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Contributing to mall culture

It looks like a giant blue rubber band. Shoppers can look at (or sit on) the Mobius Bench by artist Vito Acconci.

September 27, 2003|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

Pasadena's newest shopping mall seems an unlikely home for the first permanent installation in Southern California of noted conceptual artist Vito Acconci.

But as a piece of public art that doubles as a public bench, it's a logical extension of the work in public spaces he's been pursuing for the last 20 years. As Acconci has gone from highly personal performance art, often relying on his own body, to formally commissioned projects using construction materials fabricated by others, the sense of whimsy has remained.

The Mobius Bench, as it is called, looks like a twisted blue rubber band that some giant threw down from the sky. Indeed, it ended up in the courtyard of the Shops on Lake Avenue partly by happenstance.

David Wasserman, a managing director of mall developer Starwood Wasserman, was passing through Aspen, Colo., last year and sat in on a talk Acconci gave about his unconventional career.

Later, accompanied by art consultant Jane Holzer, "Baby Jane" of Warhol Factory fame, Wasserman visited Acconci's Brooklyn studio and asked if he would design something for the Shops on Lake Avenue.

Acconci's first response was no -- not out of snobbery, because he loves the idea of shopping malls as places where people gather, but because the budget was too small.

"But Jane Holzer kept calling," says Acconci, sitting in the makeshift office of his company, Acconci Studio, "and then we thought, we have this Mobius Bench, we can change the shape, we could adapt it to the space."

Chance ideas and encounters have been integral to Acconci's career, as an avant-garde artist in the '60s and '70s and now as head of his own boutique design firm.

Like his art projects of the past, the bench began with a simple idea: The Mobius strip is a piece of paper twisted to form one continuous surface. Why not make it into a bench? Acconci set his studio, staffed with architects, into design mode.

The first Mobius Bench, made of translucent fiberglass, was created for Fukuroi City, Japan, in 2001. The Pasadena one, made of fiberglass with a silvery blue finish and a fiber optic light strip mounted along the edges, is 19 feet by 28 feet in diameter.

On a recent weekday afternoon, shoppers walk through the mall's courtyard with a quick glance at the piece -- most unsure what it is. Wasserman, though, has no doubts about the value of the bench, installed earlier this month. It goes "way beyond" the city of Pasadena's requirement for public art because it "addresses what art for public purpose is. One, it's art you can view and you can sit on. Two, it puts the shopping center on the cultural map."

Acconci became known for his performance art in the 1960s in New York. His work often addressed the body and interpersonal relationships, sometimes between himself and strangers.

In one of his best-known pieces, produced at a New York gallery, he lay beneath a ramp over which visitors would walk as he fantasized aloud about them. He admits now that the idea was a little bit silly, but he recognized that even then.

"I always wanted stuff to be the opposite of tragic," he says. "Comedy allows you to have a second thought, whereas tragedy doesn't."

Acconci's works have been collected by major museums, including Dia Art Foundation in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which owns three pieces -- a print and two installation works. His "Under-History Lesson" (1976-87) will be featured in MOCA's upcoming "Sitings: Installation Art 1969-2002," opening Oct. 12.

"Vito became internationally known for his works with the body," says Paul Schimmel, the museum's chief curator. The artist was influenced by the 1960s notion that art has social and political implications, Schimmel says, and in turn he was quite influential on performance artists who followed.

When he began making installations in exhibition spaces in the late 1970s, Acconci realized that he was creating a place for people to gather. "I was treating exhibition space as if it were a town square, as if it were a community meeting place, as if it were a plaza," he says.

It took about a decade for him to figure out how to make the leap into design and architecture. "I had to find a way to reinvent architecture for myself," he says. "I had to think of architecture as something for the body."

In the 1980s he made "Instant House," a piece in which a person sitting in a swing made panels lift and create an enclosure, and "Bad Dream House," in which two upside-down houses prop up a third upside-down house.

After a 1988 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York consisting of three installations that he called "Public Spaces," Acconci decided to set up a design studio. His first two hires were recent architecture school graduates who had come to his loft working on a public interest project.

A year ago, Acconci moved into an industrial building in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn -- Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.

He has been living and working in the area for two decades and has seen chic new eateries and condominiums sprout. His own studio is a raw, unfinished space.

Acconci Studio now has eight employees and a track record. Recently, the company designed the interior of New York art gallery Kenny Schachter Contemporary and a coffee and tea set for Italian design firm Alessi. The studio is in competition to renovate New York's Art in General exhibition space and a project for Swiss drug company Novartis.

Beyond technical expertise, the architects who work for Acconci must excel at working in a fluid environment. For thinking through projects like the Mobius bench, Acconci explains, "they have to want to do architecture a little bit upside-down and a little bit inside-out."

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