Thursday, September 08, 2011

Cactuseaters: back from my grand tour of the California Southlands (Santa Monica and beyond)

Don't count me among the Santa Cruzans who drive around with bumpers that say "We're back. L.A. sucked."

I, for one, enjoyed every moment of my grand Southlands tour which included Santa Monica, Westwood, Hollywood, Reseda, Tarzana, Redondo and Palos Verdes. Yes, there was a bit of sprawl, and yes, their was a bit of traffic (I almost got clipped in half by a Hummer, and had to rev my engine and drive like mad on the Rosecrans entrance to the 405), and yes, the place is humongous, but I loved the aspirational energy, the food, and the sense that I was putting every bit of my Driver's Ed training -- including all those "Red Asphalt" movies -- to the test. I went into a wonderful Bay Cities Italian deli in the middle of Santa Monica, and it was bedlam -- everyone clamoring for the same eggplant paninis and turkey Reubens. The struggle, the waiting, the clawing and shouting, made my sandwich taste even better.

We spent a good sized chunk of our time in Santa Monica, in a lovely rented house in a leafy, mostly quiet neighborhood -- I say mostly because it lies directly in the flight path of the Santa Monica Airport. The planes did not bother us at all, even though they swooped above us at regular intervals. I imagine it would be more of a problem if you lived on that street year-round and had to deal with the planes all of the time. (see the bottom of this post)

In the course of the week, I found that "nearby" highlights in Los Angeles are nowhere near each other, even if they look cheek-by-jowl on a Southlands map. For instance it took FOREVER to go from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it was worth the extremely long trek. I especially loved the Zodiac heads sculpture by Ai Weiwei, now on exhibit at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The heads – a rooster, a pig, a dragon, and a toothy sheep, among others –were beautiful and unsettling. All of them stare down from six foot spikes, and bare their teeth. They stand in judgment of the viewer. I read that Wei Wei based this sculpture on a looted work of art, erected in China by Jesuits and and pillaged by invading French and British forces in 1860. Most of the animal heads in that garden – save for the ones that inspired the animal heads in Wei Wei’s magisterial work, were carted off or destroyed. “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the place we burnt,” lamented the regretful Charles George Gordon, the British captain who led the mission.

The Broad museum itself was another surprise; a series of escalators (like the ones at the Pompidou) deposit you on the top floor. It's a bit like a fun house; enormous dinner plates that spin and threaten to topple over on you when your circle around them, Jeff Koons' larger-than-life Michael and Bubbles sculpture, and, on the first floor, a Richard Serra installation called "Band" that overwhelms with its scale and grace.

Incidentally, I was saddened but not entirely surprised to hear that a plane actually crashed right near where we were staying -- on the same block of the same street, no less.

(Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in that crash. Still, these good folks should think about moving the airport some place else. I guess the other alternative is moving the houses, but that would be harder.)

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