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What's up with that

The tower that rose suddenly near City Hall? Ask MOCA.

October 13, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

A 60-foot tower that appeared on the City Hall South lawn had plenty of people guessing what was up this week.

Was it a fire lookout tower? A viewing platform for admirers of the Caltrans building across 1st Street? A prop for yet another Los Angeles-themed apocalypse thriller?

"It's for surveillance. They're just spying on us," suggested passerby Savannah Watler, an office clerk from Pomona.

Turns out that the structure is art -- a work the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, hopes passersby will espy as they go about their business in the Civic Center.

The installation, by Japanese-born artist Tatsurou Bashi, was commissioned by MOCA in conjunction with the exhibition "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States" on view at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo.

Bashi, who lives in Cologne, Germany, is known for encapsulating public art in unexpected private settings. In this case, he surrounded the top of a flagpole flying the state flag inside a building decorated to resemble a furnished apartment's living room. The work is called "Kariforunia," after the Japanese phonetic spelling of California.

"It's an intervention into a public neighborhood. It's the kind of things artists are doing more and more of now," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator at MOCA and the brains behind "Ecstasy."

Schimmel said he was not surprised that the tower has caused a hubbub: "Part of the great attraction is for it to have a very public resonance. Hopefully it will lead people in our own community to the museum -- and to look at their environment in a different way."

Passersby were certainly buzzing this week.

James Taylor, a South Los Angeles groundskeeper, surmised it was part of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's new crackdown on intersection traffic jams. "It's for the police to watch for red-light violators on these two corners," he said, pointing to nearby Main and Los Angeles streets.

One person wondered if the mayor had erected it as the new office for Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who actively opposed his election.

Civic Center visitor Kevin Read, a real estate developer, thought it could be used as a judging platform for a marathon street race.

To Paul Speakman, a Caltrans engineer, the tower resembled a lighting system scaffold, perhaps for an upcoming downtown event.

"It looks like a prison camp guard tower," said Mary Gonzalez of Burbank.

A few steps away, another pedestrian hurrying past overheard her and interjected: "Most of the people in City Hall need watching."

Writer T.K. Nagano of Little Tokyo noticed a large pole-like pipe extending the length of the tower and suggested that the room on top of the structure might be a restroom facility for downtown's homeless.

Those in City Hall who oversee municipal property were just as befuddled -- until the General Services Department's acting manager, Tony Royster, disclosed that the tower is art.

Bashi was unavailable for comment Wednesday. According to the exhibition catalog, the project was created as a response to the complicated nature of trying to maintain a distinct cultural heritage while adopting a new identity based on locale. The piece, a literal living room, transforms the state flag from a distant icon into a personal object of contemplation.

Despite the tower's aloof look, museum-goers can climb it and contemplate up close. Admission is free, and the tower will remain on view through Nov. 30; "Ecstasy" continues through Feb. 20. (Information:

Visitors must sign a waiver before they climb the steep steps, and only two at a time are allowed in, said Sabastian Clough, a MOCA designer. A closed-circuit TV camera allows those with disabilities to view the installation from the ground.

Clough said MOCA intends to put up a sign explaining the work.

But for now, he said, "I'm sure some good City Hall jokes are making the rounds" as to which official is being exiled outside.

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