Los Angeles has hundreds of public sculptures of all shapes and sizes hidden in plain sight. Some are well-documented: Urban Light by Chris Burden in front of LACMA, Joseph Young’s oft-maligned Triforium in Civic Center, or Jonathan Borofsky’s Ballerina Clown at the corner of Rose and Main in Venice. But the majority receive a cursory glance at best. Public Sculpture Archive is trying to change that.
A collaboration between photographer Kathryn Vetter Miller and artist Sylvie Lake, PSA is a lot weirder—and funnier—than the name implies. The duo locates sculptures that are tucked away in parks and plazas, on busy commercial strips or in the shadows of bland glass towers. Then Lake dons monochromatic costumes—head-to-toe bodysuits, hats, heels—and fuses her body into the sculptures, echoing or responding to the form of each piece. She looks like an extraterrestrial explorer attempting to communicate with these unusual urban structures.
This is not an earnest cataloging of public art. It’s a hilarious rallying cry to give these strange and delightful pieces the attention they deserve.
Their friend, artist Erin Schneider, published a collection of their photographs with downtown L.A.’s public sculptures in 2016. They’re working on a more comprehensive guide to L.A. County’s public sculptures, set to be published by Golden Spike Press in the fall of 2019.
We met up with Miller and Lake at Angel’s Point in Elysian Park, where you’ll find an installation by Peter Shire, plus stunning panoramic views of Dodger Stadium, the downtown skyline, and the Hollywood Hills.
How did this project get started?
Sylvie Lake: Well, Katie is a photographer and likes to work with bodies and landscapes. And when she contacted me to work together, I was a little self-conscious about it. I needed something that had socio-political content to it. I had been working on a thesis about public space and how it’s designated, and how a lot of it isn’t [accessible to the] public. And so it started to evolve into this tour of public space but using these sculptures as a form-based language, like you’re a tourist and an alien comes down and is trying to explain L.A. to you. Think of Barbara Hepworth—her sculptures are supposed to be expressions of different social dynamics in humans to communicate to aliens. It’s her literal manifesto for her sculptures.
Kathryn Vetter Miller: One of the first sculptures that we ever did was in Little Tokyo. It’s the Friendship Knot by Shinkichi Tajiri. The intention with that piece was to communicate a unity between cultures. And it’s in the white bodysuit.
SL: I almost disappear into it.
KVM: I think it’s one of our most successful photographs because it reflects the symmetry of the piece, because it reflects the message of the piece in a way.
SL: I’m an extension of the sculpture essentially. It’s almost like my butt just turns into another knot wrapped around it.
Kathryn, how did you know about Sylvie’s work?
KVM: We connected through the internet, social media; I think I had seen some work that she shared online and we connected visually before we connected in person.
And you had the idea to put Sylvie in these costumes?
KVM: I remember sitting in H.M.S. Bounty talking about it.
SL: Nike had just come out with this reflective gear and Katie had a jacket of this reflective gear. So the initial idea was to work with this material. I needed to be hidden. I was so self-conscious about being in front of the camera that I thought, “Oh yeah, I’m just like a flash of light,” then I can be more myself. And we were trying to treat them and spray them. And I had done another show using Chroma Key paints, so I thought you could just spray-paint it and it’ll work. It looked horrible. And then we got these second-skin zentai Chinese sex suits that we bought online…
KVM: And the sex suits seemed to blend into the sculpture. It brought something that had been there maybe for 30 or 40 years alive again. It’s so easy to pass something that you see everyday and not really see it. And when you see it in a different context, I think it brings it back alive.
SL: Sometimes you can’t even tell my body is a body. I’m just shapes and colors. But then when I develop as a character to match the sculpture… it’s almost like a pinup or something. Everyone is seduced by that initially and then they’re drawn into something deeper.
There are times where we almost don’t see your body. It becomes part of the sculpture.
KVM: With some of the sculptures we work with, I think that’s the goal. I don’t know how much we really talk about it beforehand. It feels really intuitive. The characters are forming in the car as we’re parked in front of the sculpture, and Sylvie’s digging through her bag of tricks, saying, you know, “What do you think of this one?”
SL: And we’ll listen to some random music and form an atmosphere, which I think we did in the most extreme way here at the Peter Shire pavilion.
KVM: That was really magical. We got to this site at sunset…
SL: I was really obsessed with Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. I just loved how filthy it was. And I was reading Chaucer at the time and just liked this foolish character. And so we were thinking like, OK, how can we develop this thing?
KVM: And we got here and there was a man playing fantastical music on the flute by himself at sunset. We got here and our jaws dropped open and we slowly walked up to him just in complete awe.
SL: It was the perfect expression of exactly what we were talking about. He was jamming on the pan flute and had a little amp and he was blasting it over the valley. He just started building a soundtrack to how we were moving.
So usually the decisions about what you’re going to wear and where you’re going to be on the sculpture are made at the site?
SL: Yeah it’s all spontaneous. And we don’t have the time to do that. A lot of this is guerrilla.
Have you ever had any run-ins with security guards?
SL: Yeah, at this Herbert Bayer piece. He was a part of the Bauhaus, then he came here and he did a lot of public sculpture and he did this Double Ascension piece in downtown L.A.
KVM: It’s right in front of Gensler.
SL: It’s right in front of a major architecture firm and some banks, these looming skyscrapers with a lot of bureaucracy and protection and security. And it’s such a majestic sculpture though.
KVM: And just begging to be climbed.
SL: It’s two winding staircases who meet each other in the middle in a fountain. And there’s a lot of security around there. So I got dressed in the body suit around the corner and then Katie pulled up into the red. I believe it was Easter. It was a holiday on a Sunday. We were trying to shoot on days when we thought people would be paying less attention.
So we ran out to the sculpture. I jumped into the fountain. Swam across, my feet couldn’t touch the bottom. I’m soaking wet. Climbing up the stairs, running up the stairs and then running back down, swimming across like six feet, jumping out and then as we’re both running to the car, you can see these security guards from all of the buildings just running out.
KVM: We made it out just in time. I think it was maybe a one-minute shoot. It was very quick and so she got into the car soaking wet, and we left to our next destination.
SL: Cackling maniacally…
KVM: I looked it up and Bayer was commissioned by ARCO, and he originally titled the work Stairway to Nowhere but it was changed by request of ARCO, the oil company.
SL: But also what’s attractive about him is that, here is a very institutionally accepted artist in this very corporate conservative environment, and everything’s very formal about the piece and how you engage with it. But he’s kind of a radical guy and his body of work is freaky and fun. I think that’s also an important part of this project is that sometimes art can be so alienating, especially if you don’t grow up being exposed to this visual vocabulary. It can feel limiting and pretentious.
KVM: Or like an alien language. Growing up in Minnesota, that was definitely my experience. The only thing I was exposed to until I was maybe 19 were Georgia O’Keeffe paintings or Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
SL: Or chainsaw sculptures.
KVM: You know those three. That was basically my visual landscape until 19.
It seems like a lot of the sculptures are tucked away or hidden. Some of them I’ve seen, and some in your series I’ve never seen before.
KVM: Well, a good example of that which was on my list is Mobius Bench II by Vito Acconci. It’s in the back of a mall by a Macy’s in Pasadena.
SL: Vito Acconci is a great conceptual artist and pretty radical and still by today’s standards. It’s debasing and embarrassing work to watch. He developed this architecture firm and they worked together to do these sculptural forms and it’s all about integrating all the different modes of being in a social space. Near the end of his life and work he was developing these Mobius forms and making playgrounds for kids and one of that body of work is this Mobius bench. But now it lives in front of a Macy’s entrance with some other random mall sculptures. It’s like, this guy is one of the legends. I mean, if only some these people who walked by this bench knew some of the video work that he did, it would be so embarrassing.
KVM: Mothers would not approve.
How are you finding a lot of these sculptures? Is it just from wandering around, or is there a directory that you’re looking at?
KVM: It’s been a mix. Initially a lot of our research came from being online and then driving by sculptures. Especially on Wilshire, we were stopping every minute and saying, “Oh my god, there’s another sculpture there.” When your eyes are turned on, you see a lot more.
SL: We went a little crazy and we started doing these daylong sessions where we’d get up at 6 a.m. and we’d make a bunch of smoothies and one of us would pick the other up in the car and we’d go, “OK, today is Sunset Boulevard, today it’s Wilshire Boulevard.” And we just went all the way west, all the way east, and stopped at every single one that we saw.
KVM: Off of the 170, there’s a set of three sculptures [Drive-By Art (1992) by Lars Hawkes] that you just zoom past and you don’t get to really take a look, unless you do what we did, which is pull off the off-ramp, put on our four-way flashers and see them up close. Don’t do that unless you want to get a ticket.
You’ve also had to jump fences to get to some of these sculptures, like Yayoi Kusama’s “Hymn of Life: Tulips” in Beverly Hills…
KVM: You’re asking for it if you put up a fence.
SL: Rules are made to be broken [laughs].
KVM: Because when you put up a barrier that communicates a no. Somebody is going to want to find a way to make it a yes.
SL: We’re yes people.
Have you heard from any of the creators of the sculptures about your project?
KVM: We’ve connected with a few of the artists in person or on Instagram, such as Brad Howe, who has four large sculptures outside of Beverly Hills City Hall.
SL: We’ve also heard from Peter Shire and Peter Shelton. Since most of these sculptures were erected years, if not decades, ago, the only potential we really have for engagement at this point in the project, without directly soliciting the sculptors, is social networking.
KVM: We’re going to include a series of essays in our upcoming book with Golden Spike Press and hope to recruit some of the artists to write pieces.
Sylvie, as a native Angeleno, did you grow up paying attention to these public sculptures? Or was it only when you got older that you really started thinking about it?
SL: There were a few that really stood out to me as a kid. I grew up in Echo Park and MacArthur Park and my dad plays banjo at the lake there. And so the Lady of the Lake was always a big deal. He would make me do drawings and paintings of it that are all over our house.
Another sculpture that really mattered to me a lot as a kid is gone now. This woman Viola Frey, she’s a ceramicist, and in Old Town Pasadena, tucked away behind the Johnny Rockets, there was a plaza with three amazing sculptures and one was hers. It was a giant man, maybe ten feet tall, kneeling down as a carpenter. So that’s gone. I don’t know why. But she has two more sculptures in downtown that are both ceramic figures. And it’s called Arrogant Man and Surprised Woman. It’s a mother and father figure and my character in the photo, I’m dressed in a baby bonnet, and this was my favorite sculptress as a child.
Do you think this project could work just as well in any other city or do you think there’s something specific about Los Angeles that makes the project work?
SL: L.A. is a set. Everything here has been invented and nothing here really feels real. Even the people. You come here and you create your identity, you reinvent yourself. It’s so much fun to play on these sculptures because they just feel like props in a set.
KVM: There’s also just the element of the driving culture. I feel like this project encourages people to get back on their feet and walk around because you really do experience the city differently when you’re moving at a slower pace. In some ways I think that reflects my mission in life as well. I work as a psychologist and so much of what I do is about inviting people to a more mindful state, and working with the sculptures and bringing them back to life does bring life back into them, and brings people into a more conscious state with their environment.