December 15, 2008

Monumental Art

Saturday night, The Wife and I went to LACMA and met up with our friend, who works as a curator there. Her work is in the contemporary exhibits and I've had difficulty with contemporary art in the past. I found it immensely helpful to have her with us, giving us both ideas about how to interpret the art and some interesting inside information about how the art gets displayed.

Jeff Koons' sculptures, for instance, had been of interest to me from the perspective of the law. (See, e.g., Rogers v. Koons, 751 F. Supp. 474 (S.D.N.Y. 1990), aff'd, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992), which deals with this sculpture). But it was interesting to consider the logistics of displaying the art at all -- such as the gigantic steel egg, which weighs more than a ton, and was put on a pedestal on the third floor of LACMA's gallery because the physics of the piece are such that its entire weight falls on a single point on the floor -- and therefore has the potential to rip through the floor the museum and fall through the structure all the way to the ground.

But the most impressive (to me, anyway) pieces were three large sculptures. First, out on the street and bridging the plaza (formerly a street) between the old LACMA campus and its expansion area to the west, is a strange yet beautiful piece by Chris Burden called Urban Light. This is collection of 202 street lamps arranged on the plaza. It reminded me in its configuration of the Duomo in Milan. It is visible from the street and intended to be a pathway from the street into the museum complex, and achieves that goal quite nicely. It's a surprisingly interesting, peaceful, and attractive piece from an artist who had formerly distinguished himself in my mind by having a friend shoot him in the arm and crucifying himself on a Volkswagen.

The other two sculptures that really impressed me were the ground-floor pieces by Richard Serra, Band and Sequence. A brief video discussing Band when it was on exhibit in New York:

These are truly monumental sculptures, ribbons of thick steel more than twelve feet high, and intended to be walked through. They have been treated with water to create a rusted patina, which to my surprise left a pleasing visual effect. In places the oxidization of the metal left series of vertical lines of differing colors, which, when combined with the effect of being surrounded by the weirdly twisting and fluid shapes of the chambers created by the ominous plates of metal forming the walls of the sculpture. It's an oddly organic feeling to have in an environment that is so obviously artificial. I felt like a character in a Bugs Bunny versus Marvin the Martian cartoon navigating this weird geography of non-perpendicular space. The piece not described in the video above, Sequence, is particularly effective at playing with the viewer's sense of perspective, balance, and evoked the feeling of being in a narrow mountain canyon while negotiating the twisted, curving passages. And again, the curator's insights as to how the thing gets moved in to be displayed and problems with exhibiting it were interesting. Kids seem to enjoy running up the sides and doing backflips, and it appears custom-made for skateboard tricks, all of which leave marks that erode the patina -- so it has to be re-created with daily waterings, leaving the museum staff able to tease the poor guy who has to take a hose to it every day that no matter how much he waters the sculpture it's never going to grow.

It was a fascinating evening that challenged me intellectually in a way that more classical kinds of art does not. And we had some great tapas with our friend afterwards at a very fun restaurant near the museum. The whole trip was a reminder of the sorts of things that I miss about living in the big city, the cultural and culinary opportunities that are simply never going to be present in an exurban setting like our new home. I don't know that I'd trade back, though. While I have an appreciation for things like art, I know I will never be more than a dilettante in them and I've no intention of fooling myself into thinking I could become a bohemian. I wouldn't be very good at a life of the arts, I don't think; enjoying a play or a visit to the museum from time to time is about right for me.

And there are costs to the urban life -- traffic, crowding, delays in getting from place to place, and of course outright expense -- that are absent from my daily experiences. We have two neighbors -- one across the cul-de-sac and one next door to us -- and despite the nice stretches of yard between us, that's enough for me. When I encounter "traffic" here, that means there's construction and I have to wait for more than one light to get through an intersection. Traffic around Park La Brea was an entirely different experience and dredging up my old tricks for navigating around the city to get home seemed unusually burdensome. I used to be able to get through Hollywood with what seemed like proficiency if not ease (it's not easy for anyone to get through Hollywood) but even when I recalled all the right ways to get to where I needed to go without taking all major streets, it felt like more trouble than it was worth. So I decided to resign the urban experience to something from my youth; as I move in to middle age the admittedly more dull but entirely more pleasant suburban/exurban lifestyle simply suits me better. I'll have no Revolutionary Road-style angst about that.

But at the same time, I like having the ability to go do these sorts of cultural things, too. I would not want a life completely divorced from that, and living in proximity to a large city like Los Angeles gives that benefit. The Wife enjoyed the outing too, and I think that like me, she enjoys both the removal from the pressures of urban life as well as the ability to sample its benefits. Yes, urban dwellers get to have those benefits more often than we and a great night out like we had over the weekend makes me a little bit jealous. But we couldn't afford what we do have, and what we do enjoy, if we were to stay in the urban environment in which we met.

And of course the best part of the night was spending time with our friend. I could see the pride she took in her exhibits and her participation in re-creating a remarkable institution and a pillar of culture for the region. I'm proud of her that she's advanced in her career to a really great institution like LACMA and that she's achieved a position of some responsibility there. And simply having an old friend like her still in my life (we met way back when we were in high school because our parents were friends) is really the best part of the whole thing. That transformed our experience from what would have been a married couple's date spent being more than a little baffled at the immensity of the art into a very personal, emotionally-rich experience.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

I enjoyed reading this blog as well as watching the video and looking at your photos. You two make a handsome couple! :)
I only wish that I could walk through the exhibits myself.