MOCA's Writing on the Wall : Pledge Mural Stirs Little Tokyo Debate

Times Staff Writer

A huge mural proposed for Little Tokyo that depicts the Pledge of Allegiance juxtaposed with a series of potentially provocative questions has drawn the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art into an unexpected controversy.

And in a development rare in arts circles, both MOCA and Barbara Kruger, the prominent New York-based artist commissioned to paint the mural, have agreed to alter it to accommodate community concerns.

The red, white and blue artwork--29 feet high and 218 feet long--is proposed to occupy nearly all of the most visible exterior wall of MOCA's Temporary Contemporary facility on First Street. The mural would command widespread attention on one of downtown's busiest thoroughfares and face directly into Little Tokyo.

But top museum managers now concede they made a serious misjudgment on how the community would react. MOCA moved to commission the artwork without anticipating that the huge depiction of the Pledge of Allegiance might offend members of the Japanese-American community. Some Japanese-Americans carry memories of forced incarceration in World War II relocation camps, and they say the original design for the mural would seem a slap in the face.

If additional meetings between the artist and a community group are successful, painting could begin as early as next month. Already, the proposal has been changed so that the lettering of the questions that originally surrounded the Pledge of Allegiance has been enlarged and moved to the center of the mural so they dominate the work.

As it was originally conceived, the untitled work showed the Pledge of Allegiance in bold letters surrounded by questions in smaller type.

"What I want is a pleasurable and fruitful meeting of the minds between myself and the community and anyone else who might be involved," Kruger said. "What's really important is the message in this piece do its work in as many ways as possible. There is no way I want to be cast as some artist who just came in and wanted to do her own thing."

The controversy took form when a neighborhood group, the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, complained that the mural proposal amounted to at least an insensitivity to the concerns of Japanese-Americans. The museum quickly organized a dialogue between Kruger, who will execute the mural, and local residents.

The controversy arose unexpectedly. Because the City of Los Angeles owns the building housing the Temporary Contemporary, the city Cultural Affairs Commission must approve all exterior artwork. The commission, a spokesperson said, granted the approval routinely on May 11 with no indication of community opposition.

Kruger spent several hours last week meeting with advisory committee members and neighborhood residents.

The mural was originally intended to be a part of "A Forest of Signs," an exhibit that opened in early May at the Temporary Contemporary and features 200 works by 30 American artists. The show continues until Aug. 13, but museum officials said the controversial mural was intended from the beginning to remain in place for a substantially longer time and to serve as a sign for the Temporary Contemporary, which currently has no identifying markings at the street.

The mural is financed as part of the show. While most of the money to pay for the exhibition was raised from private sources, some funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Council were used, the museum said.

Kruger said she is prepared to propose additional changes. Richard Koshalek, MOCA's director, said the content of the mural remains open to negotiation but pledged that the museum will support a compromise version of the Kruger mural even if in another location. Additional discussions are expected to occur this month or in August.

Yet to be seen is whether the project will incite yet another controversy among conservative organizations and politicians. But spokesmen for the White House and two conservative Southern California congressmen indicated that President Bush and others who made the sanctity of the Pledge of Allegiance an issue in the 1988 presidential campaign seem to be giving the Little Tokyo mural a wide berth.

White House spokeswoman Kristen Taylor said that neither the President nor the White House would have any comment.

Paul Mero, a spokesman for Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), said, "I'm not sure (Dannemeyer) would say this is quite as unreasonable as some of the other (artworks based on the American flag that have prompted controversy recently) we have seen. This just sounds like a left-winger blowing off smoke."

Ann Goldstein, a MOCA assistant curator, and Sherri Geldin, the museum's associate director, said planning for the Pledge of Allegiance mural began more than two years ago. They said the final proposal emerged earlier this year--long before an installation at the Art Institute of Chicago in which a flag was laid on the floor sparked a controversy that is still in progress.

Geldin noted that the planning also predated the paroxysm of controversy that greeted the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down laws forbidding the burning of the flag as a political protest. "It was a very different climate," Koshalek said of the point at which MOCA committed itself to the Kruger piece and its theme.

"It's heated up since. There were hints because of the campaign, in which Bush made this great emphasis with regard to the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance."

Ironically, though, perhaps, the most serious questions about the Kruger mural clearly emanated from Japanese-Americans.

Kats Kunitsugu, a development advisory committee member who said she was incarcerated in a relocation camp with her family for three years, said that when she first learned of the proposal last month, "I thought it was quite a slap in the face of the Japanese community because of our experience in World War II."

To Kunitsugu, one of the most poignant photographic images of the relocation camp era is a picture of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, behind a barbed-wire fence.

"I thought that we had proved our loyalty," she said. "Friends of mine volunteered (for combat duty in the Army) out of the camps and fought in Europe. I thought we paid our dues. The first impression that you get (of the mural) is this huge Pledge of Allegiance. Why facing Little Tokyo? Why now?

"It seems to be a very difficult thing for people to comprehend how we feel. Having your citizenship ignored and your rights taken away by force. And now, we're just on the verge of redress and reparations. We thought all of this was behind us."

Alan Furuta, chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Development Advisory Committee, said his group, which exists officially to make recommendations on construction projects to the Community Redevelopment Agency, felt the mural proposal raised concerns about "the impact such a large piece would have on the feelings of the community, basically seeing the large image (similar to) a flag with very sizable lettering of the Pledge of Allegiance.

"One of the things that came out (of that concern) was the memories of the camp and the imprisonment of individuals who were citizens. It would perhaps bring up old wounds and feelings. We gave up a lot of liberty and a lot of freedom. Do we have to be reminded of that lack of justice?"

Furuta, who said his parents and grandparents were imprisoned in camps during the war, said he had misgivings about complaining because he considers himself a supporter of public art and artistic freedom. Kunitsugu said she had similar concerns but feared the size of the lettering of the Pledge of Allegiance would cause Kruger's provocative questions to be ignored.

The current version of the proposal, Kruger and Koshalek said, is intended to address concerns for the typographical visibility of the questions.

Kruger, for her part, said she welcomes the dialogue. But she maintained the giant mural's basic intent is consistent with fears, concerns and bitter old feelings expressed by some Little Tokyo community members.

"Basically, I think that our great democracy is, like all democracies, a fragile one," she said. "I think it's important for us to be vigilant and to preserve the generosities we have within the democratic system. I think we really have to work to protect our freedom.

"I try to be mindful of other communities. We are bound by the fact that we are Americans. Democracy is complex."

Kruger said she welcomed the opportunity to meet with community members. Kunitsugu and Furuta said the personal communication between the artist and the community had been successful.

Koshalek said the museum was taken by surprise--"No question about it," he said--by the controversy. "If we made any mistake in this whole process, (it was that we) should have talked with them (the community) sooner," Koshalek said. "Their reasons for being concerned came as a surprise to all of us.

"It's actually good information for us to have. It was a learning experience. I don't think any of us guessed that the situation in the 1940s could bring up this great sensitivity."

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