L.A. is the Concrete Frontier
By Hannah Bhuiya
“Far from being the youngest, Los Angeles was the oldest city of the twentieth century, the Troy of its collective imagination. The ground courses of our deepest dreams were layered into its past among the filling stations and freeways.”
— J. G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women
In 1987, author J. G. Ballard came to Los Angeles to attend the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a movie adapted from Ballard’s semi-autobiographical memoir. The writer immediately saw the City of Angels for what it was, and is: a place both paradisiac and paranoiac, an obsidian city of insidious dreams, a shimmering multi-mirage. “I loved every inch of it, and felt instantly at home,” he records. Finally winding over the great grey highways of this—the far edge of the vast continent—was a man who had long been transfixed by the fatal glamour of American car culture. In 1970 Ballard had exhibited real crushed cars—still marred by the blood and debris of their demise—as a provocative art statement, and in 1973 produced the shock-novel Crash, fetishizing the seductive violence of the road (later, immortalized by David Cronenberg). Concrete Island followed in 1974; a post-modern Robinson Crusoe story of a man who nds himself marooned off the Westway yover in central London. Coming to like his new life off-piste, he sheds his cultivated layers to transform from slick architect into a torn-suited layabout drinking wine from a broken bottle beside a burnt-out Jaguar.
And so we ride up onto the curb of the year 2017, to stop at 601 South Anderson Street, DTLA, where a compelling interpretation of the ‘Concrete Island’ trope presents itself in a new group show at Venus Los Angeles. 28 of its 30 artists are based in L.A. “What I am interested in,” says curator and gallery director Aaron Moulton, “is that this goes from being a show about a book by J. G. Ballard to actually being a work of speculative reality. We do not say in the press release ‘This is an exhibition,’ we say ‘Welcome to Concrete Island.’”
Each piece in “Concrete Island” has been selected to explore a not-immediately-obvious aspect of the Los Angeles experi- ence. “It made sense to me to present an anthropological mirror of aesthetic culture of L.A. that is different to the standard traps about cultural production from Los Angeles,” Moulton explains. We have instead a microcosmic tour of L.A’s shadow world, the liminal spaces between the famous landmarks, the interstitial zones that all must pass through, but are de- scribed, if at all, as ‘stuck in traf c.’ The artists here, like seers, like spies, clock the activity seething just under the surface, drawing forth ‘treasure’ from the city’s cycles of entropy.
But what, who, or where is the real Los Angeles? After a visit to “Concrete Island” you will never see the city in the same way again. You’ll understand that each iconic symbol has a dark shadow, present in its very origin. The Hollywood sign, an ambitious ad campaign to attract homeowners to build on precipitous hills. The brass stars on the Boulevard, an attempt to stave off the further urban decay of a street well-past its golden days. The baroque street life of Venice Beach, now only a vestige of a truly counter-culture era. The glamorous hotels of the Chateau Marmont and Sunset Tower, not so long ago run-down dives where actors took overdoses. The surfers of the cresting Malibu waves—tech millionaires now, not hippies. The L.A. river is long-gone, “paved” over with concrete in 1938, and there hasn’t been any actual water in the (poisonous) Silver Lake Reservoir for years. Even the colors of the sunsets are not natural, but caused by the refraction of the chemicals in the haze of pollution. After leaving the gallery, complete your tour by driving up near the bust of James Dean at Grif th Park Observatory. Watch the sun fall away and the incandescent breadth of L.A. rise before you in a grid of electric lights, its boulevards and avenues now long lines carved out in blinking traf c signals; an entire Concrete City.