Architects of Air’s <i>Exxopolis</i> is an experiment in revitalizing both our expectations and understandings of art in public spaces
Exxopolis at Grand Park, Los Angeles
Drawing from my personal observations, it seems like the term “public art” is haunted. There are two ghosts in particular who inhabit (and subsequently limit) the public’s imagination of what public art can and should be: murals and plop art (those neutral abstract sculptures you might find in an office park) are apparitions that may sometimes feel dear to us, but they are also often static and breathless distractions from ambitions for livelier and more vibrant city spaces. Architects of Air’s Exxopolis, an inflatable luminarium installed most recently in Los Angeles’ Grand Park, is one experiment in revitalizing both our expectations and understandings of art in public spaces.
In celebration of their 11th World City season of free cultural events, Los Angeles’ Music Center has welcomed Nottingham-based artists Architects of Air to bring one of their walk-in luminaria to downtown L.A. If you’re asking yourself what on Earth a luminarium might be, it’s kind of a maze, kind of a cathedral, a little reminiscent of a bounce house with a heavy dash of James Turrell thrown in for good measure. Exxopolis is the twentieth pneumatic sculpture crafted by AoA’s Artistic Director, Alan Parkinson, who draws inspiration from basic elements of light and sound, as well as more specific references like Islamic architecture and Gothic cathedrals.
Exxopolis installed at Grassington, UK
When I visited Exxopolis at Grand Park, I was struck by the drastic contrast between the piece’s exterior surface and interior spaces. From the outside, Exxopolis’ construction appears pretty wacky and childlike—kind of like brightly-colored and oversized Pokemon. But after removing my shoes and entering the sculpture’s airlock vestibule, I found myself inside a soft and placid space unlike anything I’ve experienced before. While Exxopolis’ colors appear opaque and primary from the outside, the structure is crafted almost entirely out of thinly-stretched PVC. At only half a milimeter thick, the walls of the structure catch natural light in a way that illuminates the space with translucent color, without any LEDs or electronic lighting. Because of this, the Exxopolis experience changes throughout the day, depending on the weather.
Inside Exxopolis’ cupola. Photo: Alan Parkinson
There are several nodes inside the space, including a Cathedral-like “cupola” with colored-plastic Penrose tile designs resembling stained glass. While I noticed that many visitors experienced an initial desire to immeditaley Instagram Exxopolis’ multiple chambers upon entering, placid melodies (and air conditioning) rapidly entice individuals to slow down and relax in one of the space’s many pod-like alcoves.
Courtesy of Simon Wiscombe
While it may seem presumptuous to borrow so heavily from religious architecture, I did experience several transcendent elements at Exxopolis. The maze-like structure of the piece made it exciting to discover the variance and luminescence of the colors as I explored the curved pockets of the space. And one unique element of the Grand Park installation is the Music Center’s addition of "random acts of culture" interspered at unpredictable intervals throughout the duration of the installation, in which performers like oud-players, Cambodian dancers and mariachis may appear in the lumniarium for visitors.
While Exxopolis will only stay at Grand Park for one more weekend before moving on to its next venue, it asserts a powerful message about public art’s potential to engage audiences within a cultural dialogue. By creating its own fairly extraordinary space, there’s no clear frame of reference for how to experience the work. While we may have a sense of decorum for how to view an artwork or how to behave in a city space, the simultaneously public and enclosed nature of Exxopolis may encourage viewers to engage with the work on their own terms.
Photo: Alan Parkinson
Courtesy of Simon Wiscombe
Exxopolis will be on view at Grand Park in Los Angeles Sept. 13-15. Admission is free. Advance reservations are sold out, but stand-by admission will be available. Go here for more information.