Out in Public: West of Rome



With one month remaining in Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s installation “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery,” Los Angeles-based non-profit public art organization West of Rome brought the exhibition to life with a benefit event last week. Housed in Kelley’s 15,500 square-foot studio in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles since May 26, the core of the exhibition is a ring of six massive jungle gym-like steel sculptures by Kelley, adorned with stuffed animals and pennant flags. These are surrounded by a multi-part video piece by Smith on six rear-projection screens (suspended from the ceiling, above eye-level) in which the artist’s alter-ego, Baby IKKI, explores the notoriously free-spirited festival Burning Man. This video piece set the tone for the evening, which through live performances heightened the exhibition’s psychedelic playhouse vibe. Guests were greeted by a marching band and Carnival-style dancer, and then given white baby bibs (name-customized in pastel-hued embroidery for those attendees who RSVP-ed early enough).

Wandering through the space, visitors were approached by various performers in animal costumes, which, combined with other surreal elements like colorful lighting and bizarre sounds, created a nearly hallucinatory sensory experience. The evening’s central performance was Baby IKKI “preparing” dinner in the middle of a Kelley sculpture, surrounded by a drum circle. His actions consisted of mainly of chucking cake and various other indeterminable substances into a giant wok. I asked West of Rome’s executive and creative director, Emi Fontana, a few questions about the event and her role as the organization’s curator:

LILLY SLEZAK: The press release for “A Voyage of Growth and Discovery” describes the exhibition as an “immersive art experience.” What do you find important about the immersive aspect?

EMI FONTANA: I like the idea of the viewer going trough this immersive art experience as an existential journey, or “voyage.” When beginning work on a show I never have a final idea of how it should play out, which would limit the creative process. When the artists started to work on the show, we didn’t know exactly what would have been in terms of form. The first thing that we knew is that we came back from the festival in Black Rock desert with 12 hours of footage.
SLEZAK: You have worked previously with both Mike Kelley and Michael Smith. How has that relationship grown?

FONTANA: I share long-term friendships and working relationships with both of them, and on their hand they are friends since the 70s. It was a perfect triangle. It was not all easy; we had our moments… even some boys [vs.] girl stuff. But ultimately we are all high-end professionals trying to deliver the best results to the public.
SLEZAK: How is this Los Angeles presentation different from the show’s premier at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York?

FONTANA: The Los Angeles presentation has the privilege of taking place in the same place where the installation was originally conceived, Mike Kelley’s former studio. The circular orientation of the installation, by which the viewer could be at the center, really helps the immersive aspect of the experience and the existential reading of it.
SLEZAK: As you said, this exhibition is presented in Kelley’s studio. Was that a matter of convenience, or was it a decision tied to the conceit of the work?

FONTANA: It was both. At first, we looked around for other spaces, but it was difficult to find something with ceilings that high and with so much space. We really wanted to keep things more spread out than at SculptureCenter. Then, as it often happens, the best solution was right there, before our eyes.

SLEZAK: West of Rome is one of several public art organizations to recently spring up in Los Angeles. Why do you think L.A. is appealing or unique in the realm of public art?

FONTANA: West of Rome started its nomadic exhibition activity in 2005, other organizations followed. I think this city offers a perfect set, and it’s so full of possibilities. Its vastness and the availability open space and wide horizons are very inspiring to get out of the white box.

SLEZAK: How do you designate programs? How do you consider the local neighborhood?

FONTANA: It is like Russian dolls: first, we consider the art; then, the typology of the space; and then the neighborhood. There are no fixed rules when you get into the public realm you have to release control and pick up chances and accept changes.

SLEZAK: How many projects does West of Rome produce each year?

FONTANA: In this case as well there is not a prefixed number, it depends on the entity of the project. So far we are leaning toward big productions, so for funding and timing reasons we can only do a couple each year. For me, quality control is important and as a curator I enjoy projects that require time, commitment, and something that is significant for the artist and for the public instead of little events or parties here and there.