NYTimes Art Review: Hammer Museum on the Apocalypse

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LOS ANGELES — There is no cracking of earth or buckling of concrete, but a small fault line is shaking up the Hammer Museum here.

This one, an artistic interpretation made of red resin sticks, is snaking from a museum gallery out to the terrace. “Faultline” (2018) begins underneath a giant sculpture of bright red plastic sunglasses that could symbolize California dreaming — only they’ve been split in half.

The artist behind this jarring installation, who goes by MPA, spoke of her artwork figuratively this week, in terms of “social fissures” and “the fracturing of political parties in the United States.” But she also spoke of a more literal inspiration, the Pinto Mountain fault that runs through her hometown, Twentynine Palms, where “you can see this apocalyptic fever brewing.”

She’s not the only artist in “Made in L.A, 2018,” the Hammer biennial that opened Sunday, to explore the uneasy feeling of living in an epicenter for natural and man-made disasters. At least five of the 33 artists in the show, all based in the Los Angeles area, have made artworks somehow responding to the mounting environmental threats close to home.

A detail of MPA’s work “Faultline” (2018), which snakes along the walls of a gallery space and out to a terrace. The artist is based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., on the Pinto Mountain fault line.CreditColey Brown for The New York Times

As residents know too well, the region has recently suffered from a long stretch of extreme drought, a rash of wildfires, including the biggest on record to date, and some deadly coastal mudslides. That’s on top of the ever-present seismic danger: “The idea of the big one, the earthquake that could destroy the entire city, is a constant notion here,” said Erin Christovale, the Hammer Museum curator who along with Anne Ellegood co-organized the biennial, which is designed to promote under-recognized artists.

Of course there’s a rich tradition of environmentally minded art in California, from 19th-century landscape photography to 1960s land art to the current wave of artist-activists. In the case of these Hammer artists, though, the environment is not always an explicit theme or agenda. Concern for the health of the environment segues into, and sometimes stands for, anxiety about the current political climate.

“I think why we’re seeing this now has something to do with how the environment is politicized,” said Ms. Ellegood. “These artists are not just thinking about natural disasters but about resources, land development, genocide and climate change.”

Ms. Ellegood said she was especially surprised to see ecological images crop up from artists not known for that work. Flora Wiegmann made a piece called “Reduction Burn,” a six-channel video of a dance performance that she choreographed. Her title refers to “hazard reduction burns,” the planned fires often used to deforest areas on the verge of becoming tinderboxes.

The first section of her work establishes the dancers, wearing sleeveless green shirts, as a forest, swaying like trees in the wind. The third evokes a fire spreading (thanks to red accents in the costumes and more dynamic jumping and spinning movements), while the final sections show the fire collapsing into embers.

“This process is regenerating for the forest,” said Ms. Wiegmann, noting that it allows for “new growth.” For the artist the cycle is suggestive of individuals overcoming personal injury or trauma and “all the political and social flare-ups happening today,” she said.

In his gallery at the Hammer, Charles Long has created a small forest’s worth of stumplike, treelike or loglike sculptures. His point of departure was fallen-tree sightings close to home in Mount Baldy, a mountain village east of Los Angeles. “I started noticing over the last two years a lot of the big old trees in our village were sort of choking out and getting cut down because of the drought and overcrowding,” he said. “It happens so much that people don’t even remove them, they just chop them up and leave them all over the village.”


The artist Charles Long has created a small forest’s worth of loglike sculptures inspired by fallen-tree sightings close to his home in Mount Baldy, the result of drought and overcrowding.CreditColey Brown for The New York Times

Yet Mr. Long did not recreate the chopped-up tree images as much as transform them: the cross-sections of trees become the cross-sections of penises, which also look like odd smiley faces. Patriarchy is being sliced and diced, and possibly reconceived. Mr. Long described his fossilized-looking, crystal-studded sculpture of an enormous phallic stump, which takes over an entire wall, as “Father Earth” in a wry but hopeful way.

An installation called “Found Fragments,” by James Benning, explores the destruction of natural resources by the military, with the centerpiece being a three-channel video installation. One screen plays an actual Vietnam War-era radio transmission of an Air Force B-52 fighter plane during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, another shows an elegant pencil drawing of a Native American man in a room where the sun is fading, and a third shows a California forest right after a wildfire — video the artist took in 2016 near his cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains when he was finally allowed to access the area again. Altogether the piece explores different meanings of “scorched earth.”


A still from James Benning’s “Found Fragments” (2016), a three-channel video installation that explores different meanings of “scorched earth.”CreditNeugerriemschneider, Berlin

The idea of a brutal land grab and scarred landscape also shapes the work of Mercedes Dorame, whose ancestry on her father’s side is Gabrielino-Tongva — Native Americans who settled the Los Angeles Basin over 5,000 years ago. The tribe, which was violently displaced by settlers, has yet to receive federal recognition. At the Hammer, Ms. Dorame is showing photographs documenting her father’s work as a cultural resource consultant, advising building developers on the significance and relocation of native artifacts or remains.

Interspersed are photographs of assemblages that she likes to make in the Malibu landscape, which look like a cross between the ephemeral twig or stone sculptures that Andy Goldsworthy creates outdoors and native ceremonial sites. One shows a bundle of sage, tied with a ceremonial red yarn, that she placed in an abalone shell.

“They are meant to be healing gestures,” she said. “They come from an impulse to made amends with the land, with these spaces that were witnesses to terrible things.”


“To the Land of the Dead — Shiishonga” (2017), a photograph by Mercedes Dorame showing one of her assemblages in nature.CreditMercedes Dorame

MPA, too, talks about a land and society in need of healing. She says that she is more optimistic than many about the current state of political affairs, believing in the value of fierce debate. The third component of her installation, accompanying her fault line and sunglasses, is a dividing wall with chairs planted on either side. It’s designed so you could speak to, or extend a hand to, whoever is on the other side.

“The fault line is actually a very productive place,” she said. “A fault can produce water in the desert, an oasis. So here’s this rigid collision, and it can produce the most essential thing to life.”

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