A note on Los Angeles
LA is dirty. It’s a place where people come to go crazy. The streets are wide, busy and covered in crap. This is all quite ironic seeing the city functions so much on what is on the surface – the next flashy thing. The best meals are to be had in strip malls. And the most genuinely moving experiences can happen behind cruddy front doors on dirty streets.
The Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) is a multi-building complex in the Miracle Mile. It is also part of a bigger cluster of museums along Museum Row (including the tauntingly vomit/colourful Museum of Folk Art which I didn’t make it to). The huge collection spans art works and objects from pre-history and antiquity right up to the present day. A series of temporary exhibitions house works from the permanent collection and often large-scale commissions from rock star artists. Michael Heizer’s $15 million ‘Levitated Mass’ attracted controversy for its price tag but is a playful and monumental introduction to the complex as you pass under its slightly alarming mass via a sunken concrete causeway. This barren, gravel landscape gives way to the museum complex to the right and the La Brea tar pits to the left. On the opposite side of the building is Chris Burden’s ‘Urban Light’, a less alarming and admittedly more well known approach to the gallery.
'Urban Lights' (click to explore)
The complex itself is a jumble of mismatching relics from the 70s – often large brutalist structures that hold the treasures within. The museum is divided up into eras and/or geographical zones – an awesome pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican pottery collection in a genuinely surprising setting including layered, wave-cut ply creating the effect of an architectural dig with the works placed on top.
LACMA Interior (click to explore)
There’s also currently a really moving show comprising 11 works by Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem. The works are an attempt by the artist to come to terms with the idea that two of his close school friends boarded planes in September of 2001 and flew them directly into the World Trade Center in New York City while he grew up to become an artist. Titled ‘Pause’ it’s a totally contemporary show that incorporates traditional Islamic art which approaches ideas of radicalisation in a way that is really frank. The fact that the museum is spread across many buildings helps to give the visitor literally a breath of fresh air before moving on.
James Turrell is so hot right now and we have seen plenty of him in Australia. He’s inspired all sorts from Hollywood art direction to music videos for musician Drake. LACMA is definitely on the band wagon. Turrell’s ‘Breathing Light’, set in the comparatively low rise Resnick Pavilion asks visitors to swap their shoes for white booties and stand in front of an unnaturally flat, colourfully lit surface. After time, grasping for something to set its depth perception on, your brain start to fire neurones randomly in an effort to fix on to something. The result is a kind of mild hallucination of strange shapes and sparks that appear. This particular exhibition inspired production designer Patrice Vermette’s concept for the alien/human meeting place in recent sci-fi flick ‘Arrival’. Or so says Tomas Garcia, LACMA’s vice president of technology who I managed to sit down with for an hour during my visit.
Tomas reports directly to LACMA director Michael Govan (he’s apparently highly interested in LACMA’s digital offering) and has entered the role and an interesting time for the museum. Three of the ageing buildings will be bulldozed in the coming months with a brand spanking new complex due to open in 2022. The investment in terms of technology, Tomas says is heavily on data and content for that period of time – who knows what technology will look like in 2022? ‘Is it Google Glass or will the collection be directly transmitted into our heads?’ he asks. A big part of this job is cleaning up what they already have and future proofing it for the delivery mechanisms of 2022. Beyond that, due to the reduced foot print and foot traffic over the coming years, Tomas will have the opportunity the road test smaller experiments in digital engagement, learning from the process in order to prepare to scale. This will the give him and his small team an unprecedented ability to experiment in such a monumental institution.
I left LACMA via the La Brea Tar Pits – huge, bubbling lakes of tar that have risen up from subterranean oil reserves. In the past they ensnared prehistoric animals such as safer tooth tigers and mammoths whose boney remains are now on display in the 1970s Jurassic Park looking museum compound.
Not as impressive and slightly sad are the many birds and squirrels that still get caught in the pits in the present day – adding to an on-going preservation of the fossil record.
Admission: $15 (makes sense given the scale)
Digital engagement: Website is not mobile friendly. Bold, easy to use mobile app promises content when in range of a Bluetooth beacon however, as is often the case with said technology my phone stayed quiet.
The Museum of Broken Relationships
Set on the very trashy Hollywood Boulevard is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a sequel to the original museum in Zagreb, Croatia. The museum celebrates broken relationships of all types in the form of donated artefacts, curated due to the anthropological merit and appear in slick, clean line cases next to didactic panels describing their origin location, duration of relationship and a brief anonymous description from the donor. Potential donors can go to the Museum of Broken Relationships website to fill out a form with details relevant to their object. They may then post or hand deliver their object for consideration into the collection. The Los Angeles museum itself takes visitors on a fairly linear pathway that begins with light, often humorous stories of broken relationships, followed by exhibits that present a diversity of different relationships from romantic, to friendship to family. Each story is accompanied by its relevant object from a cheerleader’s outfit to a box of mix tapes (cassette, of course) to a bag of a lover’s used contact lenses to a collection of pornographic magazines. The clean setting strips each exhibit of any direct emotion, allowing the visitor to bring their own emotion (or baggage in the case) to the exhibits.
The next room really pulls the heart strings as you move through stories of heartbreak including a collection of nearly empty cologne bottles one donor had held on to for years following her partner’s death. Many of the stories make note of this – that they had had held onto these objects of heartbreak and could not bare to throw them out, regardless of whether they conjured fond memories of their associated person or hatred. Given the slick building and presentation, the effect is overwhelmingly emotional.
I spoke to museum director Alexis Hyde at length about the donation process, the curation process and how the hell they store all of this stuff. She apologised for the state of her office which was covered with teddy bears, lingerie, books and a browning receipt from 1915 showing the return of a particular diamond ring. The receipt also had a telegram attached, announcing the ring bearer’s affection for their beloved. It was obviously not reciprocated. Alexis often does a large amount of provenance research on the objects and had discovered this particular collection of paper objects once belonged to a survived passenger of the Titanic disaster.
Museum of Broken Relationships Interior (click to explore)
Technology has a strained relationship with the museum. The online collection mechanism is obviously essential but the tactile, materiality of the objects in the museum themselves deny any over use of digital platforms. Alexis explained how she had considered an audio tour but came to the realisation that a human voice by its very definition imbues the stories with too much personality and emotion, blocking a visitor from bringing their own baggage to the story. It would also imply a gender which, more often than not the stories do not by virtue of their donor’s choice (conscious or not) not to reveal. I suggested the drawer of mix tapes could do with an opportunity for visitors to listen. Given the nostalgic, tactile nature of the museum though this could only really be done with a Sony Walkman.
Yet another weirdly emotional experience at a museum.
Admission: A pricey $18 which must be prebooked in person or online to allocate a session time (the museum is tiny)
Digital engagement: Great experience donating objects online. Intentionally social media friendly museum experience – photos are encouraged. No need for much else.