In a world where people are continually on the move--seeking work, a better life or new challenges--we might dream of a city that travels with us wherever we go. If we could only pack up our schools, our churches, our hospitals and even our factories, perhaps we could plop down on any terrain and feel right at home again. "Ciudad Transportable" (Transportable City), an art installation that will is scheduled to be unveiled Thursday on the green between LACMA's two buildings on Wilshire Boulevard, addresses just such a dream.
Designed by Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez, three Cuban artists who work collectively under the name Los Carpinteros, "Transportable City" consists of 10 "buildings" made in the manner of camping tents--tough nylon stretched over frames of aluminum tubing. Each building is shaped to represent a key institution in every community.
"They reflect the artists' notion that there are essential aspects to a contemporary city," says Carol Eliel, LACMA's curator of modern and contemporary art, and they are meant to prompt us to consider the prerequisites of life in the midst of change. "The whole work has to do with the notion of migration and the perpetual migratory state of contemporary existence."
The three collaborators, all around 30, met while they were students at art school in Havana in the early 1990s. "First of all we were friends," says Arrechea, who, with Rodriguez, spoke by telephone from Cuba. "Then we decided to work together."
They roomed together and, in 1992, had their first show as a threesome. Soon their schoolmates had dubbed them "Los Carpinteros"--the carpenters--because their work was often based on hand tools and woodworking.
"In time we took up the name," Arrechea says. "A carpenter is not a real artist, and from our artistic position, we liked that idea--it was like a subterfuge, a kind of joke."
The name stuck, and since 1994 they have signed their works collectively as "Los Carpinteros," declining to identify who does what.
In 1994, they were included in the Havana Biennial, which launched them internationally. Since then, they have participated in art fairs from Latin America to Europe, with solo shows in Antwerp, Berlin, New York (at the New Museum of Contemporary Art) and Los Angeles (at Iturralde Gallery and Grant Selwyn Fine Arts).
Although they're no longer roommates, they share a studio in Havana and work exclusively as a collective. "We continue like a community, we see each other every day," Arrechea says.
Drawings facilitate their communication. "Every drawing that we do is part of our discussion," he says. "It's like having a bank of ideas, and then we pick the ones we like and develop them."
"Our art comes out of a certain form of group therapy," Rodriguez once noted.
When asked about their underlying philosophy of creation, Arrechea begins, "I don't think we have a main philosophy."
In the background, Rodriguez speaks up in Spanish, and Arrechea translates for him. "Basically our ideas are based on design and architecture, and, just like Dago says, the design contains the moment--we try to get the idea of this time, this moment that we live in. For example, the ['Transportable City'] structures contain more than the idea of a tent, but the idea of a city, what a city means to its citizens."
The team concentrates on sculpture and drawings, and often the drawings are related to the sculptures. LACMA, for example, owns a large 1997 drawing of "Estuche" (Jewel Box), a bureau of drawers that takes the threatening form of a giant hand grenade. Two years later, this was made into a 9-foot-high wooden sculpture, now in a private New York collection.
"Transportable City" also began as a series of sketches. Then, in 1997, Los Carpinteros presented two tent buildings--a church and a lighthouse--at an art show in Mexico. The next step was a natural. For the seventh Havana Biennial, they decided to complete the idea. "We decided to create a whole city," Arrechea says. "When you see only two tents, you don't feel the same reaction."
With income from the sales of some of the drawings, they were able to start the process, which involved outside help--computer experts, engineers and fabricators.
"We did the drawings, but when you start work like that you need engineers," Arrechea says, "so we had a big team." In Havana, they found those skilled in computer-aided design; in Los Angeles, they found a fabricator for the aluminum tubing. Sewing the fabric for the tents began here and was finished in Havana.
The two original structures were brightly colored, but for the Havana Biennial, the artists decided on neutral beige for the fabric. The buildings range in height from 6 to 15 feet, not life-size but big enough to invite exploration, via zippered doors and mesh windows, inside and out.