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Work in Progress

Art Forged in Castoffs and Cold Reality

For her installation at the Hammer, Tomoko Takahashi tries to stay true to her impulses amid practicalities like fire marshal edicts.

October 04, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like the aftermath of a cyclone, the loose objects from the streets and backyards of Los Angeles ripped up, twirled in a blender and then plunked down into a tiered jumble of lawn furniture, car tires, a broken swing set, a Jacuzzi tub, desiccated palm fronds, even the fuselage of an airplane.

We're inside the unfinished shell of the UCLA Hammer Museum's theater--4,300 square feet of concrete and cinder block, sloping down toward a raised stage--and every horizontal surface is strewn with the evidence of breakdown, obsolescence and faded interest. It's a wonder some of it fits through the doors--that fuselage, for instance.

Even security guards on break from elsewhere in the building have come to gawk.

"Look at that," they whisper to one another.

But spend a little time amid the chaos and you realize there's order here. Most of the objects are upright, spaced far enough apart so you get a good look at them, and related items are grouped together--the palm parts, for example, are near the door. The fact is, these are installation artist Tomoko Takahashi's raw materials; the detritus of modern life is her palette and she has laid out her colors.

This afternoon, Ann Philbin, the Hammer's director, and Ellen Wirth, director of operations, have come by to check on the progress of the installation.

"Isn't this amaaazing?" says Philbin, half delighted, half wondering what the museum has gotten itself into.

Down on the stage they pause at a large sign, about 10 feet high. The words "Wednesday Night" are twisted into white neon tubing against a blue background. Takahashi wants to place it on the wall at the rear of the viewing area.

"How hot will it get?" Wirth asks.

"I don't know," Takahashi says. "I'm not sure it works yet."

"My concern is that people will be quite close to it, and it might get too hot," Wirth says. "We'd have to get the fire marshal to come in again to look at it."

"Well, we want as few problems with the fire marshal as possible," Philbin says. After all, the authorities have already determined it's too dangerous for visitors to wander amid the display--they could get cut or bruised or have things fall on them--so viewers will be issued binoculars and restricted to the back of the auditorium.

Philbin suggests an alternative. "What about putting it here?" She waves at the stage area where they are standing. "This looks like a good place for it. Perhaps we could hang it up on the wall. Then we wouldn't have any problems with the fire marshal."

"I don't want it here; I want it over there," Takahashi insists firmly.

"What about the other side of this wall?" Philbin finally suggests to a still reluctant artist. The other side is what people will see as they first enter the space from the courtyard. Takahashi likes the idea.

"But will it fit?" Philbin asks.

"Oh, yes, it'll fit," Takahashi says. "I've measured this wall before."

For the last half-dozen years, Takahashi has made a name for herself in Europe by taking stuff other people don't want--heaps and heaps of it--and organizing it into sprawling "art walks" at galleries, museums and commercial sites. Two years ago, she was nominated for Britain's prestigious Turner Prize. Tokyo-born and raised, she went to England 12 years ago--with her American boyfriend, she admits reluctantly-- and eventually studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and Goldsmiths' College. A penchant for castoffs came naturally.

"That's really classic," she says, "because we don't have money but we need materials, we go to skips." Skips are the English equivalent of dumpsters.

Dressed for work in a spaghetti-strap top, baggy shorts and work boots, Takahashi, 36, is an intense, wiry woman with long, frizzy hair and metal-rimmed glasses. She gets plenty of exercise, she says, from lifting and moving objects small and large and sometimes very heavy. Take the airplane. It was donated by a friend of a friend.

"That was a huge operation, but when we picked it up, it was just the two of us, with a dolly," she boasts. Later it took a crew of 10 to cart it into the auditorium.

In L.A. she has been happy to find plenty of places where she could get things free or nearly free--sign and prop shops, dumpsters, referrals and listings in the Recycler. Two assistants have been assigned to her, one to do the research and coordinate pickups, another to drive her around in a truck to find and retrieve the stuff.

Two days ago, Takahashi went on a spending spree--she spent $50 for a groaning truckload of old electronics equipment from CalArts. "For all this stuff," she says, with some satisfaction, "I spent $100."

In the United States, Takahashi's work has been shown in New York at Staff Gallery and the Drawing Center and recently as part of a group exhibition, "Sprawl," at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Although she has shown once before in Los Angeles (a sculpture and photo collages at Grant Selwyn in 1999), this is her first installation on the West Coast.

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