Hammer biennial lends artists a helping hand

The biennial provided some funding for Vishal Jugdeo to shoot a video in Mumbai.
(Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times)

Until this year, Vishal Jugdeo’s videos were dramatically low-budget affairs. The artist had a crew of two, counting himself and a director of photography and not counting actors whom he occasionally asked to hold a boom pole. He used his small studio in Highland Park as a stage set. The bare-bones feel fed some of his central themes, like the wooden language of what passes for emotional intimacy and the artifices of mainstream TV, exposed through absurdly halting dialogue and deliberately mechanical acting.

But in January, working on a new project mining emotional clichés and social hierarchies, he shot his work on location for the first time. Canadian by birth and Indian by ancestry, Jugdeo flew to Mumbai and rented as his set a grand colonial house that has lapsed into shabby decay.

He hired a cast of four local performers and a producer on the ground to help navigate the complexities of filming in a city that he describes as tailor-made for big Bollywood-style productions, not independent filmmaking. Even renting a camera proved tricky. “In L.A. you go to Sammy’s to rent a camera and can just bring it home,” he said. “In Mumbai, the camera comes with two or three attendants or bodyguards who follow it around. They’re the only ones allowed to touch it.”

Jugdeo’s video, accompanied by a primitive stage set, is just one of the more ambitious projects created for “Made in L.A.,” the Hammer Museum’s new biennial organized in partnership with LAX Art running June 2 through Sept. 2.


For the show, featuring 60 “emerging or under-recognized” artists from the L.A. area, painter Pearl Hsiung has created her biggest artwork ever: a 13-panel, 52-foot-long, free-standing mural with fiery-colored, tsunami-like imagery that doesn’t fit inside her own studio. Cayetano Ferrer has created a two-room installation exploring the instant architecture and speculative nature of Las Vegas, featuring a virtual casino façade as well as a large mosaic made of carpet fragments from the Bellagio, Palms and other casinos. And the collaborative SLANGUAGE is taking over the nonprofit gallery LAX Art for the full run of the biennial with a mix of subversive art events and family-friendly workshops.

The Hammer-LAX Art biennial team helped to facilitate and also fund many of these projects to an unusual degree. They gave each artist an honorarium of $1,000. For some of the more ambitious proposals such as Jugdeo’s, they provided additional funding up to $7,500. In other cases, they helped to pay for fabrication, production or performance costs directly. Altogether, the biennial organizers spent about one-third of their $775,000 exhibition budget helping to realize these commissions. (That doesn’t include a $100,000 prize — awarded to one artist later this summer through a combination of jury selection and popular vote.)

“Many of these artists graduated recently from school. And very few — if any — are having knockout commercial success,” said Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin. “So from Day One, the curators said they want to be sure that we have a generous piece of the budget going to artists to help them realize projects.”

LAX Art has largely worked on this model, underwriting artist projects that it exhibits, since its founding in 2005. The Hammer has done so before for special projects and its large lobby wall commissions, though not for sweeping biennial-like surveys in the past such as “Thing,” an ambitious show of new sculpture. Yet most biennials around the world these days — and there are many, designed to introduce new art to a broader public on the model of the Whitney Biennial or Venice Biennale — rely more heavily on artists or their dealers for production costs.

So along with its California focus, which positions “Made in L.A.” as an edgy successor to the historic-looking Pacific Standard Time initiative, this emphasis on commissions helps to set this biennial apart. “If there was one thing artists have been complaining about with other biennials, it was not having enough support,” said Anne Ellegood, chief curator at the Hammer. “We know museums are under a lot of pressure financially. But it felt right, in keeping with our ethos, for us to provide as much support as we could.”

Several artists in “Made in L.A.” said the funding they’ve received has made a visible difference in their work. “The money was a huge help,” said Jugdeo, who also received a Canada Council grant. “It allowed me to think in a broader sense about what was possible. I’ve never spent a year and a half developing a single project.”

Meg Cranston, who made two expansive murals for the Hammer lobby (one is a parade of Bic lighters in of-the-moment Pantone colors; the other, a super-sized version of her 2006 “California” collage), said she was surprised to learn that the Hammer was covering her paint costs and the fees of hiring two teams of painters. Cranston’s last experience participating in a biennial — representing the U.S. in the emerging artists section of the Venice Biennale in 1993 — was different: “As I recall in Venice, there was a moment when they weren’t even going to pay for shipping.”

Pearl Hsiung also received help with fabrication: The Hammer constructed a wooden armature to support her free-standing mural and paid to produce the vinyl rainbow above it. Of the armature, she said: “I don’t have a lot of experience with exhibition-quality construction, and it felt daunting. It was a big relief to me when I found out the museum was going to make it.”


Koki Tanaka received another form of support: When he needed to find musicians who play the marimba for his new video, the curators helped locate the talent for him. He then shot the video in the Hammer’s Billy Wilder Theater.

Dan Finsel, an artist inspired by Farrah Fawcett to the point of wearing a blond feathered wig at times, said having the chance to participate in “Made in L.A.” helped shape his video/sculpture installation, three years in the making, in ways that are hard to gauge. “If my work were being produced for a smaller space or context, who knows what it would look like?”

While the five curators organizing the show made it a rule that they all had to agree on all artists to include them in the biennial, they did pair with particular artists to help oversee their projects. Finsel described curator Ali Subotnick of the Hammer “as supportive as a mother to me, emotionally and in every way.”

Dashiell Manley, who made a clamshell-shaped fiberglass bathtub as the sculptural component of a mixed-media installation, credited Lauri Firstenberg with giving interesting feedback on his work. He had previously made a plaster version of the tub that served as a site for performance and as “a character” in his videos. But the tub was not waterproof. “After the second time I got in it and filled it with water, it cracked and leaked and snapped in several spots.”


Firstenberg, the founder of LAX Art, said she was drawn to the way Manley was thinking about his own archive as an artist, which connects to some of the loose themes she identifies as running through the show: “materiality, archaeology, theatricality, mythology and subjectivity.” (Of the focus on commissions, she said: “The process is as important as the product.”)

When she saw a photo of the bathtub, she encouraged him to remake it. She put him in touch with her longtime fabricator, Benchmark Scenery in Glendale. She also helped line up the referral needed for him to post his project on the micro-funding arts website USA Projects, where he raised more than $6,000.

She says biennial visitors just might see Manley do an unscheduled performance in the tub this summer.

Still, no matter how supportive the curators tried to be, there were limits. Several artists said that the biennial’s financial contributions covered only a fraction of their total costs. Others wondered why each artist received different amounts of funding.


Ellegood explained that the amounts were determined case by case. “It might sound more fair if we said that every artist gets $2,000,” she said. “But every artist’s needs are different. If you are a filmmaker planning to go to India to shoot a new film, that’s different than needing canvas and paint, and I think artists understand that.”

Then there were the artists’ projects that, despite plenty of institutional support, just couldn’t be completed as planned. There were two particularly ambitious projects that took major detours.

Tanaka, who did the video with marimba players, had originally proposed swapping a work of art at the Hammer Museum with a caged animal from the L.A. Zoo — he suggested Paul McCarthy’s rather lumpy, sad-sack sculpture “White Snow Dwarf (Dopey #1)” for a giraffe. He didn’t get far with the idea — just far enough for biennial curator Malik Gaines to write about the artist’s intentions in the exhibition catalog.

Camilo Ontiveros had an idea for an unusual border-crossing project: He would bring to the U.S. 1 cubic meter of soil from Tepic, the city in Nayarit, Mexico, where his brother works as an agricultural scientist. But his online application with the USDA was swiftly denied — “in 30 minutes,” he said, laughing — because of numerous regulations meant to prevent “a variety of dangerous organisms” from entering the U.S.


Working closely with curator Cesar Garcia, the artist began exploring a loophole that might allow exceptions for religious or cultural purposes. Garcia enlisted the director of the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico to draw up an international loan agreement for the soil “sculpture.” But the USDA rejected the application again, on the grounds that the soil would not be properly treated and quarantined upon arrival in the U.S.

Ontiveros said he was not discouraged. “I was very open from the beginning to the possibility that all the regulations and our negotiations would take over the project. I find it interesting how difficult it is to move earth, but not labor.”

So in the end he decided to show in the biennial an empty platform where the cube of soil would have been displayed, a video of the soil extraction and a small book he made from the various documents generated. This book, which chronicles the unrealized project, also reads as a history of the museum’s step-by-step involvement.