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'Urban Light' lights up the screen

Chris Burden's outdoor sculpture at LACMA has a featured role in 'No Strings Attached.'

January 25, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

It looks like the perfect spot for Valentine's Day. At least that's the idea in "No Strings Attached," the new Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman movie about a couple who denies being a couple until someone makes a startling/inevitable declaration of love.

The setting for this confession, familiar to many locals by now, is an artwork by Chris Burden called "Urban Light": some 200 vintage lampposts arranged to create a forest of lights that you can walk through on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or drive by on Wilshire Boulevard.

"I was looking for iconic places," says the movie's director, Ivan Reitman. "It's an extraordinary beacon. It lights up a desperate part of Wilshire that felt almost abandoned at night."

Reitman is not the only one dazzled by the lights. Since the artwork was installed in 2008, it has appeared as the setting for hundreds of Flickr albums and countless wedding photographs. It has served as the backdrop for several fashion magazine shoots, and one last year in Vanity Fair featuring the male cast of "Glee" singing in the rain.

Now "Urban Light" is on the way to becoming a star in its own right, making its way into film and television. Disney Hall, watch out: the architectural artwork is fast becoming a cultural symbol of Los Angeles.

The artist has spotted his lights in a Guinness beer commercial featuring a string of landmarks from around the world, like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. They played a starring — and moody — role in Tori Amos' melancholy video "Maybe California." And last year they made a cameo in "Valentine's Day," another L.A.-centric romantic comedy.

Burden says the level of interest surprises him. "I'd like to think it's because of my sculpture, but I think it also says something about Los Angeles," says the artist. "New York has plenty of landmarks, but here the field is wide open — it's easy hunting."

It helps that this is art on the scale of architecture, which visitors can experience both from a distance and close up. (The same applies to Chicago's new art star, the massive Anish Kapoor stainless steel sculpture known as "the bean.")

Urban Light "is architecture — it's a building with a roof of light," says Burden. "And it evokes the kind of awe we are preprogrammed by the history of Western architecture to feel when we walk through classical buildings with multiple colonnades."

LACMA director Michael Govan calls it "a temple of light," noting that the tallest lamps are in the center. He believes one reason for the work's popularity is its medium: Made out of ornate, cast-iron lampposts that lined the streets of L.A. nearly a century ago, "it literally embraces the fabric of the city," he says.

The museum has actively promoted the work as a destination. LACMA held a photography contest to mark the work's first year, which led to the publication "Celebrating Urban Light." And the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, a museum trustee, recently produced a public service announcement about the piece, with a tag line of her own making: "Have you seen the Lights at LACMA?"

The 3-D version of the PSA, which ran in theaters before the movie "Megamind," shows visitors of different ages and races walking through the installation with the same Disneyland-worthy expression of wonder and awe on their faces. One young girl lost in the thick of the installation is trailed by a fantastic swirl of light, not unlike like the animated Rapunzel's hair in "Tangled."

But the artwork almost didn't take this particular form, or location. Early on, says Burden, the plan was to give that prime street-front spot to Jeff Koons' proposed replica of a locomotive (which many art-world observers doubt will ever be realized), using the lamps to line a walkway within the campus.

But Burden says he felt his lamps might compete with Robert Irwin's installation of palm trees along the walkway, so he asked about other options. "They finally offered me the plaza, and it was fantastic."

The artist says he charges "a small fee" for commercial shoots ("this is not a moneymaker," his studio manager adds), and remembers refusing permission in only one case, where dancers hoped to jump or bounce from the poles. LACMA publicist Miranda Carroll says the museum charges an additional fee for commercial projects that require shooting on its property, scaled according to time commitment, security needs and the like. To date, fees have ranged from $10,000 to $25,000, she says.

Before "Urban Light," Burden was probably best known for his physically grueling performances of the 1970s, like the time he had himself shot in the arm in the name of art. Michael Govan sees no contradiction between the radical performance artist and the creator of this popular, even romantic, installation.

"I think the image of Chris as a violent artist who has since made this friendly, beautiful piece is a misunderstanding on both counts," Govan says. "His early work was also about the responsibility of the artist to his viewer and a sense of public or civic engagement."

As for "Urban Light's" role in "No Strings Attached," Reitman says the artwork was not originally in the script. At first the Valentine's Day scene was set at the Getty Center gardens.

"When I was working on the script, I realized the streetscape of the Burden would be more effective and more striking," he says, describing the way that the actors play against the height of the lampposts.

What did Burden think of the scene? "I just saw snippets of it in the trailer," the artist says. "I don't go to many movies."

jori.finkel@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this report.

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