Los Angeles International Airport probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think about art venues in the city. Sure, the LAX Theme Building where the Encounters restaurant used to be is an iconic piece of L.A. architecture, and the color-shifting light installation that welcomes passengers to the airport serves as a great backdrop for local TV weather reports. But even so, for L.A. natives and travelers alike, LAX doesn’t always conjure the beauty that art can bring.
Jasmine Cotton, who works at the III Forks restaurant at LAX, thinks the airport’s reputation is changing, thanks to three new massive art installations recently unveiled inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal. They’re not the first artworks to be displayed at the airport, but they may be the most noticeable because of their huge size and difficult placement — like directly above the TSA screening area.
“You don’t really know what you’re in for,” Cotton says. “So when you walk into the terminal it’s all these beautiful buildings, beautiful sculptures and this beautiful art in these crazy places you wouldn’t imagine art being.”
It’s understandable that LAX has someone in charge of logistics, maintenance, security... lost luggage. But there’s also someone who manages the airport’s art. That’s Sarah Cifarelli’s job.
“We’re bringing them an art experience,” says Cifarelli. “We’re bringing them something normally they would see in a museum and placing it in an airport, and really changing the idea of LAX and creating an impression of Los Angeles as a cultural, vibrant city.”
One of the three commissions went to L.A. artists Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues of the Ball-Nogues Studio. Their work, “Air Garden,” hangs from the ceiling in the terminal’s Great Hall. A mass of painted chains hung in a U-shape, the piece offers the eyes a shifting color palette.
As travelers make their way in and around the Great Hall, the “Air Garden” is an ever-present haze of color that floats in the middle of the space.
“Airports are pretty monotone,” says Nogues. “That’s kind of where the idea of the garden comes in. This splash of color. That’s what you can expect in a garden in your home, that spot of color as you enter your house.”
Another commission is from L.A. artist Mark Bradford, whose piece is a colossal, twelve-and-a-half-thousand-pound mix of salvaged plywood and weathered posters he found at construction sites all over L.A. Called the “Bell Tower,” it hangs like a bulky chandelier over the TSA screening area.
According to Bradford, there were some logistical challenges in getting the piece installed, like having to apply a fire-retardant coating to the piece.
“The craziest thing was getting it through the door,” Bradford says. “The sheer volume of it. I mean really, over TSA. It’s like a flying saucer floating over TSA.”
Bradford says he wants the piece to serve as a respite for passengers as they’re asked to take off their shoes, drop their belongings in bins and prepare for a full-body scan.
“I wanted them to feel the idea of an urban environment,” he says, “but also those small little moments when you’re walking down a street and you run into a little doorway when it’s raining or something, and you’re sitting there and you’re involved in this urban environment, but you have this little space that’s safe and it’s yours.”
Pasadena-born artist Pae White was commissioned to create a piece for the terminal’s north and south passageways. White’s work hovers above what’s known as the “sterile corridor” that leads passengers to customs, but the art is anything but monochromatic — White has strung 23 miles of custom-dyed cables in kaleidoscopic patterns above the carpeted floors and moving walkways.
(Above photos: Kelly Barrie)
While these three artworks may be flung to separate corners of the terminal and are thematically different, they still have one thing in common: their ambitious scope.
“A lot of airports now have art programs,” Cifarelli says. “But I’d like to think that L.A.'s art program is on the cutting edge, because we’re really trying to push the boundaries of contemporary art and what you might expect to see in an airport.”
Even though travelers may experience LAX’s new installations for a few minutes — maybe a few hours as they wait to board flights — it’s the people who work at the airport who will live with them daily. But, as someone who works at LAX, Cotton says she’s happy the art is here to stay.
“When they unveiled it, it was just like a present for us,” Cotton says. “So it’s like welcome to our airport, welcome to art. Here’s some art for your eyes.”