Tag Archives: environment

Los Angeles Studio Visits

Some Say Ice

Dai Toyofuku, Glacier, 2012

Dai Toyofuku, Glacier, 2012

What can one artist do, in one day, to save the planet?

For Dai Toyofuku’s performance piece Glacier, which took place at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center during the height of the summer heat wave, the artist temporarily turned himself and his car into “glaciers”—structures draped with tarps that were then painted white. Over the course of the five hour performance/experiment, Toyofuku stayed inside his “human glacier,” and carefully recorded the temperatures inside the human glacier, the car glacierist, a control car and outside. At the peak of the day it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler inside the human glacier than outside, and 30 degrees cooler in the car glacier than the control car.

For five hours, Dai Toyofuku successfully contributed to the cooling of the earth. It was an absurd yet earnest act.

The absurdity was inspired by the very real claim of Nobel Prize winning physicist Stephen Chu that painting roofs white and manufacturing “cooler” colored cars could dramatically reduce global warming. Within this context, Toyofuku’s gesture becomes a way to raise awareness, make scientific theory approachable and render the specter of climate change less abstract and overwhelming.

The execution of the glaciers was quick and dirty, more a child’s sketch of a glacier (a big white triangle) than something scientifically or visually accurate. Placing these homemade glaciers in the Southern California landscape, Dai drew attention to their foreignness. Though they hold a strong role in our cultural story, glaciers remain unreal, almost mythological, to most people–especially on a hot summer day. However, we have to be able to hold multiple landscapes in our minds simultaneously, imagining the totality of our planet and the long term consequences of seemingly harmless choices, if we are going to start really digesting what climate change does and could mean.

This cognitive collapse of space and experience also happens in the Parts (un)known collage works of Sara Schnadt. She created these collages for an installation and performance work that tracked her personal travel history through found images, but now Schnadt is beginning to explore the collages as works in their own right.

One that caught my eye, and acts as a nice visual accompaniment to Dai’s performance, is a juxtaposition of a glacial landscape with what looks to be a piece of farm equipment, obscured by a tarp, sitting in a hot dry landscape.  My focus is magnetically drawn to the single tentative point of contact—the impossible space which connects hot with cold, the untouchable arctic and some obscure, unreachable past.

This flattening of the world is not a new concept, but Schnadt’s personal approach creates compelling fictive spaces from the fragments of experience.  I am a fellow nomad–someone who’s friends and family are regularly stretched over the globe and who’s working life happens in the intangible data-space between L.A. and Cameroon–so this bittersweet work hits home.

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

A particularly haunting collage in the series connects together Berlin, Inverness, Afghanistan and Jerusalem. The way the spaces transition into each other is artfully done–the experience of viewing recedes into mist just as memory allows places and experiences to blend and soften. There are very specific and painful histories lying just below the surface, but these snapshots and postcards see the world through a tourist’s idealized and apolitical lens, speaking not to specific places but to the melding of longing and familiarity that permeates the experience of ex-pats and wanderers.

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Though with very different agendas, these two artists are addressing the ways we conceptualize and understand our relationship to the globe in its entirety. I want to be optimistic and claim that as we become more familiar with far away lands and people, we become more empathetic and have a larger sense of responsibility. But on the converse, the more information we have, the more overwhelming and hopeless things seem to feel. It is at the nexus of global responsibility, frustrated activism and instant gratification that Toyofuku’s performance makes sense.

So, just what can one person do, in one day, to have a positive impact on the planet?

Los Angeles

We Were Here

The first time I remember imbuing a rock with personal meaning, I was twelve or thirteen. The stone was grey-pink and diamond shaped and came from beside a stile in the Lake District. It was picked up and handed unceremoniously to me by the boy I was hiking with. Though an almost invisible gesture–and one that thoroughly confused me at the time–six months later we built up the courage to hold hands. As often happens, life got in the way of that romance, but I think I still have the rock somewhere.

Behind the adverts commanding heterosexual men to formalize their feelings with sparkly stones that are really labor intensive (and probably morally problematic) to procure, I think there is a long held instinct to give another person a little piece of the Earth. That rock is a reminder that we were here, together, for one tiny chip out of eternity.

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Carmine Iannoccone's GravitySurfer Number 1. Found rock, paper and paint.

Carmine Iannoccone’s GravitySurfer Number 1. Found rock, paper and paint.

During the summer, a giant rock rolled into LA and took up its post at LACMA. Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is intended to last for 30,000 years, standing to remind the post-apocalyptic residents of Southern California (which could one day be an island–just read the zine) of the larger forces, the expanse of art history, human mortality, and Michael Heizer’s genius.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, a much smaller rock arrived at a bookstore in LA’s Atwater village, in a gallery about twice the size of a shoe box.

Showbox LA exhibitions are small in scale, and last only a matter of hours. The organizers, artists Sophia Allison and Paul W. Evans, have created a venue which provides an alternative space and unique audience, but demands that artists address scale–not by making a miniature of what they would normally do, but thinking specifically about what they can accomplish in a table top setting. As no one can be inside the gallery itself, the crowd clusters around the edges and is forced into close proximity with each other and the artist. The exhibitions are almost performance pieces the artist is so much a part of the experience.

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For I am the Gravity Surfer artist Carmine Iannaccone exhibited a rock and a portrait of that rock, separated by an abstract undulation of paper and paint. The  first person stance of the title lets you know right away that this show is intimate in its intentions. The objects in the exhibition used the microscope of Carmine’s process–scale shifts, layer building and careful observation–to draw the viewer’s attention to the forces of physics and geology.

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I am The Gravity Surfer, a one day installation organized by Shoebox LA

Carmine’s portrait of the rock does what any good portrait does—renders that individual unique and reminds us to look more carefully at the real thing when we see it. Carmine clearly spent hours observing the original and lovingly paint-sculpting a representation—a fresh view of something so ubiquitous that I normally forget to notice it. Like a shell picked off the beach, it is transformed into a particular and given momentary meaning.

The accompanying Accordion Fold zine meticulously renders the data and design of the universe personal and intriguing; the earth moves, experience accumulates and trees tell tales. What does that mean? I encourage you to email Carmine at iannacco@usc.edu with your mailing address for a free copy, and all will become clear.

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Heizer’s big rock struck me as out of sync with the contemporary moment: though aesthetically appealing and thrilling for little kids (I watched a four-year-old girl run back and forth exclaiming “it’s just so big!”), the moment for machismo monuments came and went long before 2008’s financial collapse or 2012’s record high temperatures. I don’t think that I am alone in appreciating small scale art which gets me into conversation with my neighbors and asks me to think of myself as a surfer–someone momentarily riding the larger forces, completely present and listening, for just one small swell out of eternity.

The next Shoebox LA installation takes place on Saturday, December 15, from 4-7pm at Half Off Clothing Store in Los Feliz. I hope to see you there.

Los Angeles

Nature and Free Animals

In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.”  She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”

Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.

But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.

This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.

Western Burrowing Owl

Western Burrowing Owl

For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.

We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings.  Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.

Yosemite Toad

Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.

Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?

Tilikum, in progress.

Tilikum, in progress.

Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of  Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.

Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years.  In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.

Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance.  Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.