host building — a retro-modernist glass shoebox
perched on a hillside — has been completely refitted with windowless lightproof
walls and black foam floor pads. The initial effect is a kind of environmental
decompression chamber, with an accompanying shift into a slightly dreamlike
state of disorientation.
This altered state of consciousness doesn’t let up as you pad
softly through the cavelike air-conditioned space, pausing to stare at room
after room of gently modulating refractions from intense halogen arc lights.
The most impressive is To Day (2005), which fills two rooms with elaborate
curvilinear geometric permutations made of intense white light, and Eye Ceiling
(2005), whose cylindrical color filter produces both a wide range of visual
effects as you move around it, and — as the title suggests — a distinctly eyeball-like
projection on the ceiling above.
Several of the works are strongly reminiscent of the mostly Cali
light abstractions still on view (through May 23) in MOCA’s “Visual Music”
show. This, along with Eliasson’s obvious affinity with L.A.’s 1960’s Light
& Space movement — Irwin, Turrell, Bell, et al. — opens a different sort
of window onto the local terrain: a trans-historical engagement with Los Angeles’
cultural landscape. Artworks that seem to be cut whole cloth from several decades
past usually just get on my nerves, but the trippy dislocation of Eliasson’s
cool prismatic womb — so unexpected in a site-specific installation — plus the
very deliberate conceptual glitches let you leave the slight taint of art-world
solipsism outside and get your phenomenological groove on.
Down the hill and across downtown, at the far end of the
architectural-modification-as-art (not to mention socioeconomic) spectrum, a
very different project was unfolding over a couple of weeks in Echo Park, as
members of the Chicago-based radical art klatch Temporary Services realized
the latest in a string of provocative Situationist-style actions that range
from publishing plans and building prototypes of an array of prisoners’ inventions
(e.g., an electrical immersion heater cobbled together from toothbrushes and
metal binder tabs) to curating a citywide exhibit of artist-modified sandwich
boards. Aided and abetted by the even harder-core Biggest Fags Ever collective,
TS commandeered a vacant lot near Sunset and Alvarado to construct a cultural
shantytown from the bounty of perfectly good headboards, used carpeting, scrap
lumber and slightly moist mattresses that clog the arteries of the City of Angels.
Organized as only the third project by upstart L.A. curatorial
nonprofit group Outpost for Contemporary Art, the sub-bargain-basement residency
was an open-ended negotiation about the creative use of public space and the
social construction of art — both conceptually and literally. Conceptually speaking,
the occupation (its title, “Construction Site,” was woven into the
chainlink fence with plastic bags) embodies an invitation to the surrounding
community to engage in the definition of art as well as a challenge to the art
world to accommodate that definition. And it worked. Along with the predictable
stream of curious grad students and gallerists, local families, non-art hipsters,
homeless people and spillover curiosity seekers from the nearby Echo Park Film
Center, Edendale Library and 33 1/3 Bookstore found their way onto the lot —
some even stayed, pitching in, donating materials or beer, returning regularly
over the duration.
In literal terms, the social construction of art consisted of
a beehive of activity resulting in several strange architectural forms — an
archway of shopping carts framing a set of bleachers — all of it teetering over
a two-man tent where the BFE collective resided; a giant cloth baseball filled
with balloons perched atop a rickety guard tower from which local kids artistically
hurled themselves onto a pile of perfectly good mattresses; a patchwork chute
made from dozens of cast-off pieces of furniture that carried a bowling ball
the entire length of the lot.
As the site’s physical dimensions took shape, its function as
a social hub began picking up steam, with daily potluck dinners, book giveaways
(TS regularly publishes books and pamphlets, including Public Phenomena:
Informal Modifications of Shared Spaces, in conjunction with this event),
workshops on urban nocturnal produce foraging, campfire lectures by the L.A.
Urban Rangers and a DJ set by Sergio Zenteno. One high point was when the afore-mentioned
baseball was dislodged from its moorings and rolled down Sunset into Echo Park
park where successive maulings by local children gutted it of its constituent
balloons, which were then systematically pop-stomped into the playground dust.
On the final night, a large crowd gathered to view the documentation
of that event, and a screening of The BLVD (1999), Deborah Stratman’s
gorgeous experimental documentary about Chicago street racing. There’s a certain
animosity to aestheticism in art that questions its own social function, a desire
to strip away distracting or seductive decoration and get to the point. A lot
of the raggedy-ass scrapheaps in “Construction Site” smacked of that
bias, but Stratman’s film made it clear that beauty and sociopolitical engagements
are not mutually exclusive domains. Exhausted and still lacking any conclusive
delineation of the exact meaning of the work (or criteria for success or failure),
the TS team deconstructed the site and headed home to Chicago.
Los Angeles is a strange place to try to explore concepts
of community. Olafur Eliasson and Temporary Services have each addressed — in
diametrically different political though formally related ways — the peculiar
discontinuity of L.A.’s social structure. Eliasson offers withdrawal into highly
controlled contemplative introspection while TS advocates active improvisational
engagement with populations normally left out of the art-world equation. In
spite of the danger of art disappearing up its own asshole, or dissolving into
the same undifferentiated mess of mass culture, we’re lucky the discussion is
happening at all.
OLAFUR ELIASSON: MEANT TO BE LIVED IN | 1472 Inverness
Dr., Pasadena | Thursday–Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
| Through May 31
TEMPORARY SERVICES: CONSTRUCTION SITE | 2014-2022 Sunset
Blvd., Echo Park; www.temporaryservices.org
| April 17–May 1