Not far from my apartment in Los Angeles, there’s a curious place that is always busy day and night: Urban Light, at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. The sculpture is made up of 202 restored street lamps, all clustered together along Wilshire Boulevard. It was only installed in 2008, but has already become an iconic symbol of Los Angeles.
Indeed, if anyone in your Instagram of Facebook feeds has visited LA in the last few years, you probably saw some pictures like this:
Urban Light was created by Chris Burden, an LA artist who had a long and well-regarded career pushing boundaries. Burden died Sunday, which means now is as good a time as any to reflect on this iconic piece.
I think what makes Urban Light so wonderful is how it rewards on so many levels. The piece almost seems custom made for our social media-drenched world — even though it predates the creation of Instagram — and so it has become the star of innumerable photo shoots. Go by on any random day and there engaged couples, brides, and parents taking pictures of kids.
All of which is to say that fulfills the first and most basic qualification for being a great place: people want to be there. And in fact Burden himself once said he hoped the piece would open a space that had physically “turned its back on the city.”
But Urban Light isn’t just for pretty pictures. For those who want it to be, It’s also an intellectually challenging and surprising piece of real art. Burden described it as “architecture without walls,” and exploring the cluster of lamps raises questions about history, material culture, and light in a city of movie stars and eternal sunshine.
I’m not going to get into an entire art review here, but suffice it to say that if you’re an adult with an interest in postmodern art theory, this piece is for you. And if you’re a kid who just wants to run around exploring, this piece is also for you. It’s supremely democratic.
Which is rare.
The United States is filled with public art, and much of it is merely decorative. Other times, it lacks the ethereal aesthetics that makes it widely appealing. I’m thinking of several pieces in Seattle’s fantastic Olympic Sculpture Park, which are intellectually rewarding but lack the face-value beauty or interactivity of Urban Light. I don’t see many brides, for example, taking pictures with Richard Serra pieces.
And that’s fine. Not every piece of public art has to be all things to all people. What’s remarkable, however, is that Urban Light kind of is.
— Jim Dalrymple II