Somewhere in the labyrinthine center of Los Angeles sits the sprawling facilities of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A gorgeous complex, it is a rare bit of public space in the busy streets and closely spaced neighborhoods. But the LACMA is not a respite from LA. On the contrary, the permanent sculptural works on display represent the metropolis precisely.
Outside the buildings is the bulk of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a massive stone held suspended in the gap, anchored down into the earth. It is a place for children to run around in the hot sun, an open lot with a tall fence around it, with a confounding construction behind it. The security team wearing dark sunglasses scrutinizes every person entering the grounds, perhaps to keep them from sleeping in the shaded underpass beneath the rock, or from tagging their name with spray paint on such a notable target.
Inside, one walks through another mammoth, masculine piece of construction art. The twists of Richard Serra’s Bands perturb passage, imposing themselves in space and making visitors walk around it, a theme for the artist. The tall, oxidized metal arcs are like waves or mountains, hemming in the viewer like the LA’s valleys and seas. Prominent signs warn the visitors about not marking or touching the curves, and docents shadow the children screaming inside of it, while security cameras watch from overhead.
After working one’s way past this maze, one sees the glowing lights of Robert Irwin’s Miracle Mile, which will have been exhibited for two years when it finally comes down in September. The vertical fluorescent bulbs stretching 36 feet of the wall are showing their age, the colors faded, the filters wrapping the bulbs looking a bit dusty and cracked. It seems an obvious comment about the promise of the lights of the city, but perhaps making a deeper point as it ages, showing how the power might continue to flow, but the glamor diminishes.
And then, one finally comes to Chris Burden’s Metropolis II. What small child who played with toy cars hasn’t dreamed of this? Finally getting to connect all the toys together, stretching the model architecture canon from Lincoln Logs to Erector Sets. But this is exactly what it is: a child’s fantasy. If the symbolism of an Eiffel Tower made from erector set was not clear enough for the Freudians in the audience, the limited hours of the installation show the gimmick from a less sexual perspective. The sculpture only “works” for an hour at a time, separated by hour breaks, during which time a swarm of attendants must reset the work, picking up all the cars that have fallen off the track. The artist must employ others, in order to keep his stage play going. If children were allowed to operate the sculpture as they willed, breaking and rebuilding per their own developing artistic and constructive skills, perhaps the ludic aspects of the work could have been maintained. But as it is, it seems like a simulacra, a false idol built to the notion of play, while disallowing it in actuality.
And this is the shared character of these four works. They are the idealism of accomplished, male artists. But to the visitor, they are simply image, imposition, and ideology. There is an entire city of money and power outside the campus of the LACMA, and all that these works do is re-create that same arrangement on the inside.