Like an incredible childhood fantasy made real, “Metropolis II” at LACMA comes to life with the sound of whirring and click-clacking, the sounds of model trains and some 1,100 toy cars racing along Teflon-coated tracks that thread through an architectural complex of high-rises, scale-model monuments and buildings comprised of Lincoln Logs and Lego bricks, among other materials. It’s a kinetic artwork that captures the aesthetic essence of the contemporary mega-city, frenetic, stressed and hyper-urbanized.
“Metropolis II” was created by the late, great artist Chris Burden (who is the creator of another Los Angeles landmark artwork at LACMA, the much Instagrammed site-specific outdoor installation called “Urban Light”). It’s a masterwork that is epic in its vision and maximalism. The complicated art installation is thoroughly mesmerizing — It is the product of a clever, playful and visionary imagination and an inspiration that stokes the viewers’ imaginations, too.
The first time we saw Burden’s landmark work was when it was newly installed in its current home in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (a.k.a., BCAM) at LACMA. That was 2012. All these years later, “Metropolis” holds up and is as fresh, beguiling, and fun as it was then.
It is also more relevant than ever, especially in a city like L.A., which is currently experiencing a critical urban condition of a crowded and growing megalopolis: Lack of affordable housing, rapid growth, soaring real estate prices, debilitating traffic and transportation challenges amid a challenging mountain-basin-desert-meets-sea geography, a simultaneous exodus of people fed up with all of the above while ever greater numbers of people are moving in to the greater metro area than ever. There’s a building boom going on, and yet new affordable housing can’t be built fast enough. The City of Angels is growing too big for its own good.
Burden’s masterpiece paints a vision of an absurdly layered, vertical and dense urbanity that becomes less absurd with each passing year. Population is growing. Cities are getting bigger. More people than ever before are living in cities. More people needs transportation. And there are more cars on the roads than ever before.
At first glance of this intensity, the first city that comes to mind in terms of a vague resemblance is Tokyo. But “Metropolis” has more in common with a vertically-constructed sci-fi utopia (or is dystopia?) akin to the the city where Bruce Willis lives as a cab driver in the 1990s Luc Besson film “The Fifth Element,” minus flying cars and aliens.
That doesn’t seem like a plausible future. But where the city in the film is a total fiction, designed and composited with artwork and special FX for the sake of a celluloid illusion, “Metropolis” is an actual physical scale model and in that way it is real. And in that way it’s a vision of some kind of future.