Bodies were a prevalent theme throughout the exhibition, particularly fragmented ones that pressed up against the limits of representation in ways that seemed both liberating and destabilizing. A sense of vertigo permeated Luchita Hurtado’s paintings of downward-facing partial views of her own nude body, whereas Naotaka Hiro’s visual metaphors of fissures and voids in drawings and sculpture portrayed the body as structured along an axis of unknowability. Illegibility and illusion characterized the flattened, multicolored figures and tromp l’oeil wallpaper installation by Christina Quarles, while Suné Woods’s immersive video installation, Aragonite Stars, revolved around bodies of water and of black people, tenderly embracing or freely moving in the medium, loosened from the constraints of gravity—and repressive social conditions—on land. Diedrick Brackens’s tapestries depicted allegorical scenes of silhouetted black male figures and animals (one based on a real-life event in which three black men were arrested and handcuffed for a misdemeanor and drowned after being transported on a boat that capsized) to address the social constructions of masculinity and African American identity in relation to a history marked by wrongful deaths, negligence, and injustice.
A number of artists responded to ecological concerns and environmental devastation, especially those wrought by the forces of capitalism, in their respective works. Carolina Caycedo suspended a series of large-scale fishing nets in a kaleidoscope of colors in the Hammer’s courtyard. Part of her ongoing Be Damned project, the nets were acquired during the artist’s time spent in communities affected by the building of dams and privatization of waterways in Latin America, and hung with objects collected during her field work to represent resistance fighters and inspiring people she met along the way. Littered riverbanks and smog-filled cityscapes appeared in Neha Choksi’s multichannel video Everything sunbright, a poignant rumination on mortality and the human life cycle, as well as the sun’s eventual expiration. Charles Long filled a room with papier-mâché tree stumps and sliced logs that resembled cross-sections of oversize penises, in a fantastical and biting vision of a castrated forest—and patriarchy.
Revealing marginalized or overlooked histories was another approach taken by several artists. Mercedes Dorame’s photographs and sculptural installation addressed her ancestral connection to Tongva people, who were among the first inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin and the last of whom were said to have “died” from disease and dispossession of land (or so misleadingly claimed a book the artist found in a library). Candice Lin took as her subject the little acknowledged importation of hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers to the Caribbean to work alongside African slaves in the 19th century, and the Charada China, a gambling game and syncretic ritual used to redistribute wealth within the diasporic community. Rosha Yaghmai projected onto a resin-and-steel screen adorned with personal effects a series of color slides that she had uncovered in her family’s photo archive, images that her father had taken soon after immigrating from Tehran to California to study his new surroundings and culture.
The exhibition’s most memorable artworks were ones that employed an aesthetic of contingency as well as an ethical sense of incommensurability and the impossibility of representation. The first performance of taisha paggett’s ongoing work counts orchestrate, a meadow (or weekly practice with breath) was a slow burn, unfolding over the course of two and a half hours in the Hammer’s courtyard. To a soundtrack of people breathing and a preacher speaking about racial justice, the artist weaved her way through the audience that had gathered to see her, first moving freely in the central empty space formed by a crowd, then insinuating her body through the crowd, crawling on and under benches, and, finally, after the crowd had thinned out, allowing her body to fall gently onto audience members, whom she subtly guided to pass her body onto other members, creating a drawn-out and charged moment of public intimacy. James Benning’s three-channel video projection showed the aftermath of a vast forest fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that forced Benning to evacuate his home temporarily; an imageless slide with textual captions transcribing radio transmission from a U.S. B-52 fighter pilot flying around Hanoi on Christmas Day in 1972; and light from a slowly setting sun falling onto a framed drawing of a Native American man. Listening to the scratchy audio of the pilot helping coordinate the largest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War while trying to evade the approaching Vietnamese fighter planes, I felt a sense of horror in the pit of my stomach. The juxtaposition of images and audio brought on thoughts of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad, the inability of language to convey the scope of large-scale destruction, and the wordless depths of trauma.
This year’s Made in L.A. was evidence of a flourishing of art by a diverse body of self-aware practitioners, which is heartening in an age of increasing intolerance and conservatism. It’s time now to ponder this city’s mounting affordable housing problems, growing economic disparities, and the role that art is playing in the gentrification of neighborhoods in the southern and eastern parts of the city. How will all of that play out? We’ll see in two years, with the next biennial.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 126 under the title “ ‘Made in L.A. 2018.’ ”