Baby Ikki makes a splash in Eagle Rock, and other public art


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The Farley Storage Building, on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock, is a great white block of a structure, sans windows or adornments of any kind—a building that gives nothing away. Walk in the front door today and you’ll find yourself in a small, blandly decorated foyer that resembles a doctor’s waiting room, with a sofa and magazines and a young woman stationed in a glass-enclosed office. She’ll direct you through a door to your right, beyond which you’ll find yourself in another world altogether.

Music blares, colored lights flash and spin in the darkness, and a booming female voice delivers enigmatic commentary through a cavernous space filled with jungle gyms, stuffed animals, a 30-foot junk sculpture, and portable toilets, while seven enormous video screens follow a 59-year-old man in a bonnet and diapers through the wilds of the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.


This peculiar new addition to the otherwise placid Eagle Rock business district is “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” a collaborative project by Mike Kelley and Michael Smith. The jungle gyms and stuffed animals are classic Kelley—the building is, in fact, his former studio—and the creepily overgrown infant is one of performance artist Smith’s longtime characters, Baby Ikki. The installation premiered at Sculpture Center in New York last fall but West of Rome director Emi Fontana, who produced the project, is clearly pleased to see it returned to the site of its original conception. The piece had much less room in New York, she says, and the effect was more like a carnival or fun house. Here, the enormity of the warehouse space echoes the vastness of the desert, inviting a more ominous, existential dimension.

With flaming red hair, cool blue eyes and a slightly tentative Milanese accent, Fontana is a striking presence, elegant but unpretentious. In her work as well as her conversation and dress, she betrays a deep independent streak. She is effusive in her affection for the neighborhood—she herself lives in South Pasadena—and clearly proud of landing such a project so far from the purview of a museum or other such institution, giving the artists free rein and opening the results to the public free of charge. The opening on May 26 attracted around 1,000 people.

Smith remained in character throughout his week at Burning Man, Fontana recounts—an exhausting endeavor that affected his health for months after. Kelley himself didn’t go, apparently. “He was scared,” she says. She went—in characteristic style, it seems. A photograph on the West of Rome website depicts her weathering a dust storm alongside the perennially baffled Baby Ikki in sunglasses, gas mask, and leopard print bikini top.

West of Rome is one of the relatively new, feisty nonprofits that are supporting an interesting spurt in public art in SoCal; to read my longer piece on that development in Sunday’s Arts & Books section, click here.

--Holly Myers