Six Love Letters to Los Angeles
The Sunset Strip seduces Kim Gordon, while Chris Kraus prefers MacArthur Park
The Sunset Strip seduces Kim Gordon, while Chris Kraus prefers MacArthur Park
Song of the Strip
Kim Gordon remembers the allure of Sunset Strip before a corporate takeover cleaned up the sex and mystery
It’s difficult to separate my feelings about Los Angeles from the movies and television shows that I grew up watching, shot in and around the city. For me, they’re like ghost layers, buried on top of each other to make up the current landscape. It’s a city of facades, both real and imagined.
Driving down Sunset Strip, I still look for remnants of where the detective series 77 Sunset Strip (1958–64) was filmed. Adult and unattainable, everything about it was sexy, creating the stirrings for future desire. ‘Kookie’, the young guy who parked sleek convertibles, was my first crush. I can’t recall much else about the show, except the theme song. It had a sort of beat, West Coast jazz, finger-snapping hook that still rings out in my head: ‘77 Sunset Strip, 77 Sunset Strip…’
Today, the Strip retains the same DNA of slickness, but it’s no longer sexy or mysterious. It has a self-conscious glint of money, old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll and a feel of the dregs of old Hollywood. Giant billboards advertising television shows, movies, fashion and luxury goods tower above. It’s hard to ignore that it all looks like corporate pleasure. There was a certain quaintness about the Strip and what it once alluded to, but that’s nearly gone. Still, if you know where to look, you can see the before and after, sitting side by side; like the Sahara Motel on Sunset is now the Sunset West. The original building is still there, with paint and new signage slapped on.
Homesick after leaving the filth and violence of 1980s LA and moving to Berlin, the photographer Reynaldo Rivera returned to his city of night
I moved from Los Angeles to Berlin in 1989 – the year the Berlin Wall came down and the city had one of its coldest winters. I liked the cold, grey emptiness of the German capital and I loved all the flea markets. Oh, and how safe it was in those days. You could walk around at any hour, day or night, without fear of getting robbed or jumped. I remember how long it would take me to overcome that anxiety – an anxiety I’d carry around daily during the 1980s in LA, when the city had some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America. The MacArthur Park area, where I lived in 1988, was one of them. Before that, I was in Echo Park.
Yes, LA was dangerous then, but it was also exciting. In the early 1980s, I was dating this guy – a music critic at that time – and we went to shows together. I got to see this frumpy white girl clad in stonewash jeans, bouncing around the stage: it was Madonna on her first tour (The Virgin Tour, 1985). The Beastie Boys opened for her. In 1984, when Sade was promoting her first album, Diamond Life, we were invited to her record-signing party. At the time, most of my friends thought her hit song, ‘Smooth Operator’, was lame. I still have a signed photo of her that she gave me. I was young, maybe 20 or 21. Is that considered young?
I had already been around the block by then. We were about to enter our first 1970s revival and it was the end of my crystal-meth run. I stopped long before it became an epidemic: I would say a decade before. I was surprised how popular the drug became: in my day, it was very hard to come by. Everyone I scored from became real meth-heads. By the end of the 1980s, most of the survivors had ended up in Addicts Anonymous [AA] and, by the 1990s, AA was the club to be in. Unfortunately, I struggled to find a sponsor. I thought of myself when they’d say: ‘Some of you cannot be helped by AA.’ I remember the food binges we’d have once a week after doing speed all day, making collages and, of course, not eating. Sometimes, we would crawl out from our favourite spot under the stairs to go and eat at El Siete Mares: the pulpo (octopus) soup or the vuelve a vida coctel (seafood cocktail). I really missed spicy food when I lived in Berlin. I used to chew on raw garlic cloves just to get the sensation of a burning mouth.
I told myself I was going to go back to the violence and filth of LA, the film noir capital of the world. I knew it was more dangerous and dirtier than Berlin, but I always felt more at home in LA. It seemed to me that the city was unjustly criticized for the wrong reasons. People never complained about the crime or the pollution, but about how superficial everyone was and how they all wanted to be movie stars. Of course, those criticisms were usually levelled by white, university folk ignoring the majority of us living in LA. They were talking about the Westside, where I rarely ventured. I guarantee you that most Latinx at that time had no fantasy of being an actor – god forbid a movie star – and as for being superficial, we didn’t have the time for such nonsense. Most of us could barely plan a day in advance.
Some of the neighbourhoods I grew up in are no longer dangerous, but all this safety has come at the cost of individual liberty: the freedom to have sex in a park at 3am or to drive home after having a glass of wine. I think there’s a certain amount of safety one has to give up for the sake of freedom. The suburbanites came, cleaned up the city and illuminated it. But that, too, shall pass. I look forward to walking in my city of night again. Who knows, maybe in my next life?
Roses at Night
When Paul Mpagi Sepuya returned to Los Angeles in 2014, rosebushes were among the first of the city’s pleasures to greet him
Because so much of my practice is studio-based, place has been a less obvious subject in my work. It is something I consider more in relation to subjects appearing in and across various projects, something more social than geographic. Before I returned to Los Angeles in 2014, I lived and worked in New York for about 14 years, with occasional periods spent in Europe, Chicago and elsewhere.
Back in LA, I started photographing flowers. Poppies, roses. I was especially drawn to roses at night, illuminated by artificial sources: car brake lights, gas station lamps, house and apartment lighting. Excessively watered rosebushes can be found across class divides in LA. In that first year, I spent most of my time walking and biking – the roses became a way for me to orient myself in the city.
As I first began my studio-based work, I brought in fragments of these images of flowers, as well as ambient light and distorted figures from gay bars and dancefloors. In the last few years, I have dedicated myself to native landscape gardening; it’s become a side-project on its own. Along with a home and space to garden, LA has afforded me a much larger physical studio than I would have to access in New York, and that has hugely affected my work. But, perhaps the roses are the real secret to the city.
Running Wild in The Oaks
Erica Mahinay reminisces on her time house-sitting a mansion in Los Feliz and creating an ad hoc artist residency with her best friend
Dear Los Angeles,
Do you remember in 2019 when my bestie Charlie and I occupied that five-bedroom, four-bathroom, ranch-style house in The Oaks – the neighbourhood nestled in Los Feliz, abutting Griffith Park? Intending to fully renovate the property, the artist we both worked for asked us to housesit while plans were made and permissions approved. Until then, we could run wild. Nothing was precious. Not the sandy brick fireplace, nor the chartreuse bathroom tile, nor the multi-entry, wood-panelled bar.
This home was much like LA itself: a centreless, sprawling series of consecutive boundaries pressed up against wilderness. The most natural way to move through the house was to circulate like hawks or to ricochet off the walls of its furnitureless rooms like the laughter of coyotes in the nearby canyons. For six months we moved like this through the house, turning it into a free-form artist residency that we cheekily referred to as the Charles Mansion Project.
We set up a sewing room. I brought canvases and in-progress sculptures from my downtown studio. We gathered friends – writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists – and mapped out a script for a series of short films featuring the house as the throughline. We set up air mattresses and sleeping bags. We huddled over pizzas and passed pad thai. When we weren’t focusing on the film, we worked on our own projects. With poolside, casual rigour, we used the house as a space to experiment and envision.
Dear Los Angeles, you always have a way of shifting my vision.
The only catch to this gifted opportunity was not knowing how long it would last. Weeks shy of filming, the Mansion Project ended as abruptly as it began. Broken-hearted and incomplete. How many of us have experienced LA this way? Scripts so often left on the table. Plans upended. Traffic redirected.
Dear Los Angeles, you always have a way of shifting my vision, and I came away from this endeavour imprinted with elation from process and play. As is often the case with the best artist residencies, we didn’t come away with much of a finished product, but we revelled in creativity and community. We fell in love with a way of being. Our days elongated, scented in eucalyptus, dusted with quartz-refracted sunbeams, delighting in all our beautiful plans.
Fragment of Paradise
What if you find a museum you never want to leave? by Jackie Wang
How did I end up in Los Angeles? I’m increasingly convinced that it was because the universe conspired to bring me to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) – that enigmatic temple of curiosities, founded by David and Diana Wilson in 1988, which sits unassumingly on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. The first time I went to the museum, I went up to the rooftop balcony, where there was a courtyard garden lit by candlelight and a vintage samovar in the corner to serve the patrons Georgian tea and cookies. I knew immediately: This will be my spot. Whatever happens to me and my life, I am grateful to have discovered this place that is tuned to the exact frequency of my soul. I returned weekly, to sit in the courtyard writing poetry and to meditate on a different corner of the museum.
On a typical visit, Lisitsa – the founders’ wise-eyed little wolf dog – waits by the door, at the bottom of the dimly lit staircase. She knows that when the museum closes, it will be time for her walk. I hear music coming from the Borzoi Kabinet Theater: I can’t place it at first, though it’s a tune I love so dearly. ‘What song are you?’ I wonder. I peek behind the curtains. It is Mihály Vig’s beautiful piano music from the opening scene of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). Here, the music serves as the soundtrack to footage of Wyoming, the state my father landed in when he emigrated from Taiwan to the US in the late 1960s. János Valuska – the film’s protagonist – delivers his famous soliloquy, in which he talks about the eclipse of the sun: how the people watched, wondering whether the sky would fall in on them. But the sun returns; life is breathed back into the world.
Recently, when I left LA for a fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the museum graciously agreed to babysit my harp. You can find it in a room decorated with paintings of Soviet space dogs. As soon as I landed in Cambridge, I went on a Zen meditation retreat. While meditating, I could hear every exhibit of the museum: the voice imploring us to follow the chain of flowers into the mysteries of life; the burbling waters of the miniature model of Iguazú Falls; a recording of David talking about exploding dice; the distant echoes of barks in the bestiary room; the mournful sound of the duduk in Djivan Gasparyan’s ‘Lovely Spring’ (1992) playing in the Sandaldjian Memorial Gallery; Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ (Nymph’s Lament, 1638) as I ascend the stairs to the sublime courtyard; Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (I Call to You, Lord Jesus Christ, 1732) in the ‘Ecstatic Journey of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’ exhibit; the sound of David’s nyckelharpa reverberating in the garden.
Now that I live on the other side of the country, I have to draw upon my memories of the museum, which furnish my reveries. Somewhere, night-flying white moths billow forth from a bottomless urn; they are the dead taking leave of this earth. I recall a line from the diary of Virginia Woolf: ‘She is to finally let the last great moth in.’ A living room diorama contains a mirror covered by a bedsheet. In this miniature room of the dying, it is night. Outside,
a storm rages; lightning makes the windows flicker.
Did I dream in the glass tower that contains my hope and my rage? All that’s left is the residue of the feeling evoked by the dream. But, as soon as the meditation is over, my dream evaporates. There are the voices, indistinct, whirling with the churn, all of my life is churning there. I’m calmer now, crying in the courtyard of MJT while a white dove, perched atop the entrance of the columbarium, preens itself in a sliver of sunlight seeping through the rooftop tarps. What’s in the urns? ‘Friends, family,’ David replies. The zebra finches fly through a passage into the cage at the centre, fluttering among the remains of the dead. David tells me about the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, how the dead are deposited in book-shaped cinerary urns. Then, a little etymology lesson. He tells me about the dual meaning of ‘columbarium’, which refers both to the nesting boxes of doves and to the place where funerary urns are stored. I tell my friend Sherah how I was haunted by the empty cubbies in the columbarium, how they seemed to be waiting for us to die so they could receive our remains. Sherah says: ‘Don’t get any ideas, Jackie. It would be mad to stay at the museum for eternity.’
Chris Kraus recalls her move to MacArthur Park in order to escape the alienating buzz of gentrification on the east side of the city
I moved to MacArthur Park, a section of the Rampart Division in Los Angeles, 23 years ago, in March 2000. At the time, it was considered very dangerous, although it didn’t seem so to me, having recently moved from the East Village in New York. Located between downtown LA, Echo Park and Koreatown, the neighbourhood is clustered around the park, which – until being rebuilt and bisected by Wilshire Boulevard in the mid-1930s – was once considered the most beautiful in the city.
Developed at the turn of the 20th century for New York and Chicago transplants and seasonal creative workers, MacArthur Park instantly appealed to me with its big art deco hotel, The Park Wilshire, tall brick buildings and former residential hotels with their scalloped awnings. They say that the mayor of Los Angeles once lived around the corner from me in the 1920s on Ocean View Avenue in this three-storey bungalow that, by the time I moved in the area, had been turned into a very well-kept boarding house: its 12 single rooms sharing a couple of bathrooms and a large living space on the ground floor. Within a few years, the boarding house emptied and closed. It and the small house next door were bought by a Korean religious sect, whose members sometimes emerge to work in the yard, but otherwise keep to themselves.
I moved to MacArthur Park to escape the alienating buzz of gentrification in Mount Washington: old hunting shacks and shabby cottages being bought by local artists, fixed, flipped and then sold to young professional couples with new SUVs and small children who – before transferring to private prep schools – could attend the highly rated local elementary school.
MacArthur Park had a majority Central American population then, and it remains that way now. More than two decades later, however, it’s undergoing its own form of gentrification – although very different from the bright and cheery aspirational vibe surrounding Mount Washington in the early 2000s. The development plan, if one exists, remains invisible but unlike the change in Mt. Washington, it is highly capitalized.
(The invisible driving force behind this evolution is equally highly capitalized.) As they become vacant – either abandoned or forcefully emptied – houses, bungalows, old apartments and office buildings are being demolished and replaced by stucco blocks of high-density housing. Some of it is low-income; most of it is not. The area feels truly dangerous now. Seemingly abandoned by municipal authorities and left to developers, the entire sidewalk on the west side of South Lake Avenue is unpassable, fully occupied by tarpaulins and tents. A naked man with a blanket draped over his shoulders wanders the neighbourhood at dawn. Fires are set in vacant lots by an unhoused, mentally ill arsonist who likes to gather dried palm fronds and use them as torches. I used to leave my front door unlocked. Not anymore.
I’m looking at a book of LA photographs: Watch Channel 38 Every Night Until Jesus Comes (2014) by the writer and artist Ralph Coon. Taken over a period of almost three decades, between 1987 and 2014, his images capture a fluid and transient city: the last stop for drifters and misfits from across the US before falling into the Pacific Ocean. You can see in Coon’s gorgeous black and white photographs how regional histories became transplanted here, and then shifted around. In Untitled (2002), an itinerant trans musician stands in front of a Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken outlet on a sun-baked South Central Street with a small metal case that says ‘Daddy Tre – Young Gay Female Recording Artist’. The streets and rail lines are empty and dirty; self-appointed evangelists speak into portable amps.
Historically, LA has been known as the ‘City of the Future’, the ‘City of Night’ and the ‘City of the Last Chance’. I have no idea what the future of post-urban LA will be, but I’m pretty certain I’ll be the last person to live in my 1939 house. When I leave, it will be razed and a tall stucco block of apartments with plenty of glass will be built in its place.
This dossier first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Six Love Letters to LA’
Main image: Edward Ruscha, Edward Ruscha photographs of Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, Series I and Edward Ruscha photographs of Los Angeles streets, 1965-2010. Courtesy: © Ed Ruscha and Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles