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Hammer biennial lends artists a helping hand

Many art-world biennials feature ambitious new work. This one also helped to fund it.

May 25, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • The biennial provided some funding for Vishal Jugdeo to shoot a video in Mumbai.
The biennial provided some funding for Vishal Jugdeo to shoot a video in… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Until this year, Vishal Jugdeo's videos were dramatically low-budget affairs. The artist had a crew of two, counting himself and a director of photography and not counting actors whom he occasionally asked to hold a boom pole. He used his small studio in Highland Park as a stage set. The bare-bones feel fed some of his central themes, like the wooden language of what passes for emotional intimacy and the artifices of mainstream TV, exposed through absurdly halting dialogue and deliberately mechanical acting.

But in January, working on a new project mining emotional clichés and social hierarchies, he shot his work on location for the first time. Canadian by birth and Indian by ancestry, Jugdeo flew to Mumbai and rented as his set a grand colonial house that has lapsed into shabby decay.

He hired a cast of four local performers and a producer on the ground to help navigate the complexities of filming in a city that he describes as tailor-made for big Bollywood-style productions, not independent filmmaking. Even renting a camera proved tricky. "In L.A. you go to Sammy's to rent a camera and can just bring it home," he said. "In Mumbai, the camera comes with two or three attendants or bodyguards who follow it around. They're the only ones allowed to touch it."

Jugdeo's video, accompanied by a primitive stage set, is just one of the more ambitious projects created for "Made in L.A.," the Hammer Museum's new biennial organized in partnership with LAX Art running June 2 through Sept. 2.

For the show, featuring 60 "emerging or under-recognized" artists from the L.A. area, painter Pearl Hsiung has created her biggest artwork ever: a 13-panel, 52-foot-long, free-standing mural with fiery-colored, tsunami-like imagery that doesn't fit inside her own studio. Cayetano Ferrer has created a two-room installation exploring the instant architecture and speculative nature of Las Vegas, featuring a virtual casino façade as well as a large mosaic made of carpet fragments from the Bellagio, Palms and other casinos. And the collaborative SLANGUAGE is taking over the nonprofit gallery LAX Art for the full run of the biennial with a mix of subversive art events and family-friendly workshops.

The Hammer-LAX Art biennial team helped to facilitate and also fund many of these projects to an unusual degree. They gave each artist an honorarium of $1,000. For some of the more ambitious proposals such as Jugdeo's, they provided additional funding up to $7,500. In other cases, they helped to pay for fabrication, production or performance costs directly. Altogether, the biennial organizers spent about one-third of their $775,000 exhibition budget helping to realize these commissions. (That doesn't include a $100,000 prize — awarded to one artist later this summer through a combination of jury selection and popular vote.)

"Many of these artists graduated recently from school. And very few — if any — are having knockout commercial success," said Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. "So from Day One, the curators said they want to be sure that we have a generous piece of the budget going to artists to help them realize projects."

LAX Art has largely worked on this model, underwriting artist projects that it exhibits, since its founding in 2005. The Hammer has done so before for special projects and its large lobby wall commissions, though not for sweeping biennial-like surveys in the past such as "Thing," an ambitious show of new sculpture. Yet most biennials around the world these days — and there are many, designed to introduce new art to a broader public on the model of the Whitney Biennial or Venice Biennale — rely more heavily on artists or their dealers for production costs.

So along with its California focus, which positions "Made in L.A." as an edgy successor to the historic-looking Pacific Standard Time initiative, this emphasis on commissions helps to set this biennial apart. "If there was one thing artists have been complaining about with other biennials, it was not having enough support," said Anne Ellegood, chief curator at the Hammer. "We know museums are under a lot of pressure financially. But it felt right, in keeping with our ethos, for us to provide as much support as we could."

Several artists in "Made in L.A." said the funding they've received has made a visible difference in their work. "The money was a huge help," said Jugdeo, who also received a Canada Council grant. "It allowed me to think in a broader sense about what was possible. I've never spent a year and a half developing a single project."

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