City Focus: Los Angeles – Some Kind of Monolith

This month Los Angeles played host to the newest edition of the renowned Paris Photo art fair, now taking place in both Europe and the US. Daniel C Blight reports on the fair and the city.

Muscle Beach, Santa Monica by T. Karaszewski, CC

Muscle Beach, Santa Monica, by T. Karaszewski, CC

Los Angeles – an incomparably strange city. It stretches out, incorporating immense neighbourhoods and seemingly endless freeways: a place where every taxi costs fifty dollars. If you can’t drive or afford the fare, you’re forced to twist a friend’s arm into chauffeuring you around the sprawl, admiring the vacuous glamour of the place. Art, and everything else for that matter, is at the service of the market here. There is only one industry aside the movies: superhuman confidence. The place is awash with hyena smiles, loose-fitting unbuttoned shirts, aviator sunglasses and burnt sienna tans.

Paris Photo Los Angeles

Paramount Studios – the renowned film studio founded as the Famous Players Film Company in 1912 and merging to form Paramount Pictures in 1916 – hosted this art fair dedicated to photography, with precisely the sort of aplomb one would expect. A huge wall mural reflected the blue sky at the fair’s entrance, expensive automobiles and red carpets were thrown about the place, celebrities confidently ponced around and all the while the sun shone down, gradually pinking my pasty skin. I was burnt both by the sun and a profound sense of being confronted by privilege: nowhere else have I been where one’s normal calm sense of things is so quickly skewered by all-pervading grandiosity.

Paramount Pictures Studios, Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
Paramount Pictures Studios, Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles

Paris Photo Los Angeles Opening Night
Paris Photo Los Angeles, entrance to Stage 5 on the opening night

Sound and Vision Curated Programme

A new location for the fair in a city that has a contemporary art scene as developed as Paris – where the fair has taken place for the past 16 years – was an important opportunity for the organisers to pep-up their engagement with the changing nature of contemporary photography. Unfortunately, it seems little risk was taken with the programme of talks and screenings; much of the emphasis instead appeared concentrated on the fair’s venue and its industry associations, rather than the public programme. There were some great moments, but several of the talks too quickly reclined into anecdotal storytelling, and the idea to have a renowned curator or critic, as the programme notes explain, “conceptually meditate” on the relationship between the still and moving image was a little pretentious. As one of the speaker’s put it, with some innuendo: ‘Curator’s don’t often have the opportunity to meditate on anything’…

Over the course of the fair, from the opening party on Thursday evening to Sunday when the fair closes, a series of films were screened. Sitting alongside the talks programme, this was the highlight of the fair’s public events.

Bruce Connor, Breakaway installation view
Bruce Connor, Breakaway (1966) installation view

The film programme – nothing short of excellent – included Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962); Bruce Conner’s Breakaway (1966) Philippe Parreno’s Anywhere Out of the World (2000); Glenn Ligon’s The Death of Tom (2008); Kerry Tribe’s The Last Soviet (2010) and Michael Snow’s WVLNT (Wavelength [For Those Who Don’t Have the Time]), 1966-67/2003.

Bruce Conner, the late American filmmaker who pioneered the use of pop music in artist’s film, and was thusly labelled the father of MTV – to which he would reply ‘Not my fault’ – opened the fair with a screening of his marvellous Breakaway work from 1966. The film, with music by Ed Cobb and vocals and dancing by Toni Basel, punctuated the atmosphere of the opening party with its pop sound bleeding out around the gallery booths from the screening room.

Toni Basel prances around in what can only be described as clown trousers and a bra. Her song of the same title plays while she continues to pout and pose in various suggestive outfits, eventually appearing topless in a series of quickly cut blurs and abstractions. ‘She’s gonna breakway from all the chains, see her friends and do what suits her fine’, as the lyrics state. After a few minutes of sped-up black and white footage and the music playing regularly in accompaniment, the sound fades away and then reappears reversed in a wash of aural displacement, to great effect.

Conner’s films are known for their intelligent comments on the media and the state of popular culture; but aside this interest the film also successfully reverses, both literally and conceptually, one’s expectations of the pop music video in terms of the medium’s duration and its various effects. It’s clever, but you can still dance to it.

John Chiara at Rose Gallery

American artist John Chiara (b. 1971) wonders how much information is lost in the process of film enlargement during analogue printing in the darkroom. It’s an interesting question and one that has allowed him to produce a number of unique and really quite beautiful images over the last ten years. Rediscovering and utilising various ways of exposing directly onto photographic paper, has led him to create a number of projects based on variations on a single technique: a lengthy exposure taken while inside a trailer-sized, home made camera obscura.

John Chiara, installation view, Rose Gallery booth, Paris Photo Los Angelese
John Chiara, installation view, Rose Gallery booth, Paris Photo Los Angeles

21st at San Bruno 30'' x 40''  Image on Cibachrome Paper through Cellophane, Unique Photograph  2003
21st at San Bruno 30” x 40” image on Cibachrome Paper through Cellophane, Unique Photograph, 2003

Chiara places and transports the camera on his trailer, positions it somewhere, climbs inside it and exposes various landscapes onto negative and positive photographic paper. Interestingly – and necessarily – the process involves unrolling and cutting the paper in the pitch black camera, in order to ready it for exposure. Chiara is then left with a jagged-edged, beautifully coloured print complete with dodges and blurs made by his hands in front of the lense. His escape from the box in order to do this involves clambering out of a light-tight human chrysalis, which extends from the rear of the camera itself. The whole somewhat comical procedure is revealed in this video.

Taryn Simon at Gagosian

‘Archiving systems impose an illusory structural order on the radically chaotic and indeterminate nature of everything.
’—Taryn Simon

Indeed. It is this structure that Simon investigates with a new body of work The Picture Collection on display at the Gagosian stand. In typical blue chip white cube manner, there is not a caption or explanatory text in sight – so I ask the gentlemen to explain to me what the work is about.

The New York Public Library archive contains 1.2 million prints and Simon has drawn out a number of images having searched the arhive by category. These images, including pictures from the categories of Handshaking, Haircombing, Express Highways and Beards, are layered over one another so that only a part of each image within a category may remain visible.

A kind of analogue Google image search, Simon has a number of theoretical and cultural observations about what are essentially quite humorous tabula rasa compositions. Unlike some of her other work, Simon has managed to pair humour and visual immediacy with conceptualism here.

Taryn Simon, Folder: Express Highways, 2012

The fair in general – courting celebrity status and branding itself up to the hilt – has taken photography as an increasingly popular form of contemporary art practice, to new heights with this endeavour. Let’s hope that in the midst of this fantastic exposure for a medium greatly admired, we are not left with an emptyness the size of Paramount Picture Studios.

When Adolph Zukor founded Paramount almost 100 years ago, he intended it to serve as a business to make films that speak to working and middle class America. Much like the current state of most Hollywood film, this fair speaks at people about the status of class and privilege as much as it attempts to develop a wider understanding of photography and culture.

A number of videos about the fair, including interviews with some of the exhibitors, can be watched here.

Stanley Kubrick at LACMA

The fair’s catalogue and press pack suggests what else one might visit in Los Angeles during the fair, in order to add wider context and relevance to Paris Photo’s Los Angeles debut. Without doubt the strongest exhibition I saw during my visit was the inimitable Stanley Kubrick’s show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This beautifully installed exhibition divides Kubrick’s approach – both to photography, filmmaking and his wider relationship to literature and art practice – into several sections. Combining video displays of extracts from his filmography, objects and props from his various film sets, photographs of and by Kubrick himself and various works of art that serve to contextualise Kubrick’s thinking process, the display completely absorbed me for a long while.

I’ve always struggled to “think” the entirety of the filmmaker’s career – it being both ridiculously complex and highly intelligent – but this exhibition allows one to move through his work by theme and quite clearly proves, and explains, the case for his greatness.

From the very onset of the work on the film we all discussed means of photographically depicting extraterrestrial creatures in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. And it soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable. All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That’s why we settled on the black monolith – which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype, and also a pretty fair example of “Minimal art.”

– Stanley Kubrick

Black Monolith in the Baroque Room production model, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Black Monolith in the Baroque Room, production model, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Kubrick exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Kubrick exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Kilfitt Makro-Kilar 2.8/90mm lens used by Stanley Kubrick

Kilfitt Makro-Kilar 2.8/90mm lens used by Kubrick

Jane and Lousie Wilson, still from Unfolding the Aryan Papers, 2008

Jane and Lousie Wilson, still from Unfolding the Aryan Papers, 2008 

British artists Jane and Louise Wilson feature in the Kubrick exhibition, with their video installation Unfolding the Aryan Papers. The project, based on Kubrick’s unfinished film Aryan Papers which was abandoned by Kubrick in 1995 – purportedly due to, and I imagine amongst other reasons too, Spielberg’s releasing of Schindler’s List two years earlier – sees the artists interviewing the woman who was cast by Kubrick to play the role of aunt Tanya, Johanna ter Steege. Steege recounts both her meeting with Kubrick and also repeats lines that would have appeared in the film itself.

‘The film is very much a reflection on the process of a film becoming’, says Louise Wilson in this BFI interview. There is also this interview available, made by LACMA for the exhibition.

The installation appears at LACMA in the same form as it did at the British Film Institute in 2009: a single video projection and two mirrors of the same size are installed in a darkened room. The mirrors reflect and repeat the film itself.

Tabitha Soren at Kopeikin Gallery

To the south-west of Hollywood, if one makes one’s way towards Marina Del Rey and the Pacific coast, is the Culver City Gallery District. The area is full with commercial gallery and project spaces which line both sides of La Cienega Boulevard and the adjacent streets.

Culver City District Art MapCulver City district art map

One of the stronger photography exhibitions in the district was at  Kopeikin Gallery, which featured the body of work Running by Tabitha Soren, the former MTV News reporter. The project, which essentially depicts various individuals legging it from some unidentified thing, pairs a quite hilarious visual idea with some rather more serious artist statement.

The exhibition press release speaks of the primal urge to run from something one is afraid of, and that this act has a certain beauty to it. I’m not sure that would be my take on the work, as it strikes me as a set of images that perhaps unintentionally reveal the sort of base humour one finds in a horror movie when a character is fleeing his or her attacker. Where an image does possess a fear or sense of horror it is contrasted by another photograph that just can’t be taken that seriously. Therein lies the strength of the project in some affable manner. I imagine these people running from Soren’s interview technique – perhaps best exampled by her casual-yet-really-not-casual minutes spent with the late rapper Tupac Shakur here.

Tabitha Soren, Running, installation view at Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

Tabitha Soren’s Running, installation view, Kopeikin Gallery, Culver City

Tabitha Soren, Running 003279, 2012

Tabitha Soren, Running 003279, 2012

Tabatha Soren, Running 005747, 2013

Tabitha Soren, Running 005747, 2012

Daniel C Blight works in education at The Photographers’ Gallery, lectures at universities and writes about photography for publications including 1000 Words, The Guardian, Notes on MetamodernismPhilosophy of Photography and Source.

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