Artists' Tower of Protest
Mark di Suvero and invited artists
As installed on Sunset Blvd.
Photo: George Melrod
Under the aegis of the Pacific Standard Time Public and Performance Art Festival, which took place over three weeks in January, Los Angeles viewers encountered a slate of art that came and went but left its mark, in pieces with half-lives of minutes or days, wherein production was also spectacle. Artists used materials like dry ice, fire, humans, and weather to create work in which the fleeting moment took the place of the object--with varying degrees of success in today's marketplace of ideas.
Lita Albuquerque's Spine of the Earth 2012 at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook took place over two hours on a Sunday afternoon in late January. It was a re-imagining of a 1980 Mojave Desert earthwork as a large-scale performance-based operation. A multitude of red-clad volunteers gathered on top of a craggy bluff above a stretch of city, undertaking choreographed actions forming a huge pattern visible in its entirety only from the air. Albuquerque thinks of Spine of the Earth 2012 as "social sculpture and also as a concept performance and as a performative sculpture, and even as a painting." Since the work also had to do with perspective and multiple viewpoints, it was important that there be aerial photographs. "That was something that no one could experience on the ground, and yet I wanted them to imagine it." Albuquerque always considers the "trace" of memory when engineering impermanent work, and this piece being complete only when viewed from both vantage points prompted her to document it from the sky--but this leads to a salient point for the entire genre. Documentation will be the only access to it most people ever have. As Albuquerque notes, "How many people have gone out to Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, and how many know it through the photographs?"
Richard Jackson also staged a performance that required a plane, albeit for different reasons and with different results. It was a remote-controlled model plane full of paint. He took it out to a field, assembled a crowd of onlookers, aimed it at a canvas target and let fly, in the name of creating an "Accident in Abstract Painting." If one defines conceptual art as anything that´¿½┬¿┬½´¿½┬¿´¿½┬½s at least as good if not better to hear about than to actually see, then the charm of this project resided mainly in its idea. In that sense, more so than an aesthetic one, it was a success. It focused on the role of chance in art and the distancing of the artist's hand, or anything so bourgeois as a paintbrush, from its production. And like all self-respecting random acts of human ingenuity, (especially ones with explosions), it lives forever on YouTube.
Another way to garner YouTube hits is with fireworks. The opening of the Cia Guo-Qiang show at MOCA on April 8 featured a display of his signature gunpowder fireworks in the heart of Downtown, and people were heavily armed with phone-cameras. Not one to be outdone, earlier this year Judy Chicago lit up Pomona with fireworks and flares in the shape of an eponymous Butterfly. She had done something similar there in 1970, at a time when outdoor works using incendiaries and their smoke-cloud residues were kind of her thing. It was simple and lovely, but it was her Sublime Environment, made in collaboration with the progressive environmental designers of Materials & Applications for the opening night of Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair at Barker Hangar in late January, that stole the show. Based on a public installation by Chicago with Lloyd Hamrol and Eric Orr in 1968, the new version involved setting up a field of stacked dry-ice bricks in pyramids and torching them with flares at dusk. The result was a Grimm-worthy heath of billowing white smoke that curled around the feet of the viewers, who were held in absolute thrall by the magic of the chill and quiet snow-like groundcover with hot fire the only source of illumination. The knowledge that the extreme beauty was caused by melting ice and thus could never last heightened the poignancy of the shared experience.
The legacy of Eric Orr was also honored in a reenactment of his 1970 Wall Shadow, originally performed at Eugenia Butler Gallery. Orr spent a day from noon to sunset building a cinderblock wall, painting the rhomboid shadow it cast when completed, then dismantling the wall brick by brick until only the painted shadow remained. The Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) pop-up gallery honoring both Eugenia Butlers (the gallerist and the artist), commissioned a new version, performed by the artist's son John. More than a sentimental gesture, John is a trained dancer and the delicate strength and precise rhythms of his execution gave the piece a meditative heartbeat. The alignment of parking lot angles, architectural positions, and trajectory of the sun combined for a perfect illusion and a triumph of the Druid influence on Light & Space.
The Artists' Tower of Protest also occupied a West Hollywood parking lot, visible from Sunset Boulevard to function more like the billboard its construction referenced. Sadly that aspect was undermined by fencing that kept would-be viewers (and uninvited participants) at bay. First built in 1966 as an anti-Vietnam War statement, it was designed by sculptor Mark di Suvero and its armature held hundreds of panels. Organizers invited a number of artists who were not in LA (or even born yet) at the time to contribute to this new version, which stood in place through March; participants had no trouble finding hot topics in today's contentious news cycle. Among them was painter, performance and installation artist Doni Silver Simons who contributed a piece about the horrors faced by women and children in Darfur. Comments on her broader practice capture both the promise and shortcomings of the Protest Tower in this age of instantaneous, voracious social media. "The image of protest will dissolve, belying the nature of memory, which is short. Although the actions of protest change us--remaining embedded in our history and future identity--the sense of urgency dissipates. Protests become old news and fade --sadly, often before the problems are resolved."