With CURRENT:LA Water, the city of Los Angeles does what its artists have done since the days of Ferus Gallery—it turns its back on tradition. With commissions by 16 artists—some working alone, others in pairs—14 sites throughout the L.A. area have been transformed for July and August, all of them near bodies of water ranging from the Arroyo Seco to the Pacific Coast.
“When people think about public art, they think about permanent sculptures that memorialize a site, or some aspect of our history, or they think of a mural,” says Josefina Lopez of the Cultural Affairs Commission. “And these works are not that. They use a variety of media. They’re much more interactive with the public. They’re event-based projects and activities—installation, performance, sound, smell.”
A curatorial panel recruited by the city includes Ruth Estévez (REDCAT), Rita Gonzalez (LACMA), Irene Tsatsos (Armory Center for the Arts) and Karen Moss (Otis College of Art and Design, USC). Together they plowed through 130 proposals before settling on artists from a range of disciplines to produce a variety of works with water as an underlying theme. There’s sound artist Chris Kallmyer, who is working solo here but recently collaborated with performance artists and fellow CURRENT:LA participants Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara). Others include multimedia artist Edgar Arceneaux, Candice Lin, Teresa Margolles, Kori Newkirk, Michael Parker, Gala Porras-Kim, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kerry Tribe.
Site-specific media artist Refik Anadol made local headlines in 2014 when his collaboration with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen featured projections throughout the interior of Walt Disney Concert Hall. For CURRENT:LA, he collaborated with Peggy Weil, a pioneering computer scholar and installation artist. The abstract images they created relate to data that tracks water in the area over roughly a hundred years. The results are projected on a cement wall of the L.A. River, an epic 400-foot-wide stream of images running parallel to the water.
“We’re trying to play with this narrative through very direct messages combined with abstracted light and water,” Anadol says of a subtly informational project directly inspired by L.A. Light and Space artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin. “All these incredible people in the ’60s made a big impression on me. I thought: How might we explore the same idea and spirit, but with modern-day tools?”
Like Anadol and Weil, Josh Callaghan and Daveed Kapoor looked to that same history, but further back—beyond Light and Space and Ferus Gallery—to 1542 and explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, one of the first Europeans to set foot in the area. Their monument to his 200-ton flagship, San Salvador, takes the shape of its most prominent feature—a towering main mast. Consisting of a steel utility pole and crossing flagpoles, it spans roughly 50 feet by 40 feet as it looms over some wetlands in south L.A. On days when the weather permits, the sail is unfurled and the picture becomes complete.
“It’s always a thrill to see the public interact with your work,” says Callaghan, a sculptor who focuses on public art. While he has undertaken large-scale installations in the past, as with Chess Set, which occupied the courtyard of L.A.’s Harmony Murphy gallery in the summer of 2015, the CURRENT:LA project is his most epic. “I like to make work where people can get some access point immediately. And with this project—the form of the sail—it will be really interesting to see how people interact with and make sense of it.”
When CURRENT:LA was announced last spring, Mayor Eric Garcetti first thanked Bloomberg Philanthropies for its $1 million grant toward the project (one of only four awarded), then commented on a vital point this unusual arts initiative shares with more conventional approaches: “Public art is a communal activity. It inspires people to talk, to think, to re-imagine, to enter a museum that has no walls.”