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The Artist Who Placed Democracy on Her Civic Center Pedestal

It was in Boston on the weekend of the Beijing massacre that Los Angeles artist Tom Van Sant decided to create a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” bulldozed by Chinese troops in Tien An Men Square.

“At 11 p.m. I drove down Massachusetts Avenue, and 400 Chinese students were standing on the steps at MIT,” Van Sant said.

Flying to Los Angeles the next day, he sketched the statue that he and others erected on a Civic Center footbridge a few days later: “I bought a Time magazine with a picture of the ‘Goddess’ and designed it on the plane.”

The 23-foot-tall monument remains atop the bridge. Though installed June 12 without a city permit, the statue has won support from city officials who helped have it anchored down temporarily and voted Monday to aid in its relocation next week to City Hall’s Spring Street entrance. Officials say it may stay there for 90 days.

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“I get asked why we did it,” said Van Sant, who erected the wood and Styrofoam statue with other members of the local chapter of Artists Equity Assn., a national visual artists service organization.

“People all across our country feel powerless (over the Chinese crisis), and this dramatic imagery these Chinese kids came up with gives us an opportunity to be empowered in some way.”

It isn’t every day that Van Sant makes socially conscious art. But the statue is not a far cry from his other efforts of late.

The artist recently formed Eyes on Earth, a nonprofit corporation for environmental research, education and programming that is about to unveil its main undertaking, the Van Sant Geosphere.

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Working with a 30-person team that includes scientists and computer wizards, Van Sant said he is creating a computerized 24-foot globe that uses space satellites, lasers and video to display images of environmental activity anywhere on the planet.

“Along with freedom of people, custodianship of our planet is the most important issue of our time,” he said. “As an artist, I enjoy contributing to these issues.”

Van Warren, a computer graphics technician at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Geosphere, said a prototype should be ready in August.

“This is the forefront of technology and the forefront of art coming together to produce a tangible symbol of environmental awareness and global consciousness,” Warren said.

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Van Sant, 58, has married art and technology before, producing elaborate kites and a giant eye made of mirrors reflecting sunlight to satellites. Best known for these sorts of popular, off-beat projects, Van Sant is not well known in more established fine-arts circles.

Roland Reiss, an artist and art department chairman at Claremont Graduate School, said he had never heard of Van Sant: “No, the name is not ringing any bells.”

Van Sant has designed several conventional public works in Southern California and Hawaii, however. His commissions include wall reliefs at the Inglewood City Hall, banners at Los Angeles International Airport and the bridge on which the “Goddess” now stands.

One public project met with an unfortunate end. A 1967 mural in the downtown AT&T; Center was covered up when new owners remodeled the building, Van Sant said. He fought that action in court with a $5.5-million lawsuit; the parties recently settled it for an undisclosed amount.

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