This has been a busy week for the arts in Los Angeles! This past weekend marked the kick-off of Pacific Standard Time’s public art and performance festival which will continue through next weekend. Too much is going on to talk about it all, but I think the trifecta of performances by John White, Judy Chicago, and James Turrell at Pomona this past Saturday offer much to think about in terms of performance, observation, re-creation, and audience participation.
Performance at Pomona was produced as part of “It Happened At Pomona,” a three-part series of gallery installations exploring important voices in the history of the arts in Pomona including students, curators, museum directors, professors, and guest artists. Earlier this year, as a part of the first section concerning Hal Glicksman, the museum hosted a conversation between art historian and former student, Tom Crow, curator Hal Glicksman, and artist/faculty member, Mowry Baden. During this presentation the three talked quite a bit about the importance of performative happenings around Pomona including the original incarnation of Turrell’s piece mimicking a full blaze engulfing Bridges Auditorium that even drew the fire department in its realism. Needless to say, having heard so much enthusiasm from the three about these works and Pomona’s embrace of large-scale performance and public art during the 1970s, I was eager to see what the school’s museum would contribute to the PST festival. I was not disappointed, but what I experienced what also a far cry from what I was expecting.
These three artists, Turrell, Chicago, and White, are very different in their work and I had the expectation that the performances would engage three unique sensibilities.
The first performance in the series was Preparation F, an immersive spectacle conceived by White allowing the viewer a rare peek into process, in this case the process of equipping and readying the Pomona football team for their sport. Originally enacted in a gallery with around 30 audience members, the re-creation involved nearly a thousand viewers packed into a Pomona college gym, most already laden with the expectation of the original piece. At 5pm sharp, the darkened gym suddenly echoed with the sound of a whistle and we were bathed in the strong florescent light so ubiquitous on college campuses. A storm of footsteps accompanied the horde of bulky young athletes who meandered into the gym, quickly grabbed a stool from the 20 or so stacked in the center of the space and, finding places among and in front of the
audience, proceeded to undress while engaging the unsuspecting onlookers in trifle conversation about football and college life. From pitch black to bright light, from fully clothed to completely nude, from passive audience to engaged conversationalists, we viewers were startled on many levels just within the first 5 minutes of White’s work. Once dressed, the players gathered in the center of the space to stretch and scrimmage then followed the modern dance moves of a perceived “coach” as the repetition of sneaker to floor pounding was only broken by the jarring effect of 20-some rugged footballers throwing their own mighty bodies full-force to the ground in perfect synchronicity.
Following White’s work, we audience members shuffled through the doors and around the building in our herd to Merritt field, some standing on the sidelines while other luckier viewers were able to perch atop the bleachers for a more aerial view of Judy Chicago’s outline of A Butterfly for Pomona. In the middle of the field we could see in sharp perspective the shape of a butterfly made of flares, how I wished that I could have been stationed one story further up to further make sense
of the shape! In fact, had I not known the name of the piece, I likely would not have identified the shape as that of a butterfly at all, but perhaps the reference to the butterfly is more about the colorful forms that emerge and float up to the sky as the smoke billows once the piece is ignited or the subtle hum of the flares like so many gently flapping butterfly wings. The work inspired oohs and aahs from the audience, but in today’s spectacle culture I was left wondering what really was the difference between this scene and the common, albeit beautiful, fireworks display we are treated to every fourth of July? Chicago’s early atmosphere works were about introducing a feminine mystique to the masculine art world and in theory they focus the mind on the impermanence of beauty as well, forcing the viewer to be fully present because the work will never exist in the same way again.
Today, however, the work was document one-thousand-times over by the multiple iphones, video cameras, and gadgets in the hands of officials and audience members alike. On Friday night, at Hirokazu Kosaka’s performance Kalpa, at the Getty, I heard an onlooker say (as we jockeyed for position to see the white-clad Butoh dancers), “I feel like I’m experiencing this through other people’s iphones!.” That was true for Chicago’s performance at Pomona as well, in my line of site the butterfly itself was only one source of illumination as my vision was also repeatedly drawn to the bright lights and flashes of phones around me (full disclosure, that noise included my own!). A photography teacher once told me, if you want to truly experience something, don’t photograph it.
As the butterfly dwindled, the lights came up and people began to leave the stands blinking their eyes and again shuffling slowly in procession. We made our way again around the building and to the cordoned-off facade of Bridges auditorium for one of the most anticipated performances by James Turrell. Turrell’s original piece, done while he was a student at Pomona, is described as spontaneous and so realistic that it summoned the quick response of the local fire department who told Turrell, if you ever do this again, just let us know ahead of time! This time the artist did just that, incorporating the timely response into the work in such a way that in the audience we all were left mumbling, “was that planned?,” “is this part of the piece?,” “are they coming here?.”
As opposed to the other works, Burning Bridges had no real end point, and the audience eventually dispersed after we witnessed the artist and museum officials heading away from the area, asking each other, “was that it?” And that is the way to describe the piece, was that really it? A few flares were placed behind the columns of the building emitting a vague smoky haze that dissipated within a few moments and a red glow in the corridors. The building
looked more like it was decorated lightly for Halloween than it looked like it was on fire, and the direct comparison to Chicago’s piece that utilized the same media of flares but to much more spectacular ends, made the quiet piece seem stationary and uninteresting. The addition of the fire truck sirens did little to liven the work as the whole thing just seemed stagy and forced. This is the kind of effect you fear when talking about re-creating performance art. In some ways I feel like the more spontaneous the original, the more ridiculous the work seems upon re-creation!
Ultimately the performances were all worth seeing, and viewing three such different artists working on the same night in the same space was an opportunity not to be missed. Pomona is doing a great job of engaging their own history through multiple trajectories, with happenings, lectures, conversations, and object displays all happening concurrently and overlapping in theme and content. What is unfortunate is that through this wonderful display of history it brings to light the difference between an emerging and experimental college and gallery during the 1970s and the far more staid and academic museum in existence today.