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The Future of the Unfinished Obelisk

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"The Unfinished" Crew | Photo: Alexis Chanes.

"The Unfinished" is an obelisk-shaped excavation located along the banks of the channelized L.A. River. The horizontal excavation, dug into and through the asphalt of an empty post-industrial lot, will be a 137-foot to-scale replica of the Ancient Egyptian archaeological site known as "The Unfinished Obelisk."

At almost noon on March 15, the 27D mini excavator operated by Troy Rounsville took it's final mouthfuls of soil from the two foot trench that surrounds the form of the 137-foot obelisk. Completing "The Unfinished" took a total of five days, and artist Michael Parker had been working around the clock. Tired, but elated, all he had left to do was to install the sign "The Unfinished" so the guests who were to arrive soon knew they had come to the right place. The gate, a steel arm that swings inwards with six locks, marks the entrance to the the Bowtie Parcel, a post-industrial site owned by California State Parks and slated to become a park in the future. Next to the gate is another metal sign with the words "CLOSED AREA" and "AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY." For today, however, and into the next six months, the public will be allowed access to one of the more beautiful parcels of post-industrial land along the L.A. River.

Guests numbering close to 200 arrived in a steady stream that afternoon. At 4 o'clock, the sun was still high, there was a soft breeze, it was a perfect early spring afternoon. The sounds of the 2 freeway melded with the river, the occasional Metro North or Amtrak train chugged by, and people hung out and enjoyed Parker's urban earthwork and the L.A. River. It felt like a kind of homecoming, the river was comfortable with the people in her midst. She only asked, "Why did it take you so long to come back?"

"The Unfinished" came about through a unique partnership between Parker, California State Parks, and Clockshop, the organization that I founded and direct. Many might venture that the State of California would not allow a temporary massive obelisk to be carved into their property. Even I thought the chances were slim that the project would be approved as it moved up the bureaucratic food chain. The flurry of financial concern and mismanagement surrounding California State Parks over the past several years led me to assume that their concerns would outweigh any appreciation of the potential benefits that art might bring.

"So why was this project allowed?" I asked Sean Woods, the superintendent of the Los Angeles sector of California State Parks, who was key to making it all happen. "Bringing contemporary art to a site like the Bowtie parcel allows a unique opportunity to engage people with public land with relatively little to no cost to the state," he told me. "It is an interesting way to jolt people out of their conception of what a public park is supposed to be or look like and to have them experience the space." Woods continued: "A different model is called for the few "brown-field parcels" that are owned by the state because there is no funding in place to bring these pieces of land back to life. We have to activate the public and get them invested and involved."

At the opening reception Woods overheard people saying, "'Wow, I never knew that the L.A. River was here and that it is so beautiful and lush.' There is a multiplier effect there, and art is a way to bring people who might never come down to the Bowtie, and allow them to experience the place in addition to the art."

And there are others who are in sync with Wood's hunch. Last week in a conversation that was part of the Frogtown Futuro program at Clockshop, Michael Parker and historian and writer Jenny Price discussed "The Unfinished" and the future of the L.A. River. Price said, "Art has the power to make the invisible visible. The L.A. river has been lost to most Los Angelenos, and art will be one of the major tools that we will use to bring it back."

Julia Meltzer, Michael Parker and Jenny Price in conversation | Photo: Emma Sheffer
Julia Meltzer, Michael Parker and Jenny Price in conversation. | Photo: Emma Sheffer.

None of these ideas are new at all to Lewis MacAdams and the group that he founded, Friends of the L.A. River, or FOLAR, in fact, he considers the group to be a 40 year art project. Lewis was also at the opening reception of "The Unfinished", and we spoke as the sun was setting just beyond the Observatory at Griffith Park. MacAdams strongly believes that the L.A. River needs to go through a healing process. It might sound new-agey, but somehow when Lewis invokes these words, they come across as completely sensible and true.

Taken in by the scale of the piece, Lewis told, me, "This is the first artwork to really match the scale of the river. Most pieces have been swallowed up by the river but "The Unfinished" matches the power of the river." He continued, "This piece points the way between the artist and the remediation of the land. Parker is taking a piece of unused post-industrial land and using art to begin the process of remediation and healing."

And in order to further the healing, Michael Parker will be engaging with the site and the public over the next six months with a series of programs and events at the Bowtie parcel. The first event, programmed with Clockshop, is a reading by Maggie Geoga on April 11th of an unfinished story, "The Doomed Prince" translated from Ancient Egyptian.

California State Parks is on-board for these events as well. Sean Woods confirmed, "The key is in the programming. We need to keep people coming and experiencing both the art work and the Bowtie, so they can start to claim ownership and imagine a different future for the L.A. River and the public who will use it."

Schedule for public events at "The Unfinished:"

Friday April 11th, 4-6 pm, reading by Egyptologist Maggie Geoga
Saturday June 21st, Summer Solstice concert with Kattie Grinnan

"The Unfinished"will be open to the public on the afternoons of the first Sunday of the month starting in May until September. 2-6 pm.

Sunday May 4th
Sunday June 1st
Sunday July 6th
Sunday August 3rd
Sunday September 7th

**Please note, this schedule is currently in development, to stay informed about additional events, sign up for our mailing list here, like Clockshop on Facebook, follow us on Tumbler or on Twitter @clockshopla.

Read more about "The Unfinished:"

The Unfinished: An Obelisk Along the L.A. River
The Unfinished, an urban site-specific sculpture along the L.A. River by Michael Parker, questions how a public action in the form of a temporary monument functions in 2014.

The Unfinished: The Recumbant Site
"The Unfinished" will remake an Egyptian archaeological site, with tools, materials and labor available along the Los Angeles River.

The Unfinished: The Meaning of the Obelisk
The Unfinished obelisk in Aswan raises questions about hierarchy and failed power structures in Egypt 2,500 years ago.

A Brief History of Public Art and the L.A. River
"The Unfinished" is the latest in a vibrant line of public art projects that have played a major role in reimagining and redesigning the L.A. River.

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