"The Unfinished" is an obelisk-shaped excavation located along the banks of the channelized LA 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."
Michael Parker's "The Unfinished" is a time and space-traveller. It's a replica of a quarry site in Egypt where a monumental, potential obelisk -- one meant to communicate with the Sun God Ra through its vertical, geometric perfection -- lies un-erected and still attached to the earth. It was an obelisk that wasn't and never will be. Unlike other classical ruins, the unfinished obelisk in Aswan never flourished. Its interest, maybe even its pathos, derives not from the symbolism of power manifested, and then decayed; but from its never having been born. (For me, it also matters that this obelisk was commissioned by a female pharaoh, but I'm not sure what gender politics lie therein.)
As of this writing, Michael Parker's "The Unfinished" is unfinished. But "The Unfinished," as its title suggests, is a work whose motivating questions are so deeply connected with time and labor, that to imagine "The Unfinished" "finished" is to misperceive its basic being.
Still, I did just that for the first couple of weeks after visiting Bowtie Park in February. I wondered, for example, from which elevated lookout Parker's cut lines would be visible? Perhaps one could see it while peering down from the north end of Elysian Park, or driving north on the I-5, or maybe travelling east on the CA-2? Viewing the asphalt obelisk from above, I realized, was a fantasy provoked by the most commonly circulated views of land art -- both ancient and 20th Century earthworks -- aerial photographs, which work so well to render these works as discrete objects in remote space, aesthetic flourishes in soil and rock. More often than not, there are no people in these photographs, and certainly not cars, power lines, freeways or commuter trains. I thought a lot about local and distant monuments: Los Angeles City Hall, more cinematic than actual; Levitated Mass, Michael Heizer's gargantuan spectacle of transportation performance, the best rock 10 million bucks can buy; obelisks I'd visited in Axum, Ethiopia; the chalk White Horse of Uffington in England; and Nazcan line drawings in Peru.
And maybe because obelisks and rockets have so much in common, I thought about science fiction and time travel. I imagined "The Unfinished" as a magic wand for bringing rain to the parched land, especially after Parker begins programming performances and gatherings there. I saw it as a compass needle, pointing downriver toward the port of L.A.. Toward Egypt perhaps?
Viewing Parker's studies for "The Unfinished," despite being more traditionally "arty" than the realized work may be, shifted my thinking. Parker's two fired clay objects picturing L.A. City Hall, and the flat, earthbound, miniaturized obelisk at Aswan are surprisingly weird and corny. More than anything, their "souvenir-ness" is instructive. The flat one says: "I VISITED The Unfinished" and the city hall says "28 stories was once REALLY tall!" Like all great tourist art, they are both simultaneously reverential and banal.
Parker's photo illustrations for "The Unfinished," wide shots of the site that sometimes include its metro link trains, high tension power lines, warehouse backsides and the River, are also instructive. In this setting, he's drawn the hewn obelisk with festive fluorescent fringes, rendering the cuts in the asphalt and a wide and deep of the trench around them. It's not just lines Parker is cutting, but truly a new embedded obelisk, with sharp, vertical planes, like the original stone. And if it keeps raining, those neat clean side walls won't stay that way after the initial dig. The sandy earth beneath the asphalt will likely slide and make for a more rounded contour. This Unfinished will keep "unfinishing" itself. Parker is digging for more than dirt.
So naturally Parker is delighted by the drama and meeting of experts when Bowtie Park has to be assessed with sci-fi sounding tools like a Ground Penetrating Radar. This permits Parker to invite a group of people not typically involved in the making of a work of art to join him: student archaeologists. And it produces 21st Century imagery (including a radargram) that will forever belong to the archive of the ancient, contemporary "Unfinished." Now, Parker tells me, to protect the rented asphalt cutter and earth excavator while they are on site overnight this coming weekend and next, he and 20 or so helpers will camp out, their tents arranged in a circle surrounding the precious machines, with a campfire for warmth as they sleep. If they're lucky, the flowing L.A. River on the campsite's west will muffle the commuter trains to its immediate east, and nesting birds may even wake the campers. Maybe someone will deliver milk in the morning.1
Camp site, dig site, study site, tourist site, birdwatching site, sculpture site, ritual site, prayer site, historical site: "The Unfinished" remakes, complicates even reinvents an Egyptian archaeological "site," with the tools, materials and labor available at Bowtie State Park. Parker is not simply planning to cut out a big Egyptian phallus in the pavement. Instead, he's creating something more closely resembling a performance of excavation or an "exhibition of history-making," and reminding us that spectacular ruins are never just poetic remains, but always also the markers of power regimes, now and in the past. This ruin in reverse, made of measuring, testing, cutting, digging, displacing, learning, fantasizing, and celebrating, will happen over time and through a diverse crowd's effort and enjoyment. "The Unfinished," even once it's merged back into substrate, sod, or even train tracks, will exist as rumor, memory, and proposition. Then it will belong to anyone and everyone.
1 At 3:30 a.m. on Feb 5, 2014, a tanker truck filled with milk flipped off the side of the transition between the eastbound 134 freeway and the southbound 2. Close to 2,000 pounds of milk flowed down a hill and into a storm drain, where it made its way slowly to an outlet into the L.A. River. The driver of the truck suffered minor injuries. Michael Parker, waiting for a carload full of students on their way from Long Beach to analyze soil at Bowtie Park, (themselves detained by a multi-car accident on the 710), happened to be standing that morning on the bank of the river when milk began flowing from a drain into the water. MILK into the RIVER. Spilled milk. Flowing down the L.A. River. I know the River's fish, fowl and microorganisms probably don't thrive on cow's milk, but my own mammalian anthropocentrism makes the whole episode seem tragic, and slightly mythic. Hazmat crews arrived to suction it up. MILK was VACUUMED UP.
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.