Monday, March 21, 2011

A vacation in Los Angeles: The Pleasurable Treachery of Images

My family (well, except for our eldest son) travelled to LA this week. We had a fantastic time. The kids were a great pleasure to spend time with and we had a lot of fun exploring, discovering things from the very kitschy to the charming and the sublime.

We quickly learned that LA was all about the simulacrum. Words or images standing in for some other thing. Two of the big tourist destinations are the Hollywood Walk of Stars and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The first of these features the names of the stars in a star in the sidewalk. So: one travels across the continent to look at the name of a star. It’s not like it is a name on a significant site like a grave. Likewise, in the Chinese Theatre (which isn’t really Chinese) one looks at names in the cement. (There is a bit of a greater reality in that the names are written in the handwriting of the star, and there are also footprints or handprints – or in the case of George Burns, the cigarprint – of the actual person.) And there was something physical about comparing one’s foot or hand with the impression of a famous person. My foot was bigger than Judy Garlands, but smaller than George Clooney’s.

Another popular touristy thing is to look at the homes of the stars. Or the former homes. (Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt lived here before they split up…) Or the homes of a late star (Elvis, Lucille Ball, etc.) It is a strange thing to be titillated by the architectural signifier of a celebrity. While there were some beautiful homes, often of extraordinary magnitude, I mostly saw them as a clear manifestation of the statistics detailing how 2% of the people in the US have 98% of the wealth (or whatever the exact statistic was.) Some of the homes were big as shopping malls. A constant stream of BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, etc. drove along the streets. There were also much more modest cars as well as pedestrians – the people who were working for the homeowners. My son wanted to have his picture taken outside the gates of the Playboy Mansion, that signifier of an always Sisyphean fantasy. We did drive through some non-wealthy LA. Downtown, the bustling workaday streets of the fashion and the toy district were our favourite.

The enormous HOLLYWOOD sign is certainly an iconic presence over the city.  It was first created as part of a real estate development marketing plan. Its fifty foot tall letters used to spell ‘HOLLYWOODLAND” until the sign fell into disrepair and the ‘land’ part fell down. A perfect symbol for the blend of capitalism, erasure, mythmaking, and historical revisionism of the Hollywood film industry.

An aspiring actress jumped to her death off the H at one point.  She must have dropped like an H.
Later, the sign was refurbished and made of steel. A number of the Hollywood gliterati sponsored a letter. $28,000 from Hugh Hefner for an H, Alice Cooper bought an O. A high stakes Wheel of Fortune.
At various times, ‘vandals’ changed the sign. Hollyweed, it once read to mark the liberalization of the pot laws.

It was a wonder to behold Magritte’s iconic The Treachery of Images (“Ceci n’est pas un pipe”) at the LACMA – the LA County Museum of Art. There was something perfectly a propos about seeing this in “LALA Land.” And to see the original of this original deflection: this is not ‘this is not a pipe”; this is “This is not a pipe.”

The original inspires many other sentences: “And my photograph? It is a photograph of a painting of an image of a pipe.  Not ‘all sizzle but no steak,’ but ‘all pipe and no smoke.’

Because, as this great piece from the amazing Contemporary building says, “Language is not transparent.” The Contemporary Art building made excellent use of its three floors. One enters by taking a huge escalator up three flights. An elevator which was about forty by ten feet and mostly made of glass moved between the floors. The entire building was distinctly marked by bright red iron girders.

At the astoundingly beautiful Getty Museum, we saw an exhibit concerning narrative in Medieval books. Among the revelations were the use of scrolls (the Medieval  equivalent of a speech balloon.) In the representations of speech, the scrolls were deliberately left blank so that the reader could imagine what the speakers were saying. It was, literally, a fill-in-the-blanks. When speaking, the people were shown with their mouths closed, for modesty.

In one series of illustrations (each bounded by a cartoon-like box) depicting St. John, St. John is shown looking in on the scenes from little portholes / flaps in the side of the boxes. I love this idea of a character looking in on a narration.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was representation of temporality. In one image, a woman was devoured by a dragon. She was depicted, having made the sign of the cross on the belly of the dragon, bursting out of the dragon’s belly. Also represented is a previous event: the woman’s dress in the mouth of the dragon. She’s just been eaten. This is a conflation of two different time events onto one image. On the two-dimensional plane of the image, we have four dimensions . Other Medieval images show various events on one landscape: the same couple in three different places in the village at three different points in time. So, the courtship, marriage, and old age of a couple, all depicted in one image.

Yes, we did some of the usual LA things: We gawked at the opulence of celebs’ homes--from immense Michael Jackson’s former palace-like home to Aaron Spelling’s vast mansion. We watched the pageant of oddity at Venice Beach: a guy standing with a sign stating that for $1, he would provide you the opportunity to “Kick [him] in the ass.” We went on a fascinating tour of Paramount Studios. Some in my family were happy to see Britney from Glee driving by in a golf cart.

But we also drove out to Joshua Tree National Park which was strikingly beautiful and in many ways the opposite of LA (though I couldn’t help scripting scenes from Westerns in my mind). This desert was filled with the Dr Seuss-like Joshua trees, huge boulders and mountainous rockpiles. We climbed up mountains, feeling like the escapees in the YA novel, Holes, and saw some remarkable views from over cliffs, and across the flat lands. There were petroglyphs, an old dam, and lizards. My wife and I got a bit lost as dusk approached and we wandered through the short scrub and over boulders as the sun made long shadows and turned everything pink. Our kids weren’t there when we returned and we started to worry and then to shout into the dark. They appeared soon after, relaxed and happy, having watched the sunset from on top of a mountain.

It was fantastic to explore LA with two of our kids – intelligent, fun, enthusiastic, inquisitive young people that they are— though we missed our eldest toiling away in the salt mines of first year university. We felt that LA was to North American popular culture like an espresso is to a regular coffee. Or maybe a latte. Or a Café Americano. Or a Big Gulp. Or, as that pretend drunk on Venice Beach sang, “I don’t need a cappuccino, I just need some vino. Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, I just want to get drunk.”


Sulci Collective said...

A brilliant analysis of the simulacrum that is wonderfully forged and fabricated by LA (perhaps only Las Vegas does it better with it's historical pastiches).

Though by no means an art maven, I do see that Magritte painting as signing the death knell for modern art, since so much of what has followed post-war relies on text to give it any kind of context for its audience, be it the explanatory text in catalogues or beneath the artwork in galleries, through to lugubrious titles of the artwork like Damien Hirst's 'dead shark' aka "The Physical Impossibility Death In The Mind Of Someone Living". Art now seems to have a burdensome over-dependency on lexigraphical text, rather than trusting to its own visual language.

But I suppose I speak as a producer of language text myself. We too ought to seek to join hands and work with designers & typographers, in order to restore the book to the status of an artwork, or even an artefact. That's why I love the alternate typographies you provide from time to time on the blog.

Keep up the brilliant work.


Marc Nash

gary barwin said...

Thanks for the kind words, Marc.

I see the reliance or at least the notable presence of text as, um, a sign of the relativing view, of post-modernism and its discontents (discontexts?). Everything is language, now. We always see behind the proscenium, or hope to sneak a look. Sometimes we do this with language. Sometimes, we see
'clown' instead of clown. Or "'clown'" Or at least that's the sense I have. What do you think?