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Public Art Dismantled

L.A. orders the work removed, saying MOCA lacked permits for its installation at City Hall. The museum hopes to put it back.

October 19, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

There's an art to fighting City Hall.

But such finesse was eluding MOCA officials Tuesday as they were ordered to tear down a major art installation because it was built on a City Hall lawn without required municipal permits.

Authorities said the artwork -- called "Kariforunia" and designed to resemble an apartment living room built around the top of a flagpole bearing a California flag -- might be unsafe.

Red-faced executives of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, said they hoped to obtain the necessary permits and return the mock living room structure to scaffolding that surrounds the flagpole outside City Hall South.

To passersby, the artwork's removal resembled its arrival a week ago: sudden and mysterious.

Its appearance caused head-scratching among downtown office workers who wondered whether it was a police surveillance tower, a street race judging platform, a restroom for the homeless or an office for some out-of-favor City Council member.

As it came down, onlookers speculated that it might have been damaged by recent earthquakes felt in Los Angeles or that its base might have been undermined by this week's heavy rains. One worker suggested it was being removed because it overlooked a play yard used by youngsters at a city-run child-care center.

"I'll bet we're on the phone right now" to the work's outraged creator, Japanese-born artist Tatsurou Bashi, said one MOCA employee.

The 60-foot tower had been scheduled to be open to the public through Nov. 30.

The city's removal order followed Friday's unauthorized switch of the tower's California flag with a Los Angeles city flag. At the time, MOCA officials would not speculate about who was responsible for the flag tampering. Some Civic Center workers, however, suggested that the banner swap might have been the result of some City Hall workers' pride.

Bashi's trademark artistic installations involve the "encapsulation of public art" within an unexpected private setting. In this case, the top 5 feet of the flagpole and the state flag were artwork that seemingly stood atop a small table in the fake living room. Visitors allowed to climb the tower two at a time were at eye level with the flag and the pole-top ball.

The artwork's "Kariforunia" title was a reflection of the Japanese phonetic spelling of California.

The installation was hailed last week as "a wonderful coup for Los Angeles" by Paul Schimmel, chief curator for MOCA and the curator for the "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States" show at the museum's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo.

He said Bashi had evaluated several potential downtown Los Angeles sites, including an angel on top of the Central Library, facades on old buildings on Broadway and a chandelier at Union Station, before picking the City Hall South flagpole.

Schimmel was reported to be traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

MOCA spokesman John Hindman said city officials may have been confused over whether the living room structure constituted art or a dwelling structure.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who worked with former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski to secure the city flagpole for MOCA's use, said she learned Tuesday morning that the tower was built without permits.

"Maybe the artist didn't know better," Perry said. "Once the Building and Safety folks are satisfied, I'll work with them to expedite its return."

But for now, she said, "I need to know it's safe. It's an unusual installation, and if there's a concern about people going up and down the scaffolding, it needs to be made safe."

MOCA Director Jeremy Strick said the museum was prepared to make any safety changes to the scaffolding that the city requires.

"We hope it's coming back," he said of Bashi's work. "I think with any public art installation there are questions of what it is, exactly.

"It required several permits and inspections. We had some, but discovered others were needed."

Margie Reese, general manager of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, said she hoped the dispute is resolved quickly. Otherwise, she fretted, "we're going to look like bumpkins."

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