Light and Space

Kate Sutton at LACMA’s 5th Art+Film Gala

Left: LACMA director Michael Govan with filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu. (Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images) Right: Artist James Turrell. (Except where noted, all photos: BFAnyc.com)

EARLIER THIS YEAR, after getting grilled over delays on his latest project, The Revenant, filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu reasoned: “Nobody will go to a movie because the guys were on schedule and on budget. Mission and ambition should never be compromised.”

If you took Iñárritu’s advocacy for taking one’s time with a project and multiplied it by, say, forty years, you would have James Turrell’s Roden Crater. The artist has been working since the early 1970s to convert an extinct cinder volcano in the Painted Desert into “a controlled environment for the experiencing and contemplation of light.” While over thirty-five million cubic feet of ash and earth has been dug out so far, the crater’s network of tunnels and viewing platforms are still at least five years from completion. Last week, the project got a fresh push thanks to a revamped website and the announcement that the Guggenheim’s Yvette Lee had been brought on board as Roden Crater’s executive director. (Well that and, um, Drake.)

Iñárritu and Turrell were brought together last Saturday as the honorees of LACMA’s fifth Art+Film Gala, an annual event that seeks to cement the institution’s commitment to film. One of this year’s gala attendees, actor and ideal man Joshua Jackson, may have said it best: “I don’t think you could put a dividing line between the two mediums. So much of what happens in there”—motioning toward the museum—“informs what we do in the movies, and vice versa.”

Left: ForYourArt's Bettina Korek with artist Alex Israel. Right: Nana Bahlmann with artists Thomas Demand and Doug Aitken.

LACMA has been steadily helping others make this connection through genre-bending exhibitions by artists and filmmakers like Agnès Varda, Tim Burton, Stanley Kubrick, and masterful cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Up next is a solo exhibition by Diana Thater, an underrecognized pioneer in new-media art. “It’s the largest show by a woman LACMA has ever had,” curator Christine Y. Kim proudly told me, before conceding that this was partially due to the sheer scale of Thater’s room-swallowing installations. “As far as LACMA’s record, we still have some work to do,” Kim admitted. So does Thater. “For each exhibition, I want the piece to be the most updated it can be, so as not to fetishize the technology,” Thater explained. “This means every work has to be made in a way that can be constantly upgraded.”

Speaking of one-upping, this year’s Art+Film Gala marked the fifth year the event had been chaired by Eva Chow and Leonardo DiCaprio and sponsored by Gucci, which has picked up some momentum of its own courtesy of newly christened creative director Alessandro Michele. Cocktail hour was dedicated to Gucci-spotting, from the floor-length florals on Katherine Ross and Chow, to Salma Hayek’s Miss Kitty–meets–Hello Kitty bustier dress, to Dakota Johnson’s self-described “summertime Wednesday Adams look.” Moschino’s Jeremy Scott and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci were on hand too, but Michele may as well have been the evening’s third honoree. With the addition of an Inez&Vinoodh photobooth—“We’re doing that!” patron Alia Al-Senussi exclaimed, tugging at Abdullah Al-Turki’s hand—the event could have just as easily been called the Art+Film+Fashion Gala. “It’s the West Coast’s Met Gala,” one distinguished-ish guest informed her companion, repeating an increasingly popular catchphrase.

Even as it blurs what boundaries remain between art and entertainment, LACMA has solidified its core group of supporters, ranging from celebrity regulars Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Amber Valletta to collectors Eugenio López, Elaine Wynn, and Benedikt Taschen to dealers Shaun Caley Regen, Almine Rech, and Michael Kohn, to LA wonders like ForYourArt’s Bettina Korek. Already accustomed to the glitterati, artists including Tacita Dean, Thomas Demand, and Sam Durant stuck close to the bars, while previous Art+Film honorees Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari held court in the couch area. The smoking zones (not necessarily limited to cigarettes—this is California) featured mushroom circles of younger artists like Alex Israel, Nicole Miller, Ed Fornieles, and Liz Glynn, whose “Myth of Singularity”—eight sculptures produced during her 2013 performance series [de]-lusions of Grandeur—is on view through May.

Left: Ricky Saiz, Chloë Sevigny, Julie Burleigh, Oliver Hill Opie, and Catherine Opie. Right: Artists Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason.

At the close of cocktails, the six hundred guests were ushered into a grand tent, where long tables were laden with grilled paddle cactus, empanadas, and mezcal-marinated hanger steak prepared by Patina chef Joachim Splichal. Bottles of Casamigos were stationed at intervals along each table, averaging about one fifth for every six people. There is a reason tequila is not the go-to beverage of galas. As if the presence of an aggressively pregnant Kim Kardashian West (arriving on the arm of Naomi Campbell, no less) hadn’t been disorienting enough, the tequila ensured that conversations got sloppy fast. Enthusiastic Jurassic Park/Roden Crater comparisons aside, around the room you could see the crowd getting visibly tipsier, with more than a few “situations” being “handled” as discreetly as one can in a room full of photographers. “I’m pretty sure there was a woman sitting under our table earlier,” artist Elliott Hundley mused. LACMA curator Jarrett Gregory nodded: “There was.”

Unintentional entertainment aside, the focus of the evening remained its honorees. After introductory remarks by Michael Govan and Chow, singer-songwriter, producer, and sound track maker extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett introduced Turrell. “James wasn’t just inspired by the projection, but by the beam of light,” he told the audience. “In James’s hands, the sky is not blue, the color is what he wants you to see.”

Turrell was more playful. “I remember it being said that New York was the city of culture, and Los Angeles was the city of entertainment. I was early on in my career criticized by Clement Greenberg because my work was theatrical. I asked, ‘And… what’s the criticism?’ ” Lauding the transformation he had witnessed in the LA scene (and lamenting that he had moved away before he could take part in it), the artist left the stage with the triumphal—if wince-worthy—affirmation: “I am no longer LACMA-intolerant.”

After DiCaprio declared Turrell’s Perceptual Cell “the most existential observer experience I have had,” Iñárritu followed with a few words of his own about Turrell. “We, as filmmakers, use light to reveal our stories. But for Mr. Turrell, light is the revelation itself, and that is sublime.”

Left: Hari Nef. Right: Gala cochair Eva Chow, Naomi Campbell, and Kim Kardashian West.

It was Iñárritu’s turn to be revealing, delivering a speech potent enough to cut through the tequila haze. He introduced himself as from “the Rome of North America,” Mexico City. “For the last fourteen years, I have been living in Los Angeles—along with more than two million Mexicans—and I have witnessed how the LACMA museum, since Michael Govan and his team arrived, has changed the cultural dynamics of this city.”

Pleasantries out of the way, he cut to the chase: “We are the only creatures on planet Earth that want to see ourselves in the mirror. Because we know we are the same, but we are different, we need to share. We need to see ourselves projected in other members of our species to, in turn, understand ourselves. Cinema is that mirror. It is a bridge between the others and us. Unfortunately, there are currently people proposing we build walls instead of bridges. I must confess that I debated with myself, if I should bring up this uncomfortable subject tonight. But in light of the constant and relentless xenophobic comments that have been expressed recently against my Mexican fellows, it is inevitable.”

Namechecking Donald Trump’s SNL appearance scheduled for that same night, the director continued: “Words have real power. And similar words in the past have both created and triggered enormous suffering for millions of humans beings, especially throughout the last century. If we continue to allow these words to water seeds of hate, and spread inferior thoughts and unwholesome emotions around the world to every human being, not only will millions of Mexicans and Latin American immigrants be in danger, but immigrants around the world now suffering will share the same dangerous fate.”

“There is no human being who, as a result of desiring to build a better life, should be named or declared ‘illegal,’ and be dispossessed or considered disposable,” Iñárritu concluded, suggesting substituting the term “Undocumented Dreamers.”

“By naming them that, we can instead start a real and human conversation for a solution, with the most precious, forgotten, and distinguished emotion a human being can have: compassion.”

Left: Artist Urs Fischer and Tara Subkoff. Right: Usher and RETNA.

It was a tough act to follow. Headliner Sam Smith elected not to, as a sudden cold prevented him from performing. “That’s the cool thing about LA,” Govan assured a crowd that included Usher, Psy, Argentinean singer-songwriter Mia Maestro, Jared Leto (he sings), Paltrow (apparently she does too), and of course, Burnett. “I made a call around 5 PM to T-Bone Burnett and said, ‘Sam’s sick. What are we going to do?’ and T-Bone said, ‘I’m going to call Joe Walsh.’ ”

To save some of you a Google, Walsh is a virtuoso guitarist best known for his work with the Eagles. While the Gucci crowds looked baffled (“I had to explain to my wife who the Eagles were,” a young producer confided, mourning the $10,000 splashed out on their tickets), I did notice some fists pumping at the older money tables. “This is so much better than the other acts they’ve had!” the oldest white guy at our table bellowed, as others started to eye the exit, their iPhones, or both. While Walsh might not have been a Bond-bard, he proved a consummate entertainer, interjecting humorous asides into his performance. He annotated lines from “Life’s Been Good to Me” with chirpy affirmations—“that happened,” “that part’s true”—before addending “My Maserati does one-eighty-five / I lost my license, now I don’t drive,” with “That’s not all true, I just lost my wallet.”

By the time the waitstaff brought out platters of churros, most of the tables had emptied, the Casamigos cleared. I passed Catherine Opie on the way out and she raised a bottle in salute. Over her shoulder I noticed a rogue Noah Purifoy statue, temporarily borrowed from the late artist’s Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculptures—speaking of massive art-undertakings in the desert…—for “Junk Dada,” Purifoy’s powerful retrospective on view upstairs. Titled Ode to Frank Gehry, the piece sat in front of the entrance to the museum’s Gehry exhibition. It looked like it could use a drink.