Featured in
Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

The Secret History of Santa Monica Airport

The home of Frieze Los Angeles was once covered by an entire fake suburb created by Hollywood set designers: a deception that inspires this year’s Frieze Projects program, curated by Art Production Fund

BY Thara Parambi in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine | 27 FEB 24

Art fairs have the challenging task of providing an appropriate backdrop for thousands of works with wildly varying subject matter, media and aesthetic properties. In some ways, a venue is chosen for its ability to disappear, receding into the periphery and foregrounding the works on display. Think of familiar venues like the Miami Beach Convention Center, used for Art Basel, or the Javits Center for the Armory Show in New York. Airports are similarly nondescript entities. If it wasn’t for the H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D alphabet keychains in LAX’s duty-free shop, I would be none the wiser as to my whereabouts. In this way, an airport is an unexpectedly appropriate location for an art fair: the tent at Frieze Los Angeles patently fits right in at Santa Monica Airport (SMO). What is less well known, however, is how the fair’s host location has observed this essential criterion of disappearance.

Previously known as Clover Field, SMO first came into being in 1917. Then, 27 years later, it disappeared. During WWII it was home to the Douglas Aircraft Company, which developed and produced planes instrumental to the Allied success in the war, including the ubiquitous Douglas DC-3 transport. So vital was the site that it was decided to completely disguise it from the air. Making use of local talent, Douglas employed set designers from Warner Bros studios to conceal the plant. It was a monumental task. An entire imitation neighborhood was built, using close to 5 million square feet of chicken wire draped over 400 poles, completely covering the site. The decoy neighborhood was the full package, with lightweight, wood-frame houses with attached garages, trees made of wire and spray-painted chicken feathers, clotheslines and fences. The airfield’s runway was transformed into a field using green paint spat out by tanker trucks. Streets and sidewalks were painted to match those in nearby Sunset Park, where employees at the aircraft company were housed.

Santa Monica Airport view
Douglas Aircraft Company site, now Santa Monica Airport, camouflaged as a residential neighborhood during World War II, 1944. Courtesy: © Boeing Images

The disguise was so successful that some inbound pilots could not locate the Santa Monica landing strip and were forced to use other nearby airstrips instead. To resolve this, men waving red flags were placed at either end of the runway. Eventually, white markers were painted on the hillside to replace the flag-wielding men. Upon completion of the project, Warner Bros decided to conceal their own studios in light of concerns that, viewed from above, they might also appear to be an aircraft plant. Over time, the scarecrow neighborhood built over the airport was absorbed into the community and its eventual removal in July 1945 was the source of a real feeling of loss. Just as the Douglas site miraculously vanished in 1944, so did its chicken-wire alter ego a year later.

Reflecting the history of the fair’s location, Frieze Projects at Frieze Los Angeles 2024 espouses themes of disguise and subterfuge. Read beyond this as: misleading, hiding, betraying, bluffing, counterfeiting, miscommunicating, deceiving, or creating a hoax, illusion, facade or mask. These themes have been dealt with by artists both directly and indirectly throughout the canon. Just over a decade ago, in Hito Steyerl’s 2013 video piece How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File, the artist outlines the ways we can disappear or disguise ourselves in the digital age.

In one scene, Steyerl shows us a satellite calibration target: a giant pixel painted on the ground that allows satellites to focus their lenses and test their resolution. The current size of one of these pixels is one foot square. In 1996, it was 130 feet square. To elude surveillance from space, we must now be smaller than one foot in any direction. In the video, performers cavort with one-foot-square boxes on their heads, revelling in the freedom of their invisibility. Steyerl also darkly presents other ways of disappearing: “being female and over 50, [...] being undocumented or poor.”

Santa Monica Airport camouflaged
Douglas Aircraft Company site, now Santa Monica Airport, camouflaged as a residential neighborhood during World War II, 1944. Courtesy: © Boeing Images

Pippa Garner, who has been invited to participate in Frieze Projects this year, approaches ideas of disguise and subterfuge with greater immediacy. Her work suggests that everything we see is already some kind of mask, its permutations anticipating an eventual reveal. Entire parts of her own body are an illusion. A trompe-l’oeil bra and thong and a wooden leg are tattooed on by Dawn Purnell. In Garner’s 1974 sculpture and performance Backwards Car, she drove a 1959 Chevy across the Golden Gate Bridge. The car’s bodywork was lifted and flipped on the chassis, creating the appearance of it driving in reverse. For Garner, this creed extends to gender. She began “gender hacking” in the mid-1980s, acquiring black-market estrogen from trans sex workers she met on Hollywood Boulevard. In 1991, she underwent top surgery paid for with the sale of an Ed Ruscha print and, in 1992, after a trip to Brussels, she “came home with a vagina.” Interviewed by hannah baer last year for frieze, she says that if at birth she could have chosen her gender “[she] would have had the same attitude toward whatever body [she] got.” Garner’s vision is not definitive and, through disguise, she discovers the multitudes inherent in all things.

Purposeful disguise is critical—these actions have the intention of subverting expectations or furthering discourse. In the chapter “The Line and Light” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1977), Jacques Lacan writes of disguise: “It is not a question of harmonizing with the background but, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled—exactly like the technique practiced in human warfare.” Art that does not scrutinize the politics of its production and landscape of its era runs the risk of being accidentally disguised—a disguise that simply reproduces the structures present in society. And where better to explore this subject than against the mottled background of Santa Monica Airport, concealed for human warfare?

This article first appeared in Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024 under the title “Hiding in Plane Sight.”

Further information

Frieze Los Angeles is at Santa Monica Airport, February 29–March 3, 2024.

Last chance to get tickets to the fair

Frieze In Person membership is now sold out, but there are still limited tickets available to purchase for this weekend. Grab them now before they're gone.


To keep up to date on all the latest news from Frieze, sign up to the newsletter at frieze.com, and follow @friezeofficial on Instagram, Twitter and Frieze Official on Facebook

Frieze Los Angeles is supported by global lead partner Deutsche Bank, continuing over two decades of a shared commitment to artistic excellence

Main Image: Douglas Aircraft Company site, now Santa Monica Airport, camouflaged as a residential neighborhood during World War II, 1944. Courtesy © Boeing Images

Thara Parambi is an Indian writer and artist living between London and Los Angeles.