‘Politics of water’: Michael Parker’s symbolic Current LA installation

Michael Parker promises he isn’t a history buff, but his site specific artwork reflects a clear understanding of Western history and its impact on the modern world. He derives much of his inspiration from the most essential element of life: water. In his Current: LA Water Biennial piece entitled, “The Ides (arch du triumph) mapped by Vi Ha,” Parker explores the complexity of power as seen at the Port of Los Angeles which provides 40 percent of the nation’s goods. Parker’s goal was to draw attention to the international power balance in relation to shipping and commercial business.

Although Parker’s work, which debuted at Point Fermin this July, has been misconceived as a “giant cardboard doughnut,” his work is intended to represent a triumphal arch, which symbolizes power. The structure is made up of dozens of cardboard boxes, all of which were donated by local mini-malls or stores. The boxes themselves came through the very port that the art oversees, and are originally from a variety of international locations.

Parker, a USC graduate, has been kindling the idea for this installation since the 2002 port-worker strike. He says he enjoys hearing the responses of audiences, and is proud to expose Los Angeles to the much-overlooked “politics of water.”


Photo Credit: Panic Studio LA courtesy of the Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles. Beach-goers speak to the artists about the artwork as it is in the final stages of being installed.

Below is a Q&A with Parker, who is currently in the midst of providing artist talk-backs. The biennial is open to the public until August 14th.

What inspired the piece?

“Really, the piece originated a long time ago. It originated at a moment when I was working on an ambulance in 2002, when port workers were on strike. At that moment, I was 22. I wasn’t that savvy about international relations and politics, but one morning, we were sent to San Pedro, and we were right near Point Fermin. We essentially parked at Point Fermin, but I was so curious that I just had to get out and beheld this parking lot of giant ships filled with cargo and millions of boxes. It was a completely overwhelming experience to just kind of see the complexity of our world. When Point Fermin became a location to think about for Current LA, which is focusing on water, I chose not to focus on the drought, and I decided that I wanted to really address the politics of water.”
What materials were used to create this structure and how were they assembled? What do they represent?

“Visually, the large sculpture outside is made of gleaned cardboard. Essentially it’s collected cardboard where the group of people I was working with split up and at the beginning and end of the day would go to our local mini-malls and things like that that surround Southern California and collect cardboard boxes. We got this very diverse group of boxes with shipping labels from all over the world. That is what visitors view when they see it. It’s less about the recycling. The intention of the piece is really about how the temporary site-specific piece where what I am framing with the sculpture, a giant doorway, are the cargo ships. What the sculpture is made of is from the boxes that came through that doorway. We’re using the material of the place in the sculpture to call attention to the impossible complexity of international shipping, which is a stand-in for the complexity of international power systems.”

What do you want visitors to take away from seeing your piece?

“I would love visitors to come away with having paid closer attention to the complexity of power and relationships in our world today. Specifically, by focusing attention in this piece by inserting a large form that first appears like just an abstract shape that is not based on anything, that’s covered in cardboard, to possibly connecting into and around the pre-existing shape structure, and barrier from the cliff, this almost protective wall. What it frames is the entrance to the port, this giant doorway that is really a mind-boggling thing, because 40 percent of the goods that come through America come through that port and that doorway. I think that by having this sculpture that kind of at first may appear unsophisticated because of its materiality, but in fact is a deep kind of reflection on the complexity of our world today and links back to historical power and oppression.”
What challenges arose from working outdoors, specifically on a cliff overseeing beach?

“Working in the elements is totally insane, because you have to get all of your stuff together, you have to plan it out, you have to bring extra materials. It’s a scary thing if something goes wrong. We’re installing a sculpture on the edge of a cliff that people jump off of to commit suicide. That cliff is historic. So, working with the weather and the wind is one thing, but working in such a public place means that we essentially had a public sculpture.  We were just using screw guns, plywood and cardboard so we didn’t have to have it roped off. The public could really come up and talk to us. We always had one of us not physically working, but interacting with the public and answering questions. We saw it as part of the project to talk to people walking by. And, Pokemon GO came out right as we started so we had a ton of people asking what we were doing and how it related to Pokemon! It was very interesting, there was a lot of curiosity, and people were not afraid of asking questions. We were always talking about why. We tried not to take out the inherent politics of it.”
How does the work represent LA as a whole?

“It is built around this lighthouse, which has the feel of this old California, kind of early settler, Manifest Destiny architecture. It is kind of a claiming of this area, with the belief that they were going to build it, and this thing would grow out of it. And it really has followed that history and trajectory. The politics of collaboration, the politics of taking risks, those are some of the ideals.”
How does the art reflect the mission of Current LA? How was the process of collaboration?

“One thing that was great, was that it was a fully-funded project, and I was able to budget and plan and spend much of the money on labor. I didn’t have to just rely on volunteer labor. Inherent in this project is the idea of power over others, and so, everyone who worked on the project is an artist, and we got to deal with these ideas. Working on a project that was basically building a monument to these ideas of historical powers over others. There was a team of 3 to 7 people almost every day, so I got to have lots of conversations, and that was a huge part of Current LA. And it’s still going because I’m getting to have these public conversations.”

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