Catch ‘Environment[al]’ at SCI-Arc before it blows away

Dry as dust? Oil, water, and LA's transformation from nature to overbuilt landscape are themes explored in an installation of smashed concrete, sand and sound at SCI-Arc.

Before it closes this weekend, put on your walking boots and catch Environment[al], an installation in SCI-Arc’s gallery that speaks volumes, without words, about oil, water and concrete in LA’s unnatural landscape.

Co-curated by faculty members Marcelyn Gow and Herwig Baumgartner with Vogt Landscape and other invited designers, Environment[al] features no pictures of William Mulholland, wall texts or images of oil derricks. Rather, it delivers its message about our exploitation of nature in an abstract and otherworldly way.

The exhibition space is filled sloping mound of smashed concrete, that appear like stones, that students helped transport into the SCI-Arc space. Into this are placed shallow dishes containing mini-installations: one contains oil, another sand, dust and plants; another, a pool of water at bottom of which are renderings of an architectural design.

Marcelyn Gow told DnA: “The stones are to create an awareness of our built environment and thinking about all the things that are going up right now in the city, especially right here in LA, we were considering what happens to the older buildings. There’s been a lot of talk about adaptive reuse, how we can give things a second life. And so we thought that by actually bringing some of the reconstituted building material into the gallery and creating a new landscape, we could begin to ask people to think about these issues.”

Herwig Baumgartner explains the bowls: “Some of it was actual planting that [landscape architect] Günther Vogt’s office designed that are actually from the Owens Valley. Others are filled with tar from the La Brea Tar Pits. And then there are smaller ones; basically each one of those represents an architect that has a contribution to sustainability into the environment,and so it is showing specific projects that address that subject. ”

The landscape is also reminiscent of the concrete landscape of the LA River, as well as the destruction of the nearby Sixth Street Bridge.

Gow and Baumgartner invited Vogt to participate. Violeta Burckhardt, a designer at Vogt Landscape (below, left, with Günther Vogt), explained the desiccated, sandy soil and plants in one of the bowls: “The idea was to recreate the landscape from the Owens Valley, which suffered a great change due to the fact that the city was taking away the water. They dried up the lake completely in the 1920s and it’s now a huge political issue because it’s sort of like a reclamation site” that is now subject to dust storms.

If you go close to the installation you can catch sounds recorded at different points along the path from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, from wind to passing cars. “It’s meant to point out the kind of relationship that Los Angeles has to this remote site where we we draw a lot of our water from,” Gow said.

Burckhardt hopes people will see the ongoing connections between oil and water in the Southland: “Fracking is still legal for example in California and the amount of water that is necessary to do that is extremely large in a place that actually has a lot of problems with water.”

When asked why they opted for minimal verbal materials (a small catalogue is available at the entrance) to explain a complex topic, Vogt said, “It’s good that you’re lost somehow in this exhibition and are thinking, ‘What what do I really see?’

“And the question finally is, is this really nature? I think you cannot find any nature in a place like Los Angeles. It’s just a landscape and that means it’s a cultural reproduction of nature, so it’s not really nature.”

Environment[al], co-curated by Marcelyn Gow (above) and Herwig Baumgartner, closes this weekend after a 10-week stay. Find more information here.