02. April 2014

Curator Matthias Ulrich met an illustrious circle of people in Los Angeles: Doug Aitken, Thomas Demand, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and several others. Yet there were several obstacles to overcome beforehand.

By MATTHIAS ULRICH

After just one day in Los Angeles it became plain to me that this city is different. At Los Angeles International Airport, the growth sector of security is reflected in a solid three hours, the first one standing in line in front of the immigration authorities, and the other two in a surprising or unannounced second identity check. A monstrous centipede moved through a decommissioned luggage claim area as if it wanted to say hello to every unfamiliar corner by name, and the two pairs of legs at the front, using his directly related pair of hands, had nothing better to do than to have his passport picture compared yet again with his real face. Could it be that a dangerous subject was once successful in slipping through the first control point unnoticed? Or did the second obstacle serve the purpose of cultural assimilation and getting used to the vehicle speed that prevails on the streets of L.A.? When picking up the rental car from Thrifty, a weekend escape away from the airport, this first-time visitor acquires more knowledge about the successful noncompliance with efficiency and epic instructions in operating a self-explanatory navigation instrument that in the end knew how to live down the ubiquitous law of incompletion at a point that, on the contrary, was too appropriate.

For this reason, the first meeting with the Californian artist Doug Aitken in his studio in Venice, which was scheduled to take place a generous two hours after my arrival and which had gotten out of reach while I was waiting in the centipede line, took place without me on this particular day. Finally in the car, the navigation system guided me through the falling evening to a hip residential and shop-lined street called Abbot Kinney, where misters Aitken and Hollein were already sitting at a table and greeted me as if the MH 370 had finally been located. A film by Aitken featuring the Hollywood actress Chloë Sevigny is about airport nomads and an exploded social order, a society in which one arbitrarily checks in and checks out.

I begin the next day brutally early at 4:40 a.m. with the plan to drive the rental car through the empty, dark streets and explore the city devoid of people and traffic. Unfortunately, I already encounter this freedom in the hotel lobby where there is no one who might retrieve the car from the hotel's garage, wherever it is. I discuss the concept of human sculpture until 7 o'clock based on a small exhibition of photographs hanging in the hall on my floor. With the exception of the two Us radiating out of Arnold Schwarzenegger's mouth--one less than in "human sculpture"--the other men tout themselves with relatively similar developed bodies--one could have had the idea for a human park as early as the seventies. Unfortunately, classic bodybuilding--with only one U--is so OUT that one doesn't have to wait much longer for its relaunch. Based on the money that such a body devours, the profits one earns with it are still rather scant. After years of neglect, the aesthetic side does not seem to me to unearth any further or new sources.

The second day, in Aitken’s studio, brings a wealth of material to light from which I can make a preliminary selection (while a play list runs in the background and Aitkin looks forward to celebrating his birthday that evening at a Kraftwerk concert).

Our meeting was followed by the street to Pasadena in the northwest, where Dave Muller lives with his family. This neighborhood is reminiscent of a blueprint of an early Atari computer game that involved riding a bike past front yards in order to throw as many newspapers as possible onto the front porches of the homes. Muller’s studio is in a former garage behind the house. One wall is covered from top to bottom with shelves of tightly packed LPs. In addition, there is 1.7 TB worth of music on his computer’s hard disk; the first volume of printed out music track titles weighs as much as a brick. His encyclopedic interest recalls Umberto Eco’s Infinity of Lists, which propel the fragmentary to completion, apply it every which way onto the walls like in a Parisian salon hang, and create a subjective landscape comprised of crazy tropes.

Muller's painting and installations, which are seriously infected with pop and music, scour such landscapes in order to diagnose the covering power of their socioeconomic levels or the interplay between real and artistic reality.

Photographic Souvenirs and So-called Selfies

Next is the route to the LACMA. Driving the car is similar to a Situationist performance during which the city seems to be erased by the voice of the GPS and the arrow on its display. I meet Max Hollein in the café in front of the museum conversing with the director of the LACMA, Michael Goven, who accompanies us afterwards on a quick run through the collection, during which Hollein's attention is attracted by, among other things, a fiery painting by Frantisek Kupka. Outside in another falling night, a dense rectangular space consisting of hundreds of old streetlamps emerges that was installed by the most influential American Body Art artist of the seventies, Chris Burden, in the museum square, for Los Angeles an unfamiliar if not absurd opportunity for a bohemian stroll. However, this is where young people pose for photographic souvenirs and so-called selfies that disseminate that "I was here" worldwide on the Internet and elevate the square, the museum, and his art to the status of a monument.

An exhibition with works from its collection in an encounter with older and younger acquisitions awaits this visitor at L.A.'s MOCA. The global charisma of canonic international artists demonstrates few surprises, although their comparison places strong emphasis here and there, for example a video installation by Ryan Trecartin, who was presented in the current issue of the New Yorker, and a large body of photographs by Nan Goldin. While Goldin's pictures give an account of the damaged lives of the discriminated and marginalized in the gay and queer community, Trecartin's protagonists rely on the huge event of the digital age, namely the absolute connectivity between everyone and everything, which is dominated by the same marginal figures. I don't go to the slightly more enhanced retrospective of work by the late L.A. star Mike Kelly, because I had already seen it when it opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Just across from the MOCA sounds the clamor of the Broad Art Foundation construction site, whose architectural sensation is long in coming and is outshone by what is still the cultural landmark of the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry right next to it.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and a Good Upbringing

After another working discussion with Doug Aitken and his staff, we pay a visit to the Berlin immigrant Thomas Demand in his studio in Helms Avenue. The nameplate on the brick building is crooked. Demand drives up slightly late--"traffic!"--in a sporty old Mercedes. There's a setting for a new photograph inside in his studio. A short urban canyon at the end of which there is a radiantly pink, blossoming cherry tree standing under huge photo studio floodlights. The impressive effort that was invested in making the blossoms alone prompts me to listen attentively to Thomas Demand's story about the background to this motif. The detail photographs of the pink flora handing on the studio walls tell the story of an additional byproduct that seems to be a study for this work. They contrast sharply with the documentary photograph he found in an American newspaper, which elicited Demand's interest in this work in the first place.

Following an unspectacular chase through the streets of L.A., we arrive at our evening appointment in an unpretentious but in culinary terms sensational Japanese restaurant recommended by Thomas Demand. Along the lines of the motto of his Academy Award-winning film The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck grills Max Hollein, mark you in the manner of a good upbringing, and equally as gallantly avoids my question, intended as a rescue attempt, about his new film.

My last day in Los Angeles takes me to the northwest of the city, where the immigrant Thomas Houseago has a studio compound that matches the dimensions of his sculptures. Despite the fact that two monumental commissioned works have begun their journey to his hometown of Leeds, where they will duel with works by his fellow countryman Henry Moore, production seems to be running at full speed. In any case, there are hardly any open spaces in the halls, and in one he is even appropriating the exhibition space, the white cube, in order to counterpose it with a sculptural museum, a museum as sculpture. Like the phases of the moon, the labyrinthine structure made of crude materials has perforated windows, and its walls are form in a twofold sense, a positive side and a negative side, which is reminiscent, for instance, of a model for producing a bronze sculpture. The Brit, who quickly became known for what can be called classic sculptures, repeatedly falls back on the drawing that serves as a space of thought, as a construction plan, and as a piece of note paper and is also literally stuck to his giant masks and human sculptures.

Following three foamy cups of matcha tea and a stimulating stream of conversation, I set out eastwards to visit the American artist Lisa Lapinski in what in comparison to the others is her miniature studio. After the philosophical excursions now light-footed, fantasy-charged irony. Works by her husband, Will Fowler, are also leaning against a wall in what feels like a ten-square-meter space. On the occasion of my visit, she has hung two of her picture assemblages on the wall behind a model of the Johann König Gallery in Berlin, where an exhibition of her works is currently being presented. Someone finally laughs, about herself and about the influence her cats--one of them is named Broodthaers--have on the generation of her ideas, about how she lets the melting wax of colored candles drip between the slats of the blinds that have been bent to form a fan and reads Goethe's theory of colors in the dark. Then she takes me new to her favorite Mexican restaurant, which has the best tacos in town. After our snack she sets off to pick her child up from school, while I cruise through the dense traffic in the early evening to the UCLA Hammer Museum for my next appointment with Andrea Fraser.

Too Much to Gain an Overview

In the parking structure of the Hammer Museum I am greeted by the words that I have found the cheapest parking space in the whole city, namely three dollars for three hours. While passing the barrier I wonder whether the nearly forty dollars that I had to pay to park for an hour and a half in MOCA's parking structure was already the upper limit. Andrea Fraser and I run through the densely packed exhibition Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, where two of her works are also being shown. In the meantime we start talking about her participation in my upcoming exhibition, Infinite Jest, so that I only pick up in passing what this exhibition has to offer. In any case, too much to gain an overview at the usual pace of a curator. The show includes an installation by Stephen Prina, who in just a few minutes will be showing a film and giving a concert in the adjacent Billy Wilder Theater. Prina's film Vinyl II deals with a residency at the Getty Museum and features a slow tracking shot through two gallery spaces with Baroque paintings accompanied by live chamber music. The end of my trip to Los Angeles somehow magically connects with the beginning, which started with a visit to the Getty Research Department but which seems to have gotten lost in this narrative.