'Cumulus': Water, Water Everywhere
Grand Central Art Center. The Annenberg Foundation. Two artists (one a fourth-generation farmer, the other a critically acclaimed filmmaker). An installation honoring the 100th anniversary of the rapacious Los Angeles Aqueduct, 373 miles of concrete and steel carrying water from the Owens Valley and Mono Basin to Los Angeles.
Sound like a snooze?
The first thing to catch the eye inside the darkened gallery playing host to "Cumulus" by Grand Central artists-in-residence Matthew Moore and Braden King is the cylindrical patchwork blanket of dim light and subtle movement. Projectors hanging from the ceiling and resting on a stage lazily project a plane's-eye view of the state's topography side by side with footage of slowly drifting puffs of white clouds. The projection screen is a muscular, room-length wooden "pipe" starting from the left wall, shooting like a massive bullet into the wall you face, driving down and eventually disappearing "underground." Looking straight ahead, it's as if you're aloft, the thigh-high black stage below it covered with a surface of dirt. The "ground" is smooth, save for several footprints.
Then you realize that the white noise you heard—the one that sounds like a loud air conditioner—is that of water rushing. Taking a seat at the lone bench inside the massive piece is a sensual marvel, a contemplative experience inviting free association. There's no grand statement—or at least nothing obvious—just a piece of art that provides a quiet place for you to turn your mind loose.
I spent half an hour in the gallery, soaking it in. The jumble of thoughts from my visit and a couple of hours on Google (in no particular order):
There really should be two benches inside the gallery.
The state we live in is a desert, so Southern California requires water from Northern Californa—as well as other states—in order to survive. When it takes water from those other regions, it has a tendency to throw things out of balance.
The title of the installation is ironic, as a cumulus cloud does not generally provide precipitation.
After LA drained its own local resources fairly quickly, William Mulholland—the man in charge of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power—started looking around for alternative sources.
You can smell the fresh earthiness of the dirt.
LA covertly bought up land rights in the Owens Valley, not telling the people it was planning to steal their water.
Without the water from the aqueduct, LA would not exist.
The wood constructing the "pipe" of the installation is used scaffolding planks, allowing for a variety of textures and grades, as well as a nifty analogy for the work put into city infrastructures.
If this was a movie, the image of Mulholland in a horse-drawn wagon, searching for water, would be accompanied by a heroic score.
In the movie Chinatown, the part everyone remembers is Jack Nicholson slapping around a sexually abused Faye Dunaway, but the real plot is about the profiteering that resulted from the water theft. It's been argued that the rape-y plotline is a metaphor for the dust bowling of the Owens Valley.
The footprints pressed into the installation's dirt made me think of the ingenuity of the moon walk, as well as the evil genius of Mulholland.
The bombings and other acts of sabotage by disgruntled farmers and citizens of the Owens Valley didn't make any substantial difference.
Speaking of urban sprawl, why does Santa Ana still require coins in its meters when the devices could have credit card readers? Who the hell carries change with them anymore?
Water diverted from its natural landscape creates cities. Cities create pollution. Pollution destroys natural landscapes.
There are more restaurants in Santa Ana's Artists Village than there is art.
The formerly lush Owens Lake has been ecologically devastated by the loss of its water, with heavy metals contaminating the land and toxic dust clouds choking the air. A lawsuit caused LA County to return some of the water in 2006, but the area is still in very bad shape.
Without LA and its pioneering of water diversion, Orange County would not exist.
Grand Central Art Center head Jon Spiak has a poetic knack for gathering the right artists, and I'm happy to say this follow-up to last month's Adriana Salazar exhibition is just as relevant. His pairing of Moore and King—who had never worked together before this—is inspired, the perfect blend of the men's strengths and interests. While I wish King and Moore had asked the tougher questions or perhaps asked them in a tougher way, this is, after all, supposed to be honoring the aqueduct. Having said that, there's no reason why their distillation of complex ideas into a single Zen image can't inspire you to think about the darker elements of our state's history.
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