LOS ANGELES — One of the first objects on display at the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial is a Volkswagen Brasilia, named after the Brazilian capital. Built in the 1970s, the car was popular in Latin America for its reliability and modern design. It is also the vehicle in which artist Clarissa Tossin travels through her hometown of Brasília and adoptive city of Los Angeles, the starting point from which the biennial unpacks LA’s many geographies and institutions.
“Brasília, Cars, Pools and Other Modernities” (2009-2013) features a short film documenting the artist’s interest in the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who helped design the capital. The film jumps between shots of two cities that share an affinity for the automobile. Like many parts of Los Angeles, Brasília is sprawling and built to almost inhuman scale, with wide streets and imposing architecture.
Tossin is conflicted about the utopian ideals of Niemeyer and the political realities of her home country. This conflict is also transplanted to Los Angeles, where the Strick House, one of only two of Niemeyer’s American buildings, is now a city landmark and private residence. The installation is a story of Brazil’s troubled modernism, but it is also a story that applies to many cities, including Los Angeles, where inequality persists despite the promises of modernity.
Los Angeles can be an inscrutable city, where far-flung networks and utopias develop across the periphery. If Made in L.A. is representative of anything that is current in Los Angeles, it portrays the myriad ways the region’s artists develop alternative models for collaboration and exhibition. In the biennial’s catalogue, co-curator Michael Ned Holte describes the “micro-climates” of LA’s art world as a rhizomatic network of constituencies colored by many different practices and communities. To demonstrate this point, the biennial features not just individual artists, but also several collectives or organizations that eschew personal brands in favor of cooperative models.
In the main lobby of the Hammer is a stage set for KCHUNG TV, a video iteration of the Chinatown-based pirate radio station. Every weekend, visitors are likely to see anything from a cosplay fashion show to a dramatic recap of the NBA season. With its low production values and hyperspecific programming, the station is a mix of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party and the early Internet. The volunteer-based station operates under a non-hierarchical structure, allowing anyone with enough patience and commitment to create a show about anything.
Next to the KCHUNG TV stage is a room curated by Lauren Mackler’s Public Fiction, a Highland Park-based exhibition space and quarterly publication that hosts collaborations between writers and artists. The small exhibition space at the Hammer houses artwork and writing related to a shared prompt of the room’s description, resulting in a narrative or mise en scène of a performance. Each “episode” produced by an artist and writer becomes a kind of flash fiction represented through the museum space.
Emily Mast’s works also leave traces of performance, prefacing visitors with a series of films near the stairs leading to the museum courtyard. In the films, a diverse cast of performers — not all artists — interact with props and everyday objects in playful, theatrical settings. The very same props are left for visitors to encounter throughout other sections of the museum. At unannounced times, these objects may trigger a live reenactment of a past performance, creating a surreal moment of recognition and resisting the passive experience of conventional theatre.
Open to the public, the James Kidd Studio (founded by dancer, choreographer and costume designer Jmy James Kidd) hosts dance rehearsals in the museum courtyard, like the open studio every Friday at Kidd’s Pieter dance space in the working-class neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. Admission to Pieter events — performances of experimental dance, theatre and music — is based on non-monetary donations to a free boutique of used clothing, appliances, and books.
On the second floor above the courtyard are large blocks of foam being cut and reshaped as part of Piero Golia’s “The Comedy of Craft (Act 1: Carving George Washington’s Nose)” (2014), a lifesize reproduction of the president’s nose on Mt. Rushmore. As of this writing, the project has yet to be completed, with only the fragments of a nose scattered across the museum terrace. Like a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, the meticulous process through which Washington’s nose comes to being is more intriguing than the completed work.
In one of the second-floor galleries is a museum within a museum, a collection of modular structures antithetical to the idea of a museum as starchitect-designed spectacle. Alice Könitz’s Los Angeles Museum of Art resembles a work of art itself, although contained within its glass vitrines and sliding walls are paintings, sculptures, recordings, and other ephemera borrowed from artists or provided by Könitz herself. The collection of art is spare and the museum’s mission scalable by one person. Könitz’s museum currently resides in Eagle Rock, but it can very easily be transported to wherever the vagaries of geography or circumstance requires.
The experience of the Made in L.A. biennial is similarly shaped by time, circumstance, and location. Its objects and performances are exhibited in various stages of completion, giving the traditionally austere museum space a lived-in quality with art that has not reached their terminus as merely objects but as art that exists as an ongoing and liminal space. The biennial presents concepts of radical egalitarianism and experimentation that extend beyond the museum. These ideas make up the foundations through which artists and the public can develop alternatives to the market and extend beyond simple transactional relationships between artists and consumers. That these experiments are presented within a major university museum housed within the corporate headquarters of a petroleum company only makes their impact more powerful.
Made in L.A. continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through September 7.