14 July 2010

L.A. Billboards

This is a post I have thought of doing for a while. Over the past six or so months the MAK Center for Art & Architecture (Los Angeles) has sponsored an exhibition called How Many Billboards? I don't really know anything about the Center; they basically commissioned twenty plus artists to create billboards that were dispersed around Los Angeles. the curators explain: "The philosophical proposition of the exhibition is simple: art should occupy a visible position in the cacophony of mediated images in the city, and it should do so without merely adding to the visual noise. How Many Billboards? Art In Stead proposes that art periodically displace advertisement in the urban environment." I think it is important to displace commercial uses for aesthetic and political ones in public spaces and so find this project appealing.

The Center now has photos* of the whole lot on line, accompanied by sometimes useful, sometimes not-so-useful (because thoroughly written in 'art speak') curatorial blurbs. Here are my three favorites in no particular order:

This first one is by Kerry Tribe, with whom I am unfamiliar. The curators write: "Tribe's billboard reflects the artist's interest in the problems associated with perception. Her abstraction of a darkening sky takes advantage of the proclivity to look up at billboards. Blending the site of the message with its airy backdrop, Tribe's image engages in a formal push and pull with perspective. Tribe's billboard transforms a space that typically directs one's attention outward (aiming the thoughts and desires of viewers toward a specific product) into a space of mental suspension, a hazy zone to lose one's thoughts within. . . . Tribe's billboard gives the viewer a mental break from the onslaught of visual imagery to simply ponder what the image might be, and what purpose it may serve."

Maybe so. To me it seems more like some sort of rip in the fabric of the sunny southern California skies, revealing the roiling troubles (social?, political?, economic?, environmental?) they disguise. Not clear sky hidden by clouds, but the reverse.

Since my tastes sometimes run to agit-prop, I also like this one by Allan Sekula. Indeed, I have posted on Sekula and the ways he has used this particular image here before. Once again, here are the curators: "Sekula deploys an image previously exhibited at Documenta 12. A welder at a construction site holding a lit acetylene torch and crouching over his work takes a moment to look directly at the viewer. The words "The rich destroy the planet" are superimposed in Spanish over the photograph. The lettering, which looks as if it were cut letter by letter from old magazines, is slightly disjunctive in scale but chromatically balanced and ultimately aesthetically appealing. The message, however, is blunt and accusatory, and it functions succinctly for both English and Spanish speakers, since these words appear similar in both languages."

Yeah, yeah. The rich are destroying the planet. And, by the way, they are working hard to shift blame onto the poor.

Finally (and hardly least) this one is by Ken Gonzales Day. And here are the curators, doing their best to obfuscate: "Ken Gonzales-Day . . . investigates, among other things, the role of photography in its relationship to the discourse of race and the dire consequences of racism Gonzales-Day's billboard project brings these histories into the present, reflecting upon how residues of oppression linger in varying forms, despite the many changes that society continues to undergo. His subjects, Bust of a Young Man (bronze with silver inlay eyes, by the Italian artist Antico) and Bust of a Man (black stone-pietra da paragone, Florence 1758, by the Englishman Francis Harwood), are owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum. Gonzales-Day photographed them as part of his Profile Series during a residency as a Getty Research Institute Scholar. The historical sculptures refer to the artistic styles and philosophies of the Renaissance and the Neoclassical period, both of which in their turn revived the achievements of Greek and Roman culture. The imaged sculptures serve as a reminder that despite the manifold social advancements we have witnessed, it is still with the vocabulary of the past that we speak today. The figures in profile also allude to the dawn of photography and the earliest technologies used to mechanically reproduce human likeness. In the third image, a Photoshop composite of the figures facing each other ignites an erotic charge as they stare into one another's eyes. As photographs of sculptures engaged in a virtual erotic dynamic, these profiles are thrice removed from their human referents, a fact which is emphasized by the brilliant highlights that bounce off the material-objects' surfaces."

As I have noted here a couple of times before, Gonzales Day produces very provocative, insightful, creative work. If I had not read the other two blurbs, I'd say this is one of the especially not-so-useful instances of art speak. Here we get lots of high-falutin' words (presented in irritatingly passive voice) to remind us that, despite our advanced technological accomplishments and embellishments, our racist past has not faded away; it still pervades our lives.
* Please note: I've lifted all three of these images from the MAK Center web page; Photographs © Gerard Smulevich.

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Blogger SilverTiger said...

Thank you! (I'll explain why later!)

Replacing billboards with art works seems a very bright idea. What a pleasant way to be caught unawares. I hope it catches on here. Maybe I should email Boris Johnson and suggest it.

We have had something along the same lines but on a smaller scale: Poems on the Underground. This scheme puts a poem here and there among the advertisement cards in the tube trains. I often spend the whole journey meditating on the short poem I discover in my carriage.

It's good to see large art works being promoted in this way and the hope is that it will tempt some people into galleries who might otherwise have stayed away.

Now for the thank you. You have won my heart with your remarks about "art speak". For one awful moment, I thought you were going to approve of the vacuous nonsense these people write. You didn't. You treated it as it deserves be treated. So thanks again.

I am not an art expert. I am firmly in the "I know what I like when I see it" class. I unashamedly like representational art and pass over abstract art. That is why I am a (not very good) amateur photographer. I like to capture the world as it is, as far as this is possible.

I would like to include your blog in my blog role. If you are unhappy with this let me know. (There is an email address in the sidebar.)

14 July, 2010 11:44  
Blogger John said...

I have a better idea--why not follow Vermont's lead and ban billboards altogether? Now that would improve the scenery and brighten up the public space!

15 July, 2010 08:15  
Blogger smrbf said...

Really great. I love the re-claiming of marketing/commercial space-along the lines of The Guerilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger but in these instances there is the grace and difference of the visual experience (along with surprise) and then the resonances. I like.

15 July, 2010 08:39  
Blogger SilverTiger said...

A nice idea, John, and if ever it was put to a referendum I would vote for it. Unfortunately, big business has such a grip, politically and economically, on our society that there is no chance of it happening any time soon.

Yes, remove the billboards and put art in their place.

15 July, 2010 12:28  
Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

This is really cool. I have often wondered why we allow public space to get so clogged with the same old commercial shit all the time. The LA freeways are notoriously packed with billboards, and it amazes me that people accept that as a reasonable state of affairs. I'm glad to see that some people are willing to try something different.

Thanks for this, Jim.

15 July, 2010 18:47  

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