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Arts on Fire

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By Kristine Breese, Photos by Everard Williams

Published Jan 1, 2010 9:00 AM


On the page. In strip malls. On the screen. On the streets. In gardens. On flip-flops. On walls. In the desert. On money. On subways. Even huddled with Walt Disney's legendary Imagineers designing the theme parks of tomorrow. In 2010, UCLA's renowned creative stars in the School of the Arts and Architecture, the Hammer Museum and the Fowler Museum supercharge their efforts to create works of lasting beauty that also play a powerful role in the ongoing experiment that is human society.

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A shot from Catherine Opie's series on mini-malls, which features people-less, black-and-white urban scenes shot in Los Angeles and Chicago at night or in the early morning without any human activity.

Like beauty, "art" is fluid, infinitely changing in the eye of every beholder. We all celebrate the artistry — and artistic impact — of UCLA Live, the Hammer Museum, the Fowler Museum and other high-profile hotbeds of creativity that emanate from UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture, but that's not good enough for the boundary-pushing, internationally acclaimed school. It wants to rethink the very definition of what people call beautiful ... and what's considered art.

And in 2010, UCLA Arts, which houses disciplines as diverse as media arts and ethnomusicology, embarks on an ambitious mission to bring fascinating projects to life all across Los Angeles — and as far away as India.

The school is setting its creative sights on subjects as varied as AIDS education, urban renewal, rebranding Los Angeles and conceptualizing the theme park of the future, all while simultaneously pursuing traditional activities such as commissioning concerts, staging plays and curating gallery space. The goal: Create the future of how we engage with and rely on art in our lives.

"That's what it means to be a Bruin and an Angeleno," says Christopher Waterman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture. "This is a multicentric place of discovery and creativity. Do I mean UCLA? Do I mean Los Angeles? Take your pick. It's both ... or either ... art is never just about entertainment, solving societal problems, building community or self-expression. By definition, art is about all these things."

As a professional musician with a doctorate in anthropology, Waterman says he was "predisposed to look at art this way" when he arrived in Westwood six years ago, "but the sheer scope, energy, ambition and vision of our faculty amazed me from the start. It still does."

IN WALT'S WORKSHOP

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Among the projects coming out of Arts is cityLAB's fascinating "WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture" competition, in which teams from more than a dozen countries are asked to envision creative ways to use art to enhance infrastructure — such as these flights of imagination using city water resources to help revive depopulated cities, beautify urban beaches and pools and undo ecological damage.

UCLA professor and renowned architect Greg Lynn is taking 14 students through a course whose final product will be ruminations on the evolution of resorts, ships and amusement parks, and whose partner is none other than Walt Disney Imagineering. "The company is already designing the roller coasters of the future," says Lynn. "What Disney is asking us to imagine is, what's the artistic and contextual experience that goes along with those rides: the eating, shopping, even waiting in line."

For example, Lynn's students spent the first quarter designing a dynamic park gateway that embraces digital media and robotic movement. This quarter they're redesigning the plaza, entry and movement around and through the Epcot sphere and a full array of resort amenities, from caf├ęs to landscaping. They are reimagining and updating the global themes of Epcot with contemporary concerns for energy, environment, communication and technology. Lynn says that the Disney project stretches architecture students — and working professionals — because they're more apt to think about how a single person moves through a space, while Disney looks at families, groups and crowds.

"We're designing for a collection of people, possibly ranging in age from 2 to 80, with individual as well as collective needs and interests," he explains.

But is that art? Lynn thinks so. "Art and architecture have always been part of the Disney tradition," he says. "Think about Tomorrowland just for a moment. Back in the fifties, that whole thing was an amazing exercise of art and design in support of imagination."

THE STRIP-MALL SENSIBILITY

Imagination is also at play in the work of School of the Arts and Architecture professor and famed photographer Catherine Opie. A series of photographs that she took of Los Angeles-area mini-malls back in 1995 are now on display through June at the Getty Museum as part of the Urban Panoramas exhibition.

"To take something as maligned as the strip mall and consider it as art certainly surprised some people," she says. "But art is meant to do that."

Opie included her inkjet prints from scans of 7x17-inch negatives of strip-mall photos as part of an "American Cities" series in which she crossed the country looking for "specificity of identity," a particular image that defines a place.

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Among the world-famous faculty at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television is Marina Goldovskaya, one of Russia's best-known documentarians. This shot is from her famous 1988 film Solovki Power, a searing film about the first Soviet prison camp, which became the model for the dreaded gulags that followed.

"In L.A., the mini-mall can be seen as the basis of community, allowing for the reiteration of the American Dream," the artist explains, where immigrants can get a toehold on the ladder and small-scale entrepreneurs can give neighborhoods a personality that suburbs lack when they "turn all their commerce over to Jamba Juice and Starbucks."

Opie, who's been teaching at UCLA since 2002, when she was "stolen away from Yale," is currently working on a new series of photos about high school football, conceiving of the players and their field of play as extensions of the American landscape. In Los Angeles, she's turned her lens on Fairfax and Crenshaw high schools.

"High school football is about people and place and event, every Friday night, and it's also about some shared values in America," she says. "You wouldn't believe how many fathers in this country want their boys to grow up to be football players," she says, adding a bit wistfully, "I wish I could say the same for art.

"It takes a lot of courage for students to pursue their passion for the arts," Opie concludes. "I notice it mostly with the undergrads. They can be very nervous about stating that they want to be artists. Many are terribly worried about what their parents will think."

Indeed, she says that many students she teaches can only manage to study art if they pursue it as a double major with, say, biology. UCLA Arts reports that about 10 percent of its undergraduate students double-major.

"Their parents want them to be something 'sensible,' so if they pursue art at all, many do it as an adjunct to science and other courses their parents want them to take," says Opie. "And it's really tough."

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