This year, many plans were up-ended, particularly those laid out months or even more than a year in advance like weddings, vacations, and, naturally, museum exhibitions. While some museums closed their doors, preventing visitors from seeing shows before they ended or while they were intended to open, galleries started rolling out appointment systems for new and existing shows. But what happens when your exhibition is actually meant to open during the new normal?
For the team behind the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2020: a version,” the fifth iteration of its biennial highlighting L.A. artists, the answer lies in adapting to the new conditions as much as possible. This year’s exhibition features the work of artists like Hedi El Kholti, Aria Dean, Katja Seib, Reynaldo Rivera, Monica Majoli, Ligia Lewis and Fulton Leroy Washington (aka MR. WASH) but it’s not open to the public yet — at least not in its entirety.
As imagined by independent co-curators Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler and Hammer Museum assistant curator for performance, Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, the biennial offered multiple entry points for art lovers from its inception. But the inevitable effects of the pandemic created a shift in how some of these components came to life — and how audience members could interact with them.
The biennial spans two venues, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens and the Hammer Museum, along with installations, a podcast, an exhibition catalog and virtual performances. Many pieces were commissioned specifically for the exhibition.
Yet the institution remains closed, with language on its site stating that it will “reopen pending permission from L. A. County.”
Instead, art enthusiasts can currently see a new series of five billboards by Larry Johnson in MacArthur Park as well as watch Kahlil Joseph’s “conceptual news program” BLKNWS® in select locations (co-produced with LAND or Los Angeles Nomadic Division).
Mackler says the team originally envisioned these offsite pieces as "as an opportunity for a happenstance experience, a kind of accidental viewing,” but that the current times shifted this reality.
“Of course, the everyday is really changed by COVID,” Mackler tells “Southland Sessions.” “People's routes are less spontaneous, people live less fluidly, there is less relaxed movement through the city."
Onyewuenyi echoes this statement. “It's no longer like an accidental encounter,” he says. “You have to be very intentional about how you move these days which is totally fine, but it’s changed the experience." With its installation at locations like Bloom & Plume Coffee in Historic Filipinotown, Sole Folks in Leimert Park and Hank’s Mini Market in South L.A., BLKNWS might be encountered while you’re waiting in line after a coffee run or grocery purchase. But everything now requires thinking ahead and staying cognizant of your surroundings.
On the other hand, Onyewuenyi emphasizes, the installation offers a certain access not available otherwise. While the list includes spaces you can enter without an appointment, others require reserving your spot ahead of time. Onyewuenyi says he ran into a friend who was excited about seeing the installation, but also about visiting clothing store Total Luxury Spa, which only recently reopened via appointment.
Initially, the team envisioned the podcast by SON. (Justen LeRoy) as a soundtrack to viewers’ drive from the Huntington to the Hammer (or vice versa), since both exhibitions feature the same artists, but the pandemic has put those plans on hold. LeRoy began using the South Central barber shop Touched by An Angel as headquarters for the project and podcast recording in 2019; it was originally also meant to serve as “a real life day-to-day social space,” Onyewuenyi explains, in which book club meetings and other gatherings would take place. Given the current restrictions, however, it’s unclear when this component of LeRoy’s project might take place, seeing as to the current restrictions.
Mackler says that the challenges have extended beyond the public-facing components — performance pieces had to be translated from IRL space to virtual means; certain materials weren’t available to artists; the movement of bodies in the gallery spaces had to be re-envisioned. While talking with “Southland Sessions,” Onyewuenyi mentioned this was the first time he’d seen the social distancing stickers on the museum’s floor.
Click right and left to see installations from the Hammer Museum: