Guest Opinion: Art in Captivity

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Billy Fried

I’ve always thought being an art, music, film or theater critic must be an awful gig. Who wants to be a crusher of dreams, a deflator of joy, a suppressor of empathy for the toil and hopes of the artist?

So let me be as kind as possible. Everyone worked hard and with the best intentions to continue the tradition of excellence with Laguna Museum’s “Art in Nature” event this past weekend. Artist Rebecca Mendez did what she could when told she could not produce an outdoor exhibit of “leaking” DDT barrels signifying the thousands (or perhaps hundreds of thousands) of barrels discovered across our sea floor, dumped 12 miles off our coast by what was once the nation’s largest DDT manufacturer. Rebecca’s plan was to embed touch screens on these barrels that told the story and to arrange them as if they had washed ashore.

This was intended for the 2021 “Art in Nature” exhibit and had it run, it would have been wildly impactful and prescient, owing to the horrendous oil spill off our coast by Amplify Energy the month before. Wow! But incoming Laguna Beach Museum Director Julie Perlin Lee had no idea of the gauntlet of bureaucracy she would run into trying to get this approved. She was warned it might be too radical, that tourist-facing businesses might object, and that the California Department of Fish and Game may reject it because Main Beach is a designated Marine Reserve.

Say what!? Yes, it seems our Laguna Beach Arts Commission discouraged the work on aesthetic grounds, and with a dubious caution that Fish and Game might put the kibosh on it, despite it being a temporary exhibit that does nothing to alter the sea. Julie was warned that there would be many layers of approval, and the questionable subject matter might not auger well for her freshman outing as museum director.

So an art installation whose very name implies outdoor integration was moved inside. For the second year in a row. And while Rebecca should be commended for pivoting to an immersive, six-screen surround film of the actual DDT barrels on the ocean floor, with beautiful slow-motion footage of divers descending the blue/green depths and golden kelp, the museum is decidedly not the place for video installations. It looked more like a high school gymnasium, with curtains tacked over the doors and projection that lacked crispness and color. 

And, in a last-minute effort to infuse some kind of nature into art, artist Kelly Berg was recruited to produce 7 “Pyramidions,” a sculpture installation spread across Main Beach and Heisler Park. Sheathed in vinyl wrap, they emitted a spectrum of colors against the changing daylight. Interesting, but hardly the kind of ambitious, interactive installations we’ve enjoyed in the past.

Who can forget Lita Albuquerque’s 2014 “An Elongated Now” performance, with 200 volunteers in white spread across Main Beach. Or Laddie John Dill’s 2015 “Electric Light Blanket,” with lasers dancing across Main Beach and into the Pacific. Or Philip K Smith’s mesmerizing 2016 “1/4 mile Arc,” 250 stainless steel posts that brought wonder and astonishment to the unsuspecting beachgoers. Performance. Light. And shape. That’s art in nature. Then all three were incorporated in Elizabeth Turk’s 2018 “Shoreline Project,” with hundreds of dancers moving mirthfully through the sand with LED-lit umbrellas. The stunning visual was rivaled two years later with Patrick Shearn’s “Sunset Terrace,” the kinetic, rainbow-hued installation above Heisler Park that evoked schools of fish or flocks of birds.

But this is where we are now. It appears the Arts Commission decided that a provocative and disturbing installation had no place in the tourist-friendly environs of Laguna Beach. However, when I asked staff liaison Sian Poeschl to explain, she replied, “The museum was not discouraged; rather informed of the challenges they would need to address.” 

Informed feels very different than supportive.  

This begs the question, why does the Arts Commission have to be consulted first? Sian says, “The Arts Commission assists in obtaining all necessary review and approval for installations presented on City property.” But this doesn’t feel like an assist as much as a roadblock. Why can’t the museum simply go to the Planning Commission and apply for a TUP like everyone else? 

There seems to be a war waged against art in our town. While Palm Springs is hitting the cover off the ball with the massive and prolific installations of Desert X, we remain mired in pretty landscapes for tourists to buy. We decry the first ever artist live/work project of 30 units as too big, while we price out real artists from living here.

We choose saccharine over salt. Comfort over challenge. And in the end, we all suffer. But this is what happens when you leave decision-making to a committee that is out of touch with what art is actually here for – to reflect reality back to us. To move, challenge and affect us in emotional and visceral ways to see and feel the world more acutely. Sadly, this Arts Commission seems more beholden to commerce and our Visitors Bureau than to the artists themselves.

Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected]

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