A sculpture best described as an astronomical jungle gym appears destined to becoming the newest attraction on Santa Monica's beach--despite protests from oceanfront homeowners who complain the artwork will ruin their scenic views.
The piece, by artist Nancy Holt, received a final go-ahead from the Santa Monica City Council last week, culminating a five-year plan to place "interactive" artworks on the southern beaches of Santa Monica. Construction is expected to begin within 90 days.
Holt's sculpture is a web-like network of black steel pipes pointed toward the ocean. It is designed to align with the sun and the planets in such a way that it will mark the summer and winter solstices.
For example, at noon on the summer solstice, the light cast by the sun will exactly cover a concrete circle at the center of the sculpture, simulating an eclipse. (The summer solstice, which usually falls on June 21 or 22, is the day the sun is at the northern limit of its annual path, directly over the Tropic of Cancer.)
"The interplay with astronomical phenomena was key to recommending this project," said Henry Korn, cultural arts administrator for the city.
Called "Solar Web," the $72,000-work will stand up to 16 feet tall and is 72 feet long. Visitors will also be able to climb on it, Korn said.
Although the sculpture drew enthusiastic support from the city's art mavens, several owners of the expensive Sea Colony condominiums, which face the ocean, cried out against the project.
They complained the structure would block their until-now uncluttered views of the shore. And they worried that unwanted homeless people would drape their clothes on top of it or camp under it.
In many ways, the argument boiled down to conflicting visions over what the beach should be used for and who should have access to it.
Sea Colony resident Edgar Hirst, reducing the artwork to a "bureaucratic creation," said he specifically moved to his townhouse for its "beautiful open vista" of sand and ocean.
"I'm not against art," he told the City Council at a public hearing Tuesday. "I'm against placement of art on nature's masterpiece: a beautiful, unspoiled beach."
Elaine Hoffman, a member of the Arts Commission, countered. Although it may not have been "in God's plans" to place artworks on the beach, she said, neither was it part of God's plans to build million-dollar condos on the beach. Several other people accused the Sea Colony residents of holding the beach as their private domain.
Only City Councilwoman Christine Reed lent her sympathy to opponents of the sculpture.
"It's way too big and particularly ugly because it's painted black," Reed said, describing the work as a "sort of half-circle, upside-down spider web." But Reed stood alone as the council voted to approve the project, 5-1.
Sharon Jaquith, another Sea Colony resident, vowed to take the fight against the sculpture to the California Coastal Commission. She accused Santa Monica officials of failing to adequately notify residents that the sculpture would be discussed at last Tuesday's meeting.
"There seems to be a concerted effort (by the city) not to communicate with those who will oppose a project," Jaquith said.
The dispute left artist Holt somewhat bewildered.
"It's a very open work," she said in a telephone interview from her home in New York City. "I purposely made it that way so that it wouldn't obscure views. I don't see how it could. It's very open and airy; it gently frames the view of land and ocean."
Holt is considered by many in the art world to be a leader in the field of public art. One of her other projects involves building a sculpture park on a garbage dump in New Jersey.
Last of Three Projects
"Solar Web" was one of three projects chosen by the Arts Commission after receiving proposals from 29 artists in 1984. The works were to form the new Natural Elements Sculpture Park scattered along the southern half of Santa Monica's beach.
The other two projects--"Art Tool" and "Singing Beach Chairs"--were erected in the last two years. "Art Tool" by Carl Cheng represents a giant roller that "prints" miniature houses, streets and gardens on the sand, and "Singing Beach Chairs" by Douglas Hollis are wind harps in the shape of beach chairs that make sounds when the breeze blows.
"Art Tool" is located near the Santa Monica Pier and Singing Beach Chairs near where Pico Boulevard hits the beach. "Solar Web" is to be erected on the southernmost beach near the city's border with Venice.
Last month, however, the city's Recreation and Parks Commission unanimously rejected placement of "Solar Web" on the beach site. The commission, which has opposed the Natural Elements Sculpture Park from the outset, contended the open space should be reserved for more traditional recreational uses.
The art crowd fought back. Bruria Finkel, a member of the Santa Monica Arts Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the city's Arts Commission, rallied supporters of the sculpture and collected dozens of signatures on a petition. Finkel, who is the wife of City Councilman David Finkel, argued the piece was "too wonderful to let go."
For "Solar Web" to mark the summer and winter solstices, supporters said, it has to be located exactly as proposed, near the water's edge. The city even brought in a "consulting astronomer" to attest to the correspondence between the site's geography and the alignment of the planet in June.
"If it had been located anywhere else, the whole geometry of the web would have been distorted and skewed," arts administrator Korn said.
As for the public protest, Korn was philosophical: "I'll bet in time the folks in Sea Colony will come to be proud of it (the sculpture), will take out-of-town visitors to see it, and will be giving solstice parties."