In Residence /

Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Pacific Horizon

Pioneers, explorers, gold-diggers, fortune-seekers… They reached the West and settled. Then what happened to their mindset? Did it become still or did it still roam — dreaming of going further west, walking on the ocean, thinking of the impossible? Can we accept at once the physical limits of something we’ve only dreamt?

As Jean Cocteau once said, “The soul doesn’t travel as quick as the body.” It is this peculiar state of mind that I will try to portray through different examples of films and artworks. A dream in the distance is a desire; a dream at hand is an opportunity. Los Angeles is the city of distant dreams, often projected onto a silver screen. What if the entire city were a solitary room whose inhabitants dream collectively? New York, on the contrary, offers less time for contemplation: it is a city of opportunities. Its natural horizon line is concealed. Horizontal lines are traded for vertical ones. If the LA landscape offers self-reflection, the NY landscape urges you to channel and focus on your career.

Seconds (1966) by John Frankenheimer gives a fascinating perspective on this LA-NY opposition. Arthur Hamilton is a wealthy middle-aged man who lost interest in life. With the help of a secret company, he is offered a new identity (through surgery) and a new life. Under hypnosis, he vocalizes his childhood dream: to be a painter. Once set, he flies to LA to move into his new house, his new life, his new name and his new self. As he walks on the beach, he stares at the horizon, hoping he will be able to live up to the dream of a new self. NY is a factory that designs new identities, and LA is a playground where these fresh identities can spread their wings. NY and LA are, respectively: the laboratory and the tarmac; the ant and the grasshopper; the center of the universe and the surrounding milky way; centripetal and centrifugal force; speed and stillness.

In the photogravure diptych Paradise (1989), John Baldessari captures two moments at the beach: a woman wandering and a couple chatting near the dunes. In the sky, their symmetrical double, in a Matissian collage fashion, are upside-down, like falling Icaruses. Paradise is the place where one expels his cumbersome doppelgänger and defeats his nemesis. Beyond the sun and the balmy wind, paradise is a place where identity forges itself and shines.

The final scene of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a poignant moment on the beach in which Blanche tells the truth to her sister Jane. Blanche was once jealous of her sister’s success as an actress and confesses she tried to kill her. But this only led to her own injury and paralysis. The two sisters realize they have lied to each other their entire lives. It’s too late: Jane’s mental condition is deteriorated, and she starts dancing in front of a small crowd to get the attention she’s been craving for so long. Here, the beach is the very last stage before oblivion, and Jane performs for the very last time, in a decadent glow, before her own madness washes her away.

The ocean horizon overlaid with text in Ed Ruscha’s paintings could refer to conversations we have with ourselves while staring at the sea: a chat with the ocean of our own desires. Sea of Desire might be the California Dreamer’s inner voice; he has reached the end of his trip. His desire can’t take him further, unless he acknowledges that the sea is the measure of his quest. Travel Agency’s purpose is different still. It’s a conversation between two people staring at the horizon. Relaxed, we can even picture them smiling, delighted to have found the ultimate place. John Divola’s “Zuma Beach” series (1977) has its own cinematographic quality. The photographer found deserted, vandalized houses and spray-painted them himself, adding to the sense of desolation. The romantic landscape is framed by decaying windows. The dark habitat and the clear sky thereby collide, as if they were placed together in a collage. The viewer is left to contemplate the grandiose from a derelict point of view; to encounter nature’s wonders from the vantage of urban waste; and to metaphorically look to the afterworld at the verge of death. The last stop of the California Dream itinerary is the beach. With our feet in the sand, our desires seek the horizon line. We can hear our inner voices (Ed Ruscha), feel anxiously romantic (John Divola), see how we handle the truth and dance our delusions away (Robert Aldrich) or decide it’s time to embrace our uniqueness (John Frankenheimer and John Baldessari).

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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In Residence /

Heaven, Fortune and the West / Introduction

How does the California dream infect art and cinema? Reciprocally, how do Californian movies and art feed the American dream?

We can hardly dissociate dreams and visions from the culture itself: it is a symbiotic relationship. But culture starts with agriculture and landscape, with action and contemplation; it has its feet grounded in the history of the land.

The relationship between the land, its culture and its associated dreams (for example, the imaginative power that El Dorado evokes) is a complex but fascinating ecology. In this series of articles, we aim to dissect the artistic emanations of Californian culture and their relationship to the land (geology and geography) and the people (history). Before we excavate the nature of the dreams produced by the Californian psyche through art and cinema, we must understand how an isolated, poor, sparsely populated area became the center of attention for millions over only a few decades.

The imaginary springs from reality. Maybe a prosperous reality sets an optimal ground for a more vivid imagination. But California wasn’t attractive at all for several centuries. When this area fell under Mexican authority in 1821, the sanctioning of foreign trade lured the affluence of ships from all over the Pacific Ocean. Think of all the sailors and the oral tales that abounded. Meanwhile, the English and the French started to take a serious interest in this window for lucrative trade with Pacific territories. But it was merely a window: the region lacked agriculture, cattle, anything appropriate for European settlement. Coincidentally, shortly after California became annexed in 1847, the first evidence of gold was discovered near San Francisco. This discovery triggered a massive influx of people from Chile, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii and various eastern US territories. The new argonauts were born. With the Gold Rush, all associated businesses boomed. Luck and hard work could buy anyone a place in heaven. This poor and remote region suddenly became a very interesting, exotic territory: a promised land.

With the Gold Rush, the west polarized the US both economically and culturally. And it didn’t stop there. Early in the 20th century, East Coast-based Thomas Edison controlled crucial patents in the cinema industry and threatened producers who would use them without his consent. To escape him, many directors and producers fled to California to start their own studios, out of Edison’s reach. Hollywood was born. Its pleasant climate and spaces offered perfect environments for shooting outdoors or in gigantic studios. To those coming from the east, California was a miraculous silver screen reflecting the culture of the boldest, set between the Pacific Ocean and the starry vault of the sky. California wasn’t the end of the US territory; it became a springboard, a gate to a self-imagined heaven or hell.

Other booms occurred in California that fed the idea of an Eldorado that keeps rejuvenating itself: Silicon Valley, the aerospace industry, the wine industry and the dotcom boom. Meanwhile, during the second half of the 20th century, Los Angeles became a visual art capital, rivaling New York.

Art and cinema are two arms of the same dreaming body, the fantasies of a collective psyche of people who conquered and build a place. We’ll explore how Californian art emanates from a particular perception of geography and history, and will investigate how the resourceful west extends reality with fiction. Writers, curators and artists will join the discussion: Neville Wakefield will talk about his upcoming project in Death Valley; and NY-based artists who relocated to LA — such as Sam Falls and David Benjamin Sherry — will share their thoughts on the reality of the California dream and the American west.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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