She Runs a City, One Hour at a Time

Chris Burden's gigantic kinetic sculpture Metropolis II attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to LACMA each year. It attracts media attention. It also attracts dust. That's where art conservator Alison Walker comes in. Gideon Brower reports.

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Metropolis II conservator Alison Walker in a reflective moment.

Chris Burden’s gigantic kinetic sculpture Metropolis II attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to LACMA each year. It attracts media attention. It also attracts dust. That’s where art conservator Alison Walker comes in.

Read on, or listen to the audio story here.

Walker’s work day starts with putting on safety glasses and a jumpsuit, kicking off her shoes and wriggling into the depths of Metropolis II. Surrounded by skyscrapers, highways and scores of onlookers, she flips on the sculpture’s three motors and watches closely as eight miniature trains, five trolleys and 1,100 cars start whizzing along winding tracks and slotted plastic roads and freeways.

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Metropolis II fills a custom-built gallery at LACMA.

Walker worked at Chris Burden’s studio in Topanga Canyon, helping to fabricate the room-size artwork. When it was moved to LACMA in 2011, she came with it. She’s one of just a few people trained to operate the sculpture, and she also cleans and maintains it. That work is done mostly on Wednesdays, when the museum is closed. The rubbing of the cars against the plastic track generates a fine powder that has to be removed, says Walker, and museum patrons bring in more dust, especially in the winter. “Everyone’s wearing wooly sweaters and scarves,” Walker says. “And that just ends up in the air and settles on the sculpture. “

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Walker operates a tabletop auto repair shop on Wednesdays in the gallery.

Cleaning is just the beginning of conserving Metropolis II. The cars wear grooves in the tracks, and part of one roadway has already had to be replaced. The constant vibration dislodges exterior tiles from the model buildings. The cars and trains break down, and Walker repairs them, setting up a miniature auto and train maintenance yard on a tabletop in the gallery.

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Walker and LACMA director of conservation Mark Gilberg

Mark Gilberg, director of conservation for LACMA, says Metropolis II could be any major city – New York or Cairo, or of course Los Angeles. But for all that ways that it resembles a real metropolis, there is one key difference: the sculpture has an off switch. “It’s on for an hour, it’s off for an hour. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Four to five times a day,” notes Gilberg. During that off time, Alison Walker answers museum patrons’ questions, retrieves cars that have flown off the roadways, and for just for a few minutes, takes a break from city life.

“It does feel good to put your feet up or get some sunshine on your face,” she says.