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.
In September, at the Highland Park alternative space Public Fiction, Small exhibited one of the murals, which looks like a castle in the clouds. It hung behind a “sphinx headdress” on a black marble pedestal. It all felt like art, a collection of objects carefully crafted by an artist to comment on culture, collapsing symbols from different mythologies. So it was surprising to discover Small had gotten the mural from the Luxor and the headdress from an actual archaeological dig — albeit an unconventional one.
When Cecil B. DeMille made his first Ten Commandments film in 1923 (he later would make the one starring Charlton Heston in 1956), he built a massive set in the desert in a town called Guadalupe. The set included 21 sphinxes and four 27-ton statues of Ramses II. DeMille left it where it was after filming, burying it in sand dunes near Santa Barbara. He wrote in his autobiography, “If a thousand years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.”
By the time Small found out about the buried set two years ago, documentary filmmaker Peter Brosnan had already tried for years to get permission from the county to excavate. Small joined in the effort and the excavation happened in October. Many set pieces were too fragile and fragmented to remove, but tables in Small's Echo Park studio now are lined with objects from the dig, including that sphinx headdress. He also just received funding from the Creative Capital foundation to fabricate a full-size replica of a sphinx head like those DeMille used (excavating and restoring one of the buried ones, if even possible, would be a long, expensive process).
He imagines exhibiting all these objects — the fake sphinx, DeMille artifacts and Luxor murals — as a history museum might, with the artifacts arranged in high-quality cases. Past, present and future, real histories and reinventions of histories, would all be there on the same level playing field.
When you think about it, this situation isn't so different from how reality feels — the layers of movie references, history book entries and our own imaginations all mingle when someone brings up something like “the Sphinx.”
Maybe projects like this resonate right now because they are the anti-truthiness, a push against that trend Colbert satirized. Instead of letting things that feel true become truth, they're compelling because they detail how difficult it is to distinguish fact from perception. It's like what David Shields talks about in his book Reality Hunger: being “futilely drawn toward representations of the real, knowing full well how invented such representations are.” While fictional frames pull you further into fiction, putting a documentary frame around art promises some sort of news of how the world works, which is what we want art to help us figure out at this moment — when too much information is available.
So even if L.A. is a place where you have a Greystone Mansion murder to suss out or a Ten Commandments film set burial site to excavate, the thing that has seemed “so L.A.” for so long — meshing reality with fantasy — actually seems, suddenly, just “so right now.”