LOS ANGELES — Nestled in Los Angeles’s Downtown Fashion District is Château Shatto, up on the 10th floor in the historic Bendix building. Upon entering the gallery, twenty freestanding doors are arranged into a neat grid, their original purpose now obsolete. By recreating 1:1 replicas of their doors in My muse is my memory, an archive of Closed Down Clubs, Fiona Connor presents a simulacrum of closed-down businesses she would frequent or come across in Los Angeles, New York City, and New Zealand.
The doors themselves are impressive. Meticulously recreated details of the wear and tear of their lives, ranging from scratched metal hardware to ornate wooden carvings, tell different stories of what once awaited patrons behind the threshold. Almost like portals, these “club” doors are synecdoches of the businesses they are replicated from. I was immediately drawn to a familiar set of brown double doors that proudly states “Welcome to Hop Louie” in orange “Chop Suey” lettering. I felt transported to 2015: I’m a new graduate, living in my first outside-of-college apartment, and learning about LA treasures like Hop Louie (which closed in 2016 after 75 years), a divey cocktail bar and restaurant staffed with Chinese bartenders attending to a crowd of mainly non-Chinese patrons on a weekend night. Being able to frequent somewhere as a regular and see familiar faces almost feels like having a membership to a club.
However, Connor’s relationship with each “door” and their categorization as “clubs” are unclear. “Clubs” range from small shops like Circus of Books, bars like Hop Louie and Smog Cutter, and nightclubs and music venues like The Smell and Catch One. There was nothing apparent that tied these “clubs” together — not a city, type of business, or circumstance of their closures. When taking a closer look, I wondered what connection these doors have to each other and if the psychic space Connor purports to be building is merely a collection of places that she found aesthetically interesting and challenging enough to reproduce. Interpreting Connor’s categorization of a “club” can vary: Are they clubs with a membership of regular patrons or do ‘clubs’ point to an underground culture that exists outside of white and heteronormative spaces driven by marginalized bodies?
When questioning the thread that connects these disparate sites of businesses, the purpose of this archive becomes opaque. What is an archive without context? Why are these businesses worth preserving and historicizing for Connor? How does bringing this “archive” without shared context to a rarified space like Château Shatto flatten their cultural and civic legacies and speak — or doesn’t — to a larger narrative of this time?
I found myself revisiting the doors zooming in and out of images I took to get acquainted with the taped notes from the clubs’ owners, municipalities, and landowners she recreated to signal their closures. In one image, Circus of Books (a legendary family-run gay adult book and video store that was around for 60+ years) taped up an orange sign that asked patrons to stop by and share their memories and stories on camera for their documentary. Beyond these facsimiles, the archiving Connor employs offers little insight into the lives and deaths of these businesses. If one of the purposes of Connor’s archive was to document the effects of gentrification and the financial and bureaucratic toll on small businesses and spaces, including ephemera like the documentary Circus of Books made could have helped color in their legacies. Projects in Los Angeles like This Side of Hoover, a project documenting “gentrification and resilience along the East Hollywood and Silverlake border,” Koreatown Dreaming, a book of essays and stories chronicling Koreatown’s mom-and-pop stores facing gentrification and the COVID-19 pandemic, and Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA), an art archive that collects donated artist books and ephemera to catalog and capture the process of the artist-led field offer another way to remember. These types of documentation and archiving root places and spaces with human stories that feel culturally specific and purposeful, and above all, are done with the permission of and in collaboration with the storytellers and artists.
My muse is my memory, an archive of Closed Down Clubs continues at Chateau Shatto (1206 South Maple Ave, Suite 1030, Downtown, Los Angeles) through April 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.