Los Angeles

The Contested Fate of Santa Monica's 'Chain Reaction'

Chained up "Chain Reaction"

In 1991, the city of Santa Monica was gifted a 26-foot tall metal sculpture as a work of public art. The sculpture, entitled "Chain Reaction," was created by well-known political artist Paul Conrad, who died in 2010. Conrad is a most famous for his political cartoons during his tenure at the Los Angeles Times. For the past 22 years, his sculpture has stood tall, adjacent to the Santa Monica Civic Center, as a staple in its community. For a city that has very few public sculptures, "Chain Reaction" remains as a reminder of the value of arts -- and also as a reminder of our humanity.

The sculpture is shaped to resemble an atomic bomb's mushroom cloud of smoke. As its name suggests, "Chain Reaction" is made of large, linking chains, giving metaphorical and physical weight to the image. Young generations may be unfamiliar with nuclear explosions and mushroom clouds, but its design references a highly possible situation, one that could wipe out humanity if enacted in real life. "Chain Reaction" is a wary reminder of the nuclear violence, but it also hints at restraint and compassion. The inscription at its base reads: "This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph."

"Chain Reaction," installed adjacent to the Santa Monica Civic Center

Now the city of Santa Monica is considering destroying it.

On KCRW's "Left, Right & Center" show, journalist Robert Scheer extolled his support of the sculpture. "It's a wonderful statue that Paul Conrad did," Scheer said, "['Chain Reaction'] was opposite the RAND corporation, and it irritated the RAND Corporation. It irritated some powerful people in this community, and now the city council of Santa Monica is thinking of destroying Paul Conrad's great work of art. I think that's an outrage."

Political artist Paul Conrad at his drawing table

Conrad, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was chief editorial cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times from 1964 to 1993. His satirical political drawings appeared in newspapers nationwide and abroad. He chronicled and lampooned the careers of three different presidents, earning him many worldwide appreciators -- and a few adversaries. Among all his distinctions and merits, Conrad's favorite was getting on Richard Nixon's "enemies list" in 1973. In the biography "Pro and Conrad," humorist Art Buchwald wrote, "Conrad's name strikes fear in the evil hearts of men all over the world... where there is corruption, greed or hypocrisy, everyone says, 'This is a job for Conrad.'"

Political cartoon by Paul Conrad

Political cartoon by Paul Conrad

Paul Conrad created "Chain Reaction" at a time when nuclear weapons were a very real threat. Political artists like Conrad and Mr. Fish (an avid supporter of the Conrad sculpture) bring harsh but important topics into the public eye. "It's up to artists to enter in the conversation [on war]," Mr. Fish says. "You need those artists to be honest about really what is going on... The 'Chain Reaction' sculpture is a great example of how important it is to have artistic voice in a public space. Artists are much more likely to bring truth and power than other public voices."

"Nuclear weapons [are] just as much a threat today as when the sculpture was installed," says Paul Conrad's son Dave Conrad, "but people don't really know that; it's not in our consciousness anymore." David Conrad has been spearheading the efforts to try and save Chain Reaction, arguing that the sculpture still holds meaning to the city of Santa Monica and to future generations. "It's important to keep [nuclear warfare] in the forefront of our thoughts, as long as it's a threat," says Conrad. "The fact that it would make people think, and the fact that it will make people react and remember the danger of nuclear weapons makes it super valuable."

The sculpture's value is also social. Sometimes during "Chain Reaction's" existence in Santa Monica, residents and visitors have climbed atop the sculpture. The act of climbing it has even become a local tradition and a "rite of passage" for some local public school students.

"Chain Reaction" was sculpted out of copper, fiberglass, and stainless steel. It has a non-visible steel frame substructure encased in a fiberglass mold, giving it that bomb-blast shape. Thousands of continuous copper chain links are welded together and affixed to the fiberglass with tack screws and copper wire. The sculpture needs repair and regular maintenance, but recent testing by a structural engineer revealed that it does not pose an immediate danger, and, according to the city's current building codes it is currently compliant and structurally sound.

A closer look at the base of "Chain Reaction"

The city of Santa Monica originally wanted to tear it down, but thanks to the efforts of Paul Conrad's son David Conrad and a slew of other artists, activists, and caring individuals, there is hope for saving this memorable sculpture. The city's planning staff estimate it could cost as much as $400,000 to fix, and they don't have that kind of money. They have given the Save Chain Reaction committee a deadline of February 1, 2014 to come up with the $400,000, or the city will take it down. For the time being, they have put a fence up around it -- which, ironically, is also made of chain links -- to deter people from climbing or touching the sculpture. On July 9, 2012, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission unanimously designated Chain Reaction as a city landmark, but that's not stopping anyone from considering tearing it down.

"They did some studies, and the city is still not quite sure what the sculpture needs," David Conrad says. "Structurally it is fine. There is some rusting going on, but the rust hasn't gotten in deep enough to have it be a problem. The city threw out this number of $400,000, but it was based on incomplete information."

The possible destruction of this sculpture has stirred up some argumentative feelings, and people within the city of Santa Monica are torn. Some residents say that it's a landmark of peace and should be valued across the nation, while others say that it's an eyesore and should be torn down.

So far, the Save Chain Reaction Committee, affectionately known as "The Chain Gang," has only raised a small percentage of the exorbitant sum of money the city is demanding, but they haven't given up hope. "I think our efforts are going well," says David Conrad. "We had a local high school have a fundraiser concert... [and] we're up to $20,000 now, a tiny fraction of what we need. But we want to show that there is a large community support for this, and then approach other art foundations to help support this cause."

The city is willing to help the financial cause, though their budget is tight, as long as the rest of the $400,000 goal is met from other funding sources. Santa Monica's city council authorized $20,000 to temporarily patch the structure. The council also agreed to put an additional $50,000 from the Cultural Trust Fund towards the conservation effort, money which will likely fund the creation of a circular landscape barrier around the sculpture to prevent climbing.

On August 18, Save Chain Reaction will hold an awareness event and fundraiser at Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station, in Santa Monica, Calif. It will feature political cartoons from Mr. Fish, as well as many pieces by Paul Conrad himself. Prints of Conrad's cartoon illustration of Chain Reaction will be on sale, along with some of the leftover chain links from when the sculpture was originally built.

Self portrait by Paul Conrad

Dave Conrad feels positive about their efforts to save this sculpture, and believes his father would have wanted to preserve its message. "After all of the statements he's made in his cartoons," he says, "for him to focus on this one statement [and turn it into a public art piece], obviously it means it was very important to him. It's the most important message he thought he could make: let's not annihilate our fellow mankind with nuclear bombs. Let's not have a chain reaction of nuclear blasts."


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Top Image: Chained up "Chain Reaction."

About the Author

Evan is the Editor in Chief of Inland Empire Weekly and is one of the two Rogue Art Historians who started Rogue Art Research & Writing (RARW).
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