When SOM’s federal courthouse opens in downtown Los Angeles, the 633,000-square-foot civic edifice will feature a monumental new artwork from L.A.-based artist Catherine Opie. Over the course of her career, Opie has taken on many architectural subjects: freeways, modernist interiors, and even lonesome icehouses. The General Services Administration commissioned her six-panel photographic mural of Yosemite Falls, which is installed in the multi-story atrium of the boxy glass building. Mimi Zeiger spoke to Opie about architecture, nature, and justice.
The Architects Newspaper: What’s the difference between working on a piece such as the Federal Courthouse, which is for an architectural space, and photographing an architectural space, like your photographs of Elizabeth Taylor’s house?
Catherine Opie: I’ve done a lot of work in relation to architecture over the years. It’s, you know, definitely a love of mine. And you know they’re different. Working in an architectural space, you would hope that you reflect the notion of space in relationship to the piece, where when you’re working on representing different moments of architecture, whether it be the American Cities body of work or Elizabeth Taylor’s house, they have to do more with the specificity of identity. And even though the Federal Courthouse piece can connote that to a certain extent with something that is iconic as Yosemite Falls, you still want the piece to actually work within the space or hope to.
It’s a huge piece: Each panel is 18 by 16 feet. How do you go about choosing a subject for and creating a piece that big?
The good thing about working with the architects is that they put steel in the wall exactly where I need it so it can hold the weight of the pieces. So, it was a really cool thing to problem-solve because I’ve never made anything this big before.
And the subject—I’ve been making these abstract photographs for the past three years in national parks. And so one of the things that I was thinking about when they offered for me to make a proposal was what is something that people can live with every day? Who works there? And what is it to make a piece that also creates an ability to recognize nature as a moment of reflection? I was asking myself a lot of questions about how nature serves us, as well looking at the history of image-making, specifically in California.
So, the Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, John Muir era?
Exactly. There’s also a nod to the kind of great mural projects that the government funded, which happened not specifically around the Farm Security Administration photographers, but more the WPA. So there’s a kind of breadth of the piece and making it very much this fractured mural, which is all in line with thinking about that history as well.
I’m curious about that, the question of murals and the history of the WPA murals, but also this question of identity. I think about the Diego Rivera murals of that time. Is there something to be said about identity through this kind of image making, especially in such a charged place as a courthouse?
Well, identity is interesting. Diego Rivera was always about political identity in relationship to the worker. My identity is about California as a site of identity. One of the things that I do within the piece that works on a more metaphorical level: I reflect the falls on itself, because I’m actually asking for people to have a moment of reflection. And also the way my piece is structured is in relationship to me thinking about the scale of justice. So, you have absolute clarity within the first half of the mural. Then you come to the middle section, which is this river and kind of a darkish moment of woods and then you have the falls reflect on itself in the last two panels. And for me that’s a little a nod to the scale of justice.
I’m asking for people to have that moment where life becomes incredibly abstract as well as perfectly defined with clarity. And that so much of life, for me, lies on that axis.
And then you’ll have to roam the building in order to experience the piece, too. And that’s what I really like about it. There won’t be one vantage point where you can see all six panels. You have to experience it by actually experiencing the architecture, the site.
Was there a practical reason to fracture the image? What were the technical challenges?
Well, technically you can’t just take one image and fragment it because of the scale of the images. So I had to map it out on-site and photograph each panel so that it would seem like it was almost one seamless photograph.
And you visualized the mural using a 3-D model of the courthouse lobby? Did you work directly with the architects at SOM?
Yeah, I plugged in existing images into the 3-D model to see how it would look. Then the architects would fly me around the space. It was great, and I had really interesting conversations with them about the building. The building inspired me because it’s a reflective building that also fractures the space; I realized that the outside cladding would reflect the city, but it wouldn’t be a mirror reflection, it would be also a fragmented reflection. That allowed me to think about the falls as fragmented.