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PRINT January 2009

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Jorge Pardo’s exhibition design at LACMA

IN THE AFTERMATH of the 1521 conquest of central Mexico, a Spanish Franciscan working in New Spain asked his Aztec informants about a place they called Oztotl, which in their language translates as “cave.” The friar’s sources replied that Oztotl was a place where “our mothers, our fathers have gone; they have gone to rest in the water, in the cave, the place of no openings, the place of no smoke hole, the place of the dead.” The Aztecs believed that upon death they would be swallowed up by the earth, which was envisioned as a giant amphibian floating in an all-encompassing ocean. Through cavernous jaws the dead would descend to the innermost region of the creature’s body. On the way down the deceased would pass through eight successive stations, or “layers,” of the underworld, each presenting a unique challenge to the frightened traveler. The precarious journey did not end until the dead had finally reached the ninth and bottommost layer, a watery, cavelike “place of no exit” commonly known as Mictlan.

I am reminded of the Aztecs’ travels to Mictlan each time I visit the new installation of pre-Columbian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Designed by the Cuban-born LA sculptor and designer Jorge Pardo at the request of Michael Govan, LACMA’s innovative director, the installation seems intuitively to capture some aspects of the ancient American belief in a compressed space located deep within the heaving innards of a living, breathing organism. I do not know whether Pardo knew about Mictlan before he began this project, or, if he did, whether he consciously tried to match his design to pre-Columbian cosmography. I think it fair to say, however, that although some aspects of his design seem disturbingly out of place in a gallery of pre-Columbian artworks, Pardo has captured something of the Aztec vision of a stepped, tunnel-like passage into the dark bowels of an aqueous, embodied earth.

This impression largely derives from the layout of the gallery and Pardo’s undulating wall forms, which are made of laser-cut, medium-density fiberboard. The forms frame and bend around the entrance to the exhibition space to pull, almost suck, the visitor into the first of three consecutive rooms devoted to the museum’s substantial pre-Columbian collection. The entrances and exits of these rooms are aligned along a central axis so that we can see, from the first doorway, not only into the second and third rooms, but also beyond, into a darker, shallower, very different kind of space that appears to be our final destination. Each of the three pre-Columbian rooms is differentiated from the others by its color scheme, which further brings to mind the successive strata of the Aztec underworld.

In the first room, which is dedicated to the art of Mesoamerica, these organic, sand-colored fiberboard door frames transform seamlessly into bulging coverings for the lower halves of the walls, framing the rectangular wall cases containing the artworks. (The wall cases throughout the rooms have been arranged by LACMA curator Virginia Fields according to themes such as “The Constructed Landscape,” “The Mesoamerican Ballgame,” and “Ritual Life and Supernatural Patrons.”) The sensation that we are being propelled through the room in waves, much as food is propelled through the digestive tract, is enhanced by the Plexiglas that covers the front of each wall case. These windows bend and swell in tune with the fiberboard walls surrounding them. Plexiglas likewise wraps around the upper parts of the freestanding sculptural pedestals that erupt unpredictably from the blond wood floor. These pedestals support some of LACMA’s most impressive pieces, among them a finely carved basalt statue of the Aztec god Xipe Totec (ca. 1400–1521) in the first room. The statue’s compact form and rolling surfaces minimally interrupted by shallow detail, like those of the other, mostly ceramic objects on display, resonate with the smooth surfaces of Pardo’s wall panels and pedestals. In this regard, his installation can be said to reflect the pre-Columbian aesthetic. Unfortunately, however, because the undulating Plexiglas generates reflections, his design obscures the view of some of the artworks. As a result, the viewer’s attention is involuntarily deflected away from the objects on display toward the designer’s installation itself. As we will see, this problem is compounded by several other features of the design.

Nonetheless, because Pardo’s wall and pedestal forms were constructed of stacked layers of fiberboard, they, too, remind me of the Aztecs’ layered underworld. Here the layers are separated by narrow, horizontal crevices, which read as dark lines, pulling the visitor’s eye around each pedestal and forward along the walls toward the next display and room. At the first room’s far end, the rushing, warped walls bend around the door frame to propel the visitor into the second room, which is devoted to the art of Central America and northwestern South America. The same effect is experienced at that room’s back door, where the visitor is drawn into the last room in the pre-Columbian gallery, which features LACMA’s spectacular collection of ceramic figurines and models from West Mexico. Pardo’s layered wall panels also bring to mind the typical Mesoamerican temple pyramid, in which the pyramidal base was constructed of superimposed tiers. The analogy is reinforced by the tiered miniature platforms set on top of Pardo’s pedestal platforms to elevate some of the smaller artworks. Mesoamerican temples typically sat atop a pyramidal base that in turn rested on a broader platform. Not surprisingly, many scholars today believe that the tiers of these temple pyramids symbolized the layers of the Aztec universe.

But how deliberate were these formal correspondences? Certainly, Pardo’s interest in layered effects can be seen in some of his earlier projects, which belie any suspicion that his use of them at LACMA was primarily inspired by pre-Columbian cosmographies. Moreover, any evidence of a sensitivity to the aesthetic of the art- works on display is jarringly absent from the gathered taffeta curtains that hang halfway down each wall to meet with the top of the fiberboard panels below. These curtains shade to left and right into lighter or darker hues, but in each room are cued to the paint colors used for the wall and pedestal cases. Although the palette in each room is distinct, overall Pardo has favored warm shades of terra cotta, sandy beige, and caramel yellow combined with a disturbingly strident chartreuse. In the third and final room, the prevailing color is this discordant yellow-green. I say discordant because, for most Mesoamerican and Andean peoples, the preferred “cool” color was never a bright yellow-green but instead a soft indigo blue, blue-green, or turquoise. The last can be seen in the first room, in the tiny turquoise tesserae remaining on a Mixtec mosaic-covered human skull (ca. 1400–1521). Pardo’s chartreuse, in contrast, is conspicuously absent from the entire collection of artworks on display.

Nor did pre-Columbian peoples, to our knowledge, hang shiny gathered curtains on their walls. (They did hang textiles, but there is no evidence that these were gathered into folds.) Their fabrics were woven of cotton, maguey fiber, or (in the Andes) camelid wool—never of the silken, satin threads that make up taffeta. In no way, therefore, do the tightly woven, often delicately embroidered pre-Columbian textiles that have come down to us resemble taffeta in appearance or feel. It is, however, the verticality of Pardo’s curtains, falling in large folds that press down on the horizontally striated fiberboard below, that creates the impression of a compressed space reminiscent of the Aztec passage to Mictlan. Several of my friends who have never been initiated into the arcane cosmography of the pre-Columbian world described Pardo’s rooms as being like the “interior of a submarine” or the “bottom of the ocean.” But those curtains also provide clear evidence that Pardo was not consciously, or at least not consistently, trying to match his design to the artistic preferences of the cultures on display. Like his frequent use of chartreuse, Pardo’s curtains speak to an aesthetic ultimately at odds with that of pre-Columbian Americans.

If one were still not convinced of this, one need only look straight up at the row of hanging lamps running down the center of each room’s ceiling. Pardo’s light fixtures, which play with Poul Henningsen’s famous Artichoke lamp in their shingled layers of perforated plastic “leaves,” send so much red, orange, yellow, and chartreuse light into the painted wall cases that in places the objects appear to have absorbed it. The light, in other words, alters the natural hue of some of the objects. Although color, a hallmark of Pardo’s sculptural style, certainly works here to enliven the three rooms, the intensity of his brightly tinted lights—a feature familiar from his earlier work—in places upstages the soft, earthen colors of the ancient artworks themselves. The reds are redder than the red clays of the ceramic pieces, the oranges more orange. Even the cream-colored lights softened by paper inserts that shine into the wall cases from stylishly cut openings in their ceilings fail to ameliorate this effect. The ceiling lamps thus collaborate with the undulating, reflective Plexiglas cases to draw attention away from some of the pieces in the gallery rather than to foreground them. The light shed by these fixtures, moreover, is uneven; some pieces, like the eighth-century Mayan wall panel in the first room, are inadequately lit.

Much of what we see in this exhibition, then, seems to be more about Pardo than about the artworks on display. But wasn’t that the point? Pardo’s installation is itself a work of art, one that stands on its own as exciting and, arguably, important. Moreover, because Pardo is a living artist, his design converts a section of the museum’s floor space—regardless of the period and place of manufacture of the artworks on display there—into a site of contemporary art. Rendering a display of the art of the past in a mode that is distinctly modern is clearly part of a trend, for Pardo’s is not the first LACMA installation to be designed by a contemp rary artist—nor, I’m told, will it be the last. LACMA’s clever, often tongue-in-cheek 2006 exhibition “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images,” another project spearheaded by Govan, was designed in collaboration with Conceptual artist John Baldessari. Prior to the LACMA renovation, moreover, Pardo’s Project, 2000, had used bright color and light to help blur the boundaries between entryway, bookstore, and reading room on the first floor of New York’s Dia Center for the Arts (where Govan was director at the time). There, the institution itself became a work of contemporary art.

The articulated rationale for this practice is that the artistic attention paid to the space of display valorizes the artworks showcased. The museum or gallery, in other words, is removed from the conventional domain of institutional architecture and relocated to the rarefied world of fine art and sculptural design. The transformation is expected to enhance public interest in the collection itself. In the case of LACMA’s pre-Columbian artworks, the unarticulated assumption must have been that those objects—which were made hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years ago, and about which, for the most part, little is known—would seem more interesting and relevant if showcased according to the tastes of the present. More and more people would be enticed to the site, it was no doubt hoped, raising the museum’s profile and popularity and in the process enhancing its coffers.

But the conversion of a distant and foreign past into a glamorous present can accomplish something else as well. It can divert our attention from the often sobering truth about the origins and modes of acquisition of many of the artworks being so “honored.” In the case of pre-Columbian art, all of the pieces on display in any museum in this country were, by definition, at some point removed from their country of origin, many in a surreptitious (and even illicit) manner. This is the case even for objects acquired after the United States signed treaties prohibiting such appropriations in the 1970s. Although the matter is too complicated for me to explore fully here, the presumptive legality of acquisitions made subsequent to the 1970 US-Mexico Treaty of Cooperation helps paper over the reality that most, if not all, of these pieces arrived here without the blessing of their country of origin. Of LACMA’s stunning West Mexican ceramics, for example, it can be assumed that most, perhaps all, were originally ripped from tombs dating to the first millennia BCE and CE by people lacking scientific and scholarly credentials. These looters left us no record of the locations or original appearance of the tombs, or of their other contents. Although some of these tomb robbers were doubtless Mexican, the nation of Mexico had no say in the matter of its artworks’ exportation. If asked, the Mexican government would almost certainly say it would like to have the objects back. By deflecting visitors’ attention from the items on display to their spiffy new environment, Pardo has recontextualized them, pulling them into the present, making them of the “here and now” rather than of the “there and then.” I am not saying that I think this was the conscious intention of anyone involved, but this is definitely one of its effects.

Pardo’s LACMA installation therefore represents an increasingly popular mode of addressing the greatest problem faced by any encyclopedic museum: how to make other countries’ artistic heritages seem at home, at ease, and—what is most pressing—necessary in the cultural institutions of the countries that have appropriated them. This is facilitated, in LACMA’s case, by the similarities of Pardo’s installation to the typical stage set of the kind visited by millions at Universal Studios or seen in sitcoms and game shows. By means of wavy layered walls, brightly colored lights, and shiny curtains, the art of ancient America has been brought not only into our present moment but into the very place where we live as well. Despite the fact that the lengthy exhibition labels are not bilingual, the jazzy colors, including the clamorous chartreuse, like the peppy swoops and syncopation of Pardo’s wall panels and pedestal supports, all resonate within the current home of one of the largest Latin American and Latino urban populations outside of Mexico. At present, roughly 50 percent of the people in Los Angeles would be classified by the US census as “persons of Hispanic or Latino origin.” It is significant, therefore, that Pardo’s gallery does not remind us of just any Hollywood set. There is much about it that reminds us specifically of the barrios of San Fernando and Boyle Heights. The obvious relevance of the pre-Columbian artistic heritage to a city teeming with descendants of its creators therefore helps, one might argue, justify the presence in Los Angeles of so many of Latin America’s ancient artworks. It also doubtless explains why the design of LACMA’s pre-Columbian gallery was given to a leading Latin American–cum-Angeleno artist.

But the three rooms that make up LACMA’s pre-Columbian art gallery also proffer a promise: that we will finally reach the dark, closed space of Mictlan. It must be at the very end of this string of organic, compressed rooms full of recontextualized art from distant places and time periods; it must be just beyond that open doorway at the back of the third and final room through which we catch a glimpse into the comparatively dark and shallow space that awaits us. Unlike the other doorways in the gallery, however, this one isn’t framed by layered wall panels that wrap around the frame, encouraging the visitor to enter. The transition to Mictlan is neither eased nor mediated. Instead, the plainness of the doorway implies an abrupt move from Pardo’s visceral environment into a very different time and place designed by someone else. And this is what we indeed experience as we pass through it. For the gallery that we enter from the last room of the newly installed pre-Columbian gallery is devoted to the largely Christian artworks of the Colonial period. The three-dimensional objects and most of the paintings in this gallery portray either people in European dress or subjects from the New Testament. Here there are no organic, undulating walls, long glossy curtains, or bright colors. Instead, the flat walls have been painted a sober gray-blue, and the only adornments come in the form of ornately gilded rectangular frames that, unlike Pardo’s installation, speak directly to the period in which the paintings were made.

LACMA’s Mictlan, it turns out, is actually the past! It represents the old, traditional way of installing a collection of artworks from another place and time. And there is more than a little irony in this: For decades, temporary exhibitions of Latin American art from the pre-Columbian past to the present shrouded the pre-Columbian rooms in darkness to contrast with the well-lit adjacent rooms full of Colonial art. The brightness of the latter was presumably intended to symbolize the “enlightenment” allegedly introduced to the Western Hemisphere by European Christians. The eerie darkness of the rooms displaying the ancient art that preceded this enlightenment, on the other hand, implied pagan mystery and possible danger; it signaled a past that for centuries had been labeled “primitive.” LACMA’s Latin American art galleries turn this perverse custom on its head. They reverse past practice by representing the pre-Columbian as the more current, more vibrant, visually more exciting era, even if its contours and meanings exist largely in our imagination.

But if the (single) room devoted to the Colonial period is conventionally subdued and sedate in contrast with Pardo’s dramatic design for the pre-Columbian gallery, it turns out not to be as completely closed off, as inescapable, as Mictlan. One has the option of turning to the right as one enters the Colonial gallery to enjoy a separate room devoted exclusively to the arts of the ancient Andes. That smartly designed room, likewise no work of Pardo’s, includes, in addition to some handsome ceramics from South America, a few of the many stunning pre-Conquest and Colonial Andean textiles and garments owned by LACMA. Or the visitor can turn to the left, to enter a brightly lit complex of white-painted walls sparsely hung with contemporary Latin American paintings and wall sculptures. If one makes a more abrupt left turn instead, one will move into several rooms full of Latin American paintings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a room devoted entirely to the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. From there the visitor will pass, like one reborn, back out into the brightly lit foyer from which he had earlier entered, through another doorway, the bowels of the pre-Columbian past.

As with the Colonial art gallery, the design of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century galleries reflects no attempt to suggest a local setting or to reposition its artworks in a conspicuously contemporary space. Perhaps this wasn’t deemed necessary, inasmuch as the pieces in these rooms are both more familiar and less disturbing than the silent sculptures sitting in the fiberboard-and-Plexiglas cases of Pardo’s arresting installation. In them we see more of ourselves. But it must also be noted that there is no reason for the historicity of these objects to be masked: We know where they came from and what they signified in their original context. They were not looted or purchased with phony bills of sale. The museum is therefore free to display them conventionally, as the art of another culture’s past.

This does not mean, of course, that the post-Columbian galleries could not, and never will be, transformed at the hand of a living artist. Given the direction art institutions are going, this may well happen down the road. But it does suggest that the need to make their contents more interesting, more glamorous, and more relevant for the people of Los Angeles was not as strong as that which figured into LACMA’s decision to have Pardo design a new, contemporary installation for its pre-Columbian holdings. In addition to the need for more space to display the department’s growing collection, the museum’s decision was surely driven by a desire to propel the remnants of the pre-Columbian past into our city’s present, thereby reducing the chances of any unpleasant confrontation with their history. That decision—like the design that Pardo created and implemented—makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Cecelia F. Klein is a professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles.