Public art

Flip the switch: Lacma’s Urban Light to go dark

The popular public installation is due to be turned off temporarily—but will soon shine again with a new paint job

Known for lighting up a once-unsightly stretch of Wilshire Boulevard since 2008, Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation at Lacma will soon go dark. Starting 1 May, the museum will turn off the salvaged cast-iron Art Deco lamps and fence them off from the public for a restoration project expected to last two months.

The main problem? The gray paint on the lampposts—there are 202 in all—has faded in parts from years of direct exposure to sunlight. “Large areas of the poles are blanching out, creating a mottled uneven surface effect that is unsightly,” says Mark Gilberg, the director of the museum’s conservation center. “The painted metal is also rusting through in some areas.”

“The repainting of Urban Light is the culmination of two years work to find an alternative paint system that is durable and possesses the right sheen and meets California’s new volatile organic compounds regulations—not an easy task,” Gilberg adds.

In the meantime, fans can see the walk-through sculpture in director Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups, where it sets the scene for an affair between Christian Bale’s and Natalie Portman’s characters. Coincidentally, Portman shot another scene among the lampposts with Ashton Kutcher a few years ago, for the romantic comedy No Strings Attached (2011). At that time, Chris Burden spoke to this reporter about the growing infatuation with his sculpture by the public and also Hollywood. (The artist died in 2015, aged 69.)

“Because [Urban Light] is a processional, it’s connected to ancient history in our psyche,” Burden said of the crowd-pleaser. “How many times have we read about or seen plays that have a procession through the cathedral, where the bishop and king abdicated the throne and queen was crowned? It’s part of our psychic history.” The artist noted: “it evokes the kind of awe we are preprogrammed by the history of Western architecture to feel when we walk through classical buildings with multiple colonnades.”

At the same time, he continued, Urban Light was designed to provide a sense of comfort or pleasure. “Artificial light, a very modern thing, is reassuring to people at night. People feel safe because of light. It’s what a city is supposed to be—safe after dark and beautiful to behold.”