“Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
—Frank Lloyd Wright
Hollywood, blonde hair, surfing, traffic, smog, sprawl, immigration, rap music, race riots, and gangs. As an icon in popular culture, Los Angeles might not be recognized as a very old city or a place with a long cultural history, but it certainly has a reputation, and a seemingly schizophrenic one at that. Few cities have been more loved or more hated or even more theorized than LA. Depicted as El Dorado by 1920s boosterism and then as a dystopian nightmare by 1940s film noir, this sprawling metropolis has been called everything from “a city where you can go and find whatever in a sense you want” (artist David Hockney) to “a sunlit mortuary” (social historian Mike Davis).
Needless to say, the culture of Los Angeles is not easily definable, in large part because Los Angeles remains a series of social archipelagos. The city’s sprawl and car-crazy culture allow people to remain isolated. It is not rare to get from home to work without interacting with another person, and this ultimately keeps different groups of people separate. But because celebrity sightings, beach bums, and migrant workers are all so deeply rooted in our definition of Los Angeles, they’re all a part of our daily consciousness despite the limited interactions we have with each other. The multiple and often divergent cultural influences—from artifice and spectacle to migration and labor politics—that have informed the city’s identity have congealed into one seemingly disjointed history, creating a culture that is layered and complex, and most importantly, one that is distinctly LA.
Made in L.A. 2012, Los Angeles’s first official biennial, followed on the heels of the Getty’s city-wide initiative, Pacific Standard Time (PST), which spread across 60 Southern California institutions and offered a crash course in the history of the California art scene (as Lilly Lampe reported for BURNAWAY last year). Like PST, Made in L.A. also took a city-wide approach opening at three venues throughout the city: the Hammer Museum at UCLA, LAXART, and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. The weekend biennial in Venice Beach acted collectively as an intervention in public space by participating within the existing informal cultural economy of sidewalk vendors selling art and wares.
From June 2 through September 2, 2012, Made in L.A. presented the work of 60 artists currently working in Los Angeles. Many of the works were created specifically for the biennial with financial support from the Hammer. Exhibiting a diversity of media, the exhibition was conceptualized as a large-scale survey of art (with a focus on emerging or underrecognized artists) in LA and ultimately became a reflection of a city whose identity represents a collective multiplicity. This multiplicity not only informed the curatorial choices, but served the curatorial approach as well. In determining the criteria for the biennial, the five curators sought to maintain their distinct experiences and perspectives, each choosing a key concept to structure their selection of artists: archaeology, materiality, mythology, theatricality, and subjectivity.
Without a tour or a close read of the catalogue essay, this exhibition framework was lost, appearing more as a hodgepodge or top ten list of emerging artists working in Los Angeles. Despite the seeming randomness or lack of an evident curatorial cohesion, there were a number of interesting and provocative pieces in the show. There were two works I found particularly emblematic of the overall exhibition because they reflected the heterogeneity of LA as well as the contemporary, global issues that are very real in this city, and how Los Angeles residents engage in those matters.
One example is Camilo Ontiveros’s El Pedón, which comments on the realities of immigration policy in this country, an increasingly significant part of the public’s consciousness. With the introduction of controversial laws like Arizona’s SB1070 and Georgia’s HB87, legislation allows for the harassment and deportation of undocumented residents. For the commissioned project, Ontiveros had a pedon—a technical term for the smallest unit of soil that contains all soil layers from ground surface to bedrock—removed from Mexico in hopes of displaying it in Made in L.A. 2012. What made the piece poignant was that the soil never actually made it to the Hammer Museum. What you do see is an empty wooden platform across from a video showing a group of men removing soil from Nayarit, Mexico. Next to the video is a shelf with a stack of papers documenting the artist’s attempts to bring the soil into the U.S., which ultimately failed.
As Ontiveros came to learn, there is a statute that prohibits the transfer of soil into the United States because “it can create a pathway for the entry of dangerous organisms across national borders.” (This PDF explains some of the policy.) The absent soil is a poignant commentary on the relations between the U.S. and Mexico that not only affect objects, but also, as curator Cesar Garcia noted, “the lives and conditions of many individuals who reside and work in Los Angeles.” It is sad, troubling, and ironic that the same laws applied to soil are applied to human beings and that the language of this benign agricultural policy artfully encapsulates the fear and irrationality of groups like the militia men guarding the U.S.-Mexico borders.
Ry Rocklen’s work, like Onitveros’s, is also rooted in the culture of the city, but embraces a very different side of Los Angeles. As you enter the gallery at Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG), you are greeted by Rocklen’s Tree of Knowledge. Made from cement, copper pipes, and unspooled VHS tape, the work sits atop a checkerboard floor he compiled from paintings purchased at flea markets and thrift stores. A “tree of knowledge” literally made of film points to the idea that Hollywood is the center of knowledge (or power) in this city, but his work also alludes to a more general attitude of Angelenos. As mentioned in the exhibition catalogue, Rocklen adds a “touch of bling” to thrift store paintings, and they become works of art; many people in LA hope to make similar transformations. His work references the ever-present idea that with small (or given that we’re talking about Hollywood, sometimes large) additions, ordinary objects can become extraordinary. Further, choosing to locate Rocklen’s piece in the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, which is situated between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard, speaks to the conditions of the city itself, not just its residents. This section of Hollywood has become a long-forgotten relic of the city’s allure. Through special effects and backdrops, however, Hollywood becomes an imagined place that no longer resembles the gritty reality of this section in LA.
While Onitveros’s work comments on border politics and the conditions it dictates for thousands of people living in Los Angeles, Rocklen’s work points to conditions and attitudes of an entirely different subset of people living in the same city, and yet both distinctly encapsulate LA. This range of reflections on our city, from transnational law to the glitz and glam of Hollywood, reflects the curators’ attempts to be rooted in a discussion pertinent to the city. Just as layered and diverse as the city’s identity, the curatorial results appeared so diverse that the unifying thread became invisible, at times losing clarity within the galleries. A reality that is not unlike spatial dynamics in the city itself. As Michael Sorkin put it, “L.A. is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers.”
In spite of, or even because of the murky curatorial intentions, the exhibition successfully represented a diversity of attitudes and experiences in Los Angeles, and ultimately celebrated the artists living in this city. As Hammer Director Anne Philbin notes in the catalogue introduction, Los Angeles has become an international art capital, and this project offered the Hammer, which has a long history of supporting the local artists, the “opportunity to play a larger and more meaningful role within the city’s ever-burgeoning art scene by providing support and opportunities for artists and also by documenting their practices and placing them in a broader context for future generations.”
I have heard numerous gripes that the “lady doth protest too much,” but Made in L.A. was so much more than simple self-validation (although, some validation is well-deserved). This city-wide biennial supported local, underrecognized artists by introducing them to a larger audience and—an important, often-overlooked fact—by providing the funding to tackle projects that would have otherwise been pipedreams. I should note that the artists also retained complete artistic license.
This aspect of the exhibition speaks to a larger role an art institution can play in a city. It doesn’t have to be just a place to view art; it can also be a place that fosters cultural innovation and exploration, and a place that truly inspires reflection and creativity.
About this column:
The Fringe seeks to make greater connection between Atlanta and the art world at large. Now with writers contributing from around the country, the column continues to follow contemporary art that addresses the unique qualities of the natural, built, and social environments. The Fringe will unfold as several collections of articles bound together by a theme.
This article continues the collection I have named “Life as Form” after Creative Time’s second annual summit. The correlating exhibition entitled Living As Form combined artists, theorists, curators, and activists to consider how creative projects can restructure relationships between people and the places they live. Similarly, BURNAWAY will reflect on artistic form and public engagement in projects based in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Charleston, Berlin, and Atlanta.