Every now and then I volunteer at the Mona Bismarck American Center, a cultural center which showcases American artists in Paris, and on Saturday I helped out at an artist talk related to the launch of the center’s new exhibition, “Wasteland: New Art from Los Angeles.” The exhibition features 14 Los Angeles-based artists, who drew inspiration from T.S. Elliot’s very long poem, “The Waste Land”, as well as the city of Los Angeles’ reputation as a “cultural wasteland”.
Normally when I volunteer at these events I do things like pass our programs or help visitors find their seats (and I did do some of this, so I had a chance to listen to bits and pieces of the artists discussing their work). But this time my job was a little more “hands on”.
One of the pieces at the exhibition was a giant magazine featuring photos and descriptions of megachurches (churches with congregations of 2,000 or more people) in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Southern California – including two from my hometown of Irvine! This magazine was so large that it required two people to turn its pages, and the only people allowed to do this were volunteers or employees of the center.
I was one of these lucky page turners, a job which required that I wear a hand-knitted sash and arm warmers made by the artist herself (one sash said”Bigger” and the other “Better”, to match the magazine’s byline of “Bigger and Better than Jesus!”) Thus before, during, and after the artist talk, I enthralled the mostly-French audience by turning the pages of this magazine, wearing my blue and black knitted outfit. It was interesting to be “part” of the art in this way, and it definitely made people smile (perhaps out of pity ahaha!)
I was really surprised by how fascinated these visitors seemed to be by the concept of a megachurch. It never occurred to me, but I guess there is something a bit unusual about churches being housed in warehouse-like structures, with names like “The Soul Factory”. It’s definitely a distinctly American phenomenon! Later I got to talk to Lisa Anne Auberbach, the artist behind the magazine / knitwear, and she very sweetly took a dozen pictures of the other page-turning volunteer and I posing with the magazine and flipping its pages.
Overall, as the American Center is housed in the beautiful 19th century mansion of the wealthy American socialite, and patron of the arts, Mona Bismarck (she married the grandson of Otto von Bismarck in 1953), the contrast between all this contemporary art and the orante surroundings was very striking.
A lot of the pieces seemed to play with the idea of scale, as well as the architecture of the center itself. My favorite piece – Edgar Arceneaux’s Library of Black Lies – did this particularly well. He constructed a “geode”-style log cabin within the library, and used mirrors and various perspective tricks to make the structure feel bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. During the artist talk, he said he was partially inspired by the process of learning a new language – how that experience can make you feel so unsettled and disjointed – something I can definitely relate to!
It is always nice to hear an artist explain their work, especially since contemporary art often doesn’t make much sense without some sort of explanation. I am always surprised to learn about the amount of thought these artists put into what they’re making and how they’re making it, it’s a shame this doesn’t always translate into the end product…
On a side note, today (Sunday) was another beautiful, sunny day (spring is almost here!) and to celebrate Danlu and I decided to finally check out the Shakespeare and Company Cafe that opened next to the famous bookstore last October.
And after doing a taste test, I have to say that I really recommend it! It was a bit expensive, but for such a touristy location we were able to find a seat right away and my cherry and apple pie was delicious! (And Danlu said her coffee was good too!) I am definitely going back to try the other pies very soon…