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PALM LATITUDES

Tectonics : The Crack-Up

December 03, 1995|Michael Walker

It took 5 million years, but someone finally wants to use the San Andreas fault the way teen-age boys use cherry bombs on public-school restroom plumbing.

To wit: New York artist Terry Fugate-Wilcox's proposal to pour an acre-sized, 20-foot-high concrete slab directly over the San Andreas near Palm Springs. Because the fault slips about two inches a year there, the slab will almost certainly tear into two rectangles that will creep apart as the North American and Pacific tectonic plates grind past each other. The adolescent weird-science id fairly gapes in wonderment: What a cool idea .

The scale of the project is heroic even by Christo standards: 188 feet by 232 feet (visible from space, claims its creator), 65,424 tons of low-exothermic, uncolored concrete (the type used in dam construction). To ensure that it actually breaks apart, the slab will be anchored directly to bedrock, with no reinforcing rods spanning the fault.

"The earthquake people told me the crack there runs right down to the mantle," Fugate-Wilcox, 46, enthuses, "that's why it moves so beautifully."

Time and decay, mortal enemies of most artists, are Fugate-Wilcox's close personal friends. Most of his creations--he's shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art--are literally works in progress: He bolts together strips of metals and decrees the pieces unfinished until the metals fuse (2,000 years in some cases). Other works are kept in constant flux by gravity, or deviations in humidity and temperature.

Plate tectonics are another matter. At the San Andrea's present rate of slip, the 32,000-ton halves of Fugate-Wilcox's concrete slab would separate in about 1,200 years; the western half, along with Palm Springs and Los Angeles would theoretically be in present-day Alaska in roughly 70 million years.

The project will cost about $9 million, half of which, Fugate-Wilcox says, has been raised. "The people who have supported this are international businessmen who could fund it with change from their limousine ashtrays," he notes. Much of the money will go toward preparing the site, including bringing in a rail spur to deliver the concrete. The U.S. Geological Survey and other earthquake-related organizations, Fugate-Wilcox says, have expressed interest in rigging the interior reaches of the slab with seismic measuring devices. If all goes according to plan, the project will be ready for viewing in 1998.

As for the inevitable but-is-it-art? assault, Fugate-Wilcox says of his slab: "The fault is often seen as a very negative thing--I had ranchers yell at me when I was out looking at it. I just wanted to bring out the positive aspect of it--and make a big brush-stroke statement about the energy of the earth."

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