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An RIP for the freeways

MOCA installation honors L.A.'s rivers of concrete while also serving as a vast memorial to a bygone belief system.

May 08, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The city is a jungle.

The freeways rank as the great monumental sculptures of Los Angeles -- our Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, our Great Wall and Angkor Wat.

The semi-arid desert hugging the Pacific Ocean has been transformed into an oasis through a complex history of chicanery, hope and accident, creating a strange and matchless New Eden for the Industrial Age.

These and other cherished cliches about L.A. reside at the core of an ambitious new sculpture installation that opened Sunday at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Given the instant familiarity of its elements, Yutaka Sone's "Jungle Island" ought to be a bust. But the piece works anyhow. Sone starts with the general, which is what cliches represent, and heads straight toward the particular, which is where art resides. As he does, the sculpture takes us along for a playful journey of discovery.

"Jungle Island" is huge, filling the entire south building of the Geffen's two-warehouse complex. The former Tokyo-based artist, who relocated to Los Angeles in 2000, has created a post-Gilligan tropical paradise on a gigantic mound of soil. More than 300 varieties of vegetation are said to populate the island. Canary Island date palms shoot up through warehouse rafters; variegated coleus grows underfoot. Giant birds of paradise and lush philodendrons sway in the unnatural indoor breeze, created by oscillating fans suspended from the ceiling.

Around the perimeter of this urban atoll, pathways invite entry. Pushing your way through the dense underbrush on meandering trails of soft mulch, you intermittently come upon large, low wooden pedestals -- four in all -- each 4 or 5 feet on a side. Every pedestal holds one rectangular sculpture elaborately carved from a block of white marble.

The sculptures map dramatic freeway interchanges around Los Angeles, complete with the surrounding landscape. One shows the slip-knot junction of the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways in downtown L.A., as they slide past the Convention Center. Another charts the looming, swooping tangle of concrete pathways where the Harbor splits off to become the Century Freeway. A third depicts the preternaturally graceful loops that connect the Santa Monica and the San Diego freeways. The last departs from the urban grid that anchors the other three, showing instead the Y-shaped split of the Antelope Valley and Golden State freeways' interchange nestled amid chaparral-covered hills at the north end of the San Fernando Valley.

White marble is the material of choice for classical sculpture, and these three-dimensional marble maps record an American Mount Olympus where bourgeois gods and goddesses fly by in automotive chariots. Sone worked from aerial photographs, and a MOCA handout says he sketched buildings and videotaped surrounding neighborhoods to internalize the lay of the land. From these preparatory studies he made intricate models using dense foam and cardboard. The models were shipped to China, where a skilled stonecutter (who'd never left the mainland) transformed them into marble monuments under Sone's watchful eye.

Incredibly detailed, with every tree-lined street and building in place, the sculptures are strategically placed around the island at the intersections of its meandering footpaths. The environment echoes the image, on a more earthbound level of experience. These pastoral encounters verge on the uncanny, though, because outside an art museum a pedestrian would probably meet a freeway interchange only at a moment of distress.

Chinese white marble often has a softer, less brittle appearance than its Mediterranean cousins. Sone's big slabs look as if they might melt away in a tropical rainstorm. A sense of ephemeral fragility permeates the installation. The material fits the transitory space of an interchange, where unimpeded changes in direction take place.

Freeways once functioned as future-oriented symbols of freedom and independent mobility, but as the lateral city outside MOCA's door gets more dense and population patterns constantly shift, that fixed symbol has been dissolving. Here, the freeway monuments appear to be left behind by a lost civilization.

Sone's sculptures recall Cathy Opie's delicate sepia-toned photographs of the region's elevated roadways, which nudge their subject's clinging sense of Tomorrowland back into the past. They're like cenotaphs -- monuments erected in honor of something dead, whose remains lie elsewhere. They memorialize an unambiguous system of cultural beliefs that slipped irretrievably into history as Los Angeles lumbered into the millennium. "Jungle Island" is a ritual site of ancestral longing and reflection -- a beautiful Forest Lawn for the freeways.


'Yutaka Sone: Jungle Island'

Where: MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo

When: Closed Mondays. Tuesdays-Sundays 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Ends: July 27

Price: $8, adults; $5, students, seniors; free, children under 12

Info: (213) 626-6222

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