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Sculptor's Vision Left High and Dry : Art: Council takes dim view of installing three rowboats that won't go from pier to water until bay is clean.


SANTA MONICA — Everyone's a critic. The Santa Monica City Council took on the role Tuesday night when German sculptor Manfred Miller appeared at its meeting to propose his vision for public art. Council members seemed to have difficulty grasping the concept of three blue rowboats lashed to the underside of Santa Monica pier.

Muller has said his project, "Twilight and Yearning," is intended to increase awareness of pollution in Santa Monica Bay. The sculpture will fill a "holy space" where the cycles of nature come clearly into focus, he said. The city Art Commission has given its support to the idea.

But the council declined to take action on the proposal, expressing concern that the concept was a bit too esoteric and the work itself a potential safety hazard.

"What do we tell someone who says, 'I don't get it. It looks like a bunch of boats hanging on a pier?' " Councilman Kelly Olsen asked.

Muller's plan calls for the three 16- to 18-foot rowboats to remain vertically affixed to pillars supporting the pier until the day Santa Monica Bay is free of pollution.

At that point, the boats would be ceremonially lowered into the water.

A plaque placed at the site would explain the purpose of the piece, which would be paid for with funds raised by Muller and installed by the city at a maximum cost of $5,000.

A skeptical Councilman Robert T. Holbrook wondered aloud whether it would be wise to lure people into the dark, rarely frequented area beneath the pier, a spot that has seen more than its share of crime.

He and other council members also insisted on assurances that the piece would withstand the pounding of the ocean.

"I can't imagine those boats would last long," Holbrook said. "Something's going to go, and it's going to go fast."

But the reservation that was the most ominous from the perspective of the artist was the council's displeasure with the sculpture's central theme: that Santa Monica Bay is dangerously contaminated.

"I have a problem with any sculpture that says to the world that our bay is not safe to go into," Mayor Pro Tem Judy Abdo said.

Her views were shared by Councilman Dennis Zane, who noted how much cleaner the bay is now compared with only a decade ago.

"While there's still significant work to be done, we should not be creating the message that there's a hazard," he said.

Muller who remained calm during most of the discussion, struggled to retain his composure when the council quizzed city Art Commission Chair Bruria Finkel about the proposal.

When Finkel tried to explain the function of conceptual art, it was more than Muller could bear. "Stop! stop! stop!," he cried, rushing toward the podium. "You are speaking about my work! . . . Ask me, please, what I will do."

He promised repeatedly to work with city engineers and other authorities to make the piece safe and acceptable to the community. The council invited him to return with more specifics.

Three members of the Art Commission spoke on behalf of the project Tuesday night.

Commissioner Ying Chao Kuo offered perhaps the most lucid interpretation.

"The boats are up because the bay is polluted, and the fishermen can't go fishing," he said.

But by discussion's end, council opposition to "Twilight and Yearning" was obvious, with Abdo even calling into question whether the bay will one day be clean enough to warrant a lowering of the boats.

"We're in a (cleanup) process that will go on until infinity," she said.

For Muller, the process of local government had gone on almost that long, leaving him too distraught to speak to a reporter.

Asked to comment on the evening, he said with scarcely disguised disgust, "Make your own comment."

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