Wednesday, May 16, 2007

George Herms at FarmLab: Artists Reclaim Polluted Site

Yesterday, Friday, I went to the noon salon at Farmlab, an art-research gallery near the Cornfields in downtown Los Angeles to hear George Herms, one of Los Angeles leading sculptors, talk. I got of the Goldline train at Chinatown, and walked up a mile to Farmlab, turn into gallery where the food is being set up in long metal containers. I get in line to get my lunch. As usual the food is excellent: a fine green salad, white rice, a fish stew, and a bean dish. After chatting a while to the man on the left at the label, artist Lauren Bon introduced George Herms as the speaker in today's salon. She also said that as part of Farmlab she wants people to get to know each other by eating together--that is an excellent idea!

George Herms stood up to speak. He held up a tattered paper with the word "salon" on it, and then said he looked it up in his grandfather's dictionary, seeing various meanings including "saloon." He told us that he was a fan of Not a Cornfield, the art piece planting of acres of corn on the railroad junkyard called the Cornfields in order to redeem the sight. Lauren Bon and her Not as a Cornfield collaborators then transformed themselves into Farmlab, a six-month art- research project in a warehouse across the street which investigates art projects to redeem other trashed out sites in Los Angeles. Herms said he was asked to join so he went from being Fan-in-Residence to Artist-in-Residence.

Herms is quite wonderful and inspiring, from his combination of humility and brilliance. He said his work takes industrial junk and finds a second life for it as art in his sculptures called assemblage. He has been doing his assemblages for over 30 years in Los Angeles, transforming junk into whimsical, amusing, charming sculptures. He had done a number of assemblage sculptures in public spaces in Los Angeles. He said he is going to be Pied Piper leading the 40 or so salon members next door to the Garden of Brokenness exhibit next door. Herms put on a thin wooden piece shaped like a guitar around his neck, had chimes dangling from him, and blew into a metal horn as he started leading us all out the door. He was indeed a moving sculpture we all followed--a sculptural Pied Piper leading us into the gallery next door.

In the middle of the gallery the artists had erected a large wooden circle which many people could stand on which the artists called a carousel. Many of us walked on it. I sat down on a couch. There was furniture scattered randomly on the carousel: chairs, a couch, and tables. Hanging above the furniture was Herms junk sculptures. While Herms made the junk sculptures, Lauren Bon said she choose the furniture. In the middle was a circle of water along with camera obscura images of the Los Angeles River and music arose from the carousel. Alongside the carousel were junk cars outfitted by blooming plants. The Garden of Brokenness starts with a broken place, transforming some of the junk there into art of the garden. The Garden is a collaborative piece created by Herms, Lauren Bon, gardener Jaime Lopez Wolters, and composer Jeremy Mage as a proposal for the Confluence River Park for a new park on a site which is now a concrete river underneath a concrete bridge covered by graffiti.

The carousel seemed to say to be that when we redeem junked out sites like the Confluence Park, we shouldn't impose some ideal image of landscape or "tidy municipal geometry." Instead we should turn some of the junk at the site into art. Herms calls himself an environmentalist, transforming industrial trash into sculptures. That to me is an imaginative way to transform many sites in Los Angeles.

What was wonderful about the carousel is that sitting on the couch I was encouraged to talk to my seatmate, a young man named Steve. I was sitting in a sculpture that encouraged conversation. Bon said that Farmlab had proposed the naked carousel (just the bottom) for many other park-potential sites so the community could come and furnish the carousel the way they wished. To me that mean a democratic way for building parks in Los Angeles by asking communities to come to discuss how to turn their local trashed out site into a park. Art, democracy, and a carousel all flourish by the river as Herms, Bon, Wolters and Mage have constructed an amazing exhibit that led us come near the river to eat, talk, listen to others, see art, and discuss.

Also, since neighborhoods differ, the creators of the Garden of Brokenness wanted to set up empty carousels in a brownfields site, ask the neighbors to come and discuss around the carousel how they want the park to develop. So the Carousel is supposed to be a site for discussion of how the neighbors want the park to develop. The Garden of Brokenness is people coming together in broken urban spaces to begin to talk how to heal such spaces. So that's a magnificent way to begin to heal the broken city of Los Angeles, brownfields by brownfields, small trashed out space by trashed out space. Instead of turning over the spaces to city or state bureaucrats, instead asking the neighbors to come down to talk around the carousel. Farmlab is one of the most important art spaces now in Los Angeles.

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