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16 high-intensity lasers, 800 pounds of blood-red thread: The Hammer goes big in immersive new spaces


The exterior of the Hammer Museum is hidden in silver sheets of rain and thick fog today. But inside, the atmosphere is even more dramatic.

The lobby is completely wrapped in an intricate web of blood-red thread. Lace fringes hang from the ceiling and climb up the walls. Strands of the material wrap around the stair railings and spread across the ceiling, like a mushroom, almost obscuring it.

Meanwhile, in another area of ​​the museum — a cavernous former bank space turned into an exhibition gallery – there’s what appears to be a glittering, time-traveling wormhole. The dimly lit gallery fills with mist oozing from ceiling jets and glowing neon green lasers slice through the mist, illuminating it along with clouds of dust floating in the air.

The unusual environments in the bank’s lobby and gallery are large-scale immersive installations by the Japanese artist. chiharu shiota and rita mcbride, respectively. The Hammer is unveiling the final phase of its two-decade, $90 million expansion and renovation project, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, this week. In addition to a new sculpture terrace, featuring a monumental piece by Sanford Biggers, the project includes a new lobby and entrance at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards and a massive gallery for large-scale works and performances, among other uses, in the former City National Bank space next door.

It’s a critical time for the museum, and Shiota and McBride are the perfect artists to create the inaugural works for the new spaces that house them, says Hammer curator Erin Christovale.

“We work with ambitious artists who are women who are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is considered women’s work, pushing the boundaries of sculpture and installation,” says Christovale. “And I think that’s what Hammer has always stood for: supporting, in particular, women and having a feminist bent.”

The artist Chiharu Shiota working on her installation, “The Network”.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Being inside Shiota’s “The Network” feels like nesting inside a human heart valve. Vein-like thread strands form canopies over the lobby stairwell, so that visitors must pass through tunnels to enter the museum. As the installation is underway, spools of thread lie on the concrete floor around the foyer and mounds of loose thread sit in the corners.

based in Berlin Shiota, who started out as a painter, sees the work as a sculptural, three-dimensional “drawing in space”.

She says that the work, as its title suggests, is about connections: community networks, neural networks, computer networks. The origin story of the work is a Japanese myth, she says. As she tells the story: when a baby is born, she has an imaginary piece of red string attached to her finger that then connects to everyone she meets in her life.

“If you live in society, everyone is connected by an invisible line,” says Shiota.

The piece is also site specific and relates to the museum at this important moment in its history. The web of thread that runs through the lobby references the connections between the artist, her team, the Hammer, and the visitors that will fill it. It also relates to endless interpretations of the many works of art on display at the Hammer.

“People who come to the museum, contemporary art doesn’t have (standard interpretation),” says Shiota. “Everyone can think freely. It’s open. 100 people, 100 opinions. different types of emotions.

Thread used by the artist Chiharu Shiota for her large-scale installation, "Network."

Thread used by artist Chiharu Shiota for her large-scale installation, “The Network”.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

String nets are Shiota’s signature materials, says Christovale, who curated “The Network.” Shiota presented a similar piece at the 2015 Venice Biennale. She is drawn to yarn for its versatility, she says. “I like this material because sometimes it gets tangled, sometimes you cut it, you lose it or there is tension. It’s like relationships between human beings.”

To make the piece, the Hammer brought 800 pounds of thread. Shiota and his team have been weaving for two weeks; it will have taken three weeks by the time the piece opens.

Sitting in a covered part of the museum courtyard as the rain pours down around her, Shiota fiddles with a ball of yarn in her lap, repeatedly winding, twisting, and winding the yarn between her fingertips. “Look, you can see it through the glass!” she tells her about the artwork, as she crosses the courtyard and returns to the foyer.

She is especially excited, she says, by how visible the work is from the street. The old hall had fewer and smaller windows; the new space has soaring windows along the wall facing Wilshire. From the outside, Shiota’s bright red artwork stands out against the building’s gray and beige exterior and is visible to passersby on foot and in their cars.

“It’s very important, that quick impression,” she says. “People driving by might want to go inside. Then (they get curious) and they think, ‘Oh, art is interesting.’”

Laser installation by artist Rita McBride, "particles."

Laser installation by artist Rita McBride, “Particulates”.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

In the old bank, all is quiet, dark, and eerily still before the lights come on. Then, in an instant, the space transforms into an ethereal, sci-fi-like setting. The focus of McBride’s “Particulates” is a black painted wall with a giant cylindrical cutout and a cluster of 16 high-intensity green lasers shooting through it. They intertwine, forming a three-dimensional-looking beam made up of geometric patterns: a rotated hyperbolic parabola. . The bright beam morphs, depending on the angle from which the piece is viewed – elongated and tunnel-shaped from one angle, twisted and more compact from another – giving the light work an almost organic sense of life.

Lasers come to life where they intersect with mist and dust particles in the air, appearing especially bright and animated. The work it is reflected in the surfaces of the room, with cross sections shining against the bank vault, walls and windows, even through the windows, to the Biggers sculpture outside and the sidewalk beyond.

The artist, who divides her time between Düsseldorf, Germany, and Los Alamos, California, sees the work as an immersive sculptural installation that is also a drawing in space. She asked Hammer to keep much of the bank space “raw” while the museum was undergoing renovations. The architect preserved the wood veneer wall panels, marble administrative counters, original marble terrazzo floor, and bank vault. The museum sanded and resurfaced the floor directly below the lasers, so that water would collect there and create a reflective surface.

“Rita’s work is almost always related to architecture,” says Hammer’s chief curator, Connie Butler, who curated this presentation of “Particles”. “She wanted the residue of corporate ruin.”

In that way, “Particulates” is not only site-specific but also site-integrative, with remnants of the bank space (the debris left behind) serving as material in the artwork in addition to lasers, fog, and particles. of dust. .

“I was excited to have a somewhat politically charged space — banks are charged spaces,” says McBride. “The vocabulary of this space was very specific in terms of marble, granite and panelling, it felt very 80s to me, and I wanted to keep some of that vocabulary in mind rather than reduce everything to a black or white cube. cube, things that would make it more neutral.”

The work also deals with time travel, light and space, connections and quantum physics.

“It’s about this possibility of being able to connect with unknown places,” says McBride. “Black holes and traveling these distances that we don’t know or where they take us. It’s also an opportunity to step out of momentum consciousness and imagine a much bigger universe.”

Artist Rita McBride poses with her laser installation at the Hammer Museum.  (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Artist Rita McBride asked Hammer to keep much of the bench space “raw” while the museum was renovating for its laser installation, “Particulates.”

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

A version of “Particulates” was shown at the 2016 Liverpool Biennale; another was presented at the Dia Art Foundation in 2017. Both exhibitions were held in closed spaces without windows. The bank’s gallery includes nearly floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, which are heavily tinted for this exhibition so that the gallery remains dark and the lasers fire.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to work with real life,” says McBride.

As such, the work changes with the weather, the humidity of the air, the time of day and the light. “I’m working with light in a different way, daylight,” says McBride. “It changes every time. It’s incredibly flexible and beautiful.”

The work is part of Hammer’s permanent collection, but the museum has never shown it before, not having a large enough space until now. He plans to use the bank’s gallery for other large-scale works in the collection that have not yet been shown. “It works when the scale is right,” Butler says. “Or that would just look great in a space like this, a semi-raw space with high ceilings.”

That includes a tall, heavy sculpture by Lauren Halsey, a monument to black history, and a multiscreen video installation by Paul Chan.

While “The Network” and “Particulates” Are Completely Different Works of Art — the first more tactile and textural and the second more digital and ephemeral — they seem to be in a direct conversation. Both are made up of intertwined threads (webs) that evoke powerful and visceral reactions.

And both works, for the Hammer Museum’s new debut, are about connections.

“They set the tone,” says Christovale. “That we are taking a leap.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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