Published in L.A. Weekly
"BlackBerrys, Turkish garlic, baby food, chocolate bars, perfume, fuel ... ." Artist Liz Glynn is fumbling through the multicolored wooden drawers in her installation at the Hammer Museum, pulling out lead sculptures.
The objects are life-size versions of banned or difficult-to-find items that Palestinians have imported through the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. The idea is that museumgoers can play with these things, taking them from the drawers and arranging them around the room. The exhibit includes a wooden tunnel that gets smaller and smaller, like a sideways pyramid; a round, white section of another tunnel, made of reinforced concrete bricks; a box of white gloves for handling the sculptures; and a closet with a wedding dress — brides have been smuggled, too.
Museumgoers particularly like the lead crabs. "People like to put them in funny places that have sort of a narratively suggestive" quality, Glynn says. "Peeking out from behind something, or the crab with a cellphone next to its claw." Some visitors have tried on the dress.
People are technically allowed to take the objects anywhere in the museum, though guards sometimes stop them. Glynn once found a lead BlackBerry stuck in a planter. She pictures people walking around with these items in their pockets, feeling their weight, simulating the experience of sneaking something where it's not supposed to go.
Glynn, 30, a graduate of Harvard and CalArts, grew up outside Boston, obsessed with the mummy display at its Museum of Fine Arts. The idea for her exhibit began with the great pyramids, where pharaohs were buried with belongings to use in the afterlife — and then got more complicated.
"I try to start with something any fifth grader would know," she says, but adds, "You aren't expected to know everything. It's better if you don't, and have your own story of the time you put something in your pocket or having been in a mine shaft or something else."
Whether people can relate to her work is a particularly important question for Glynn, one of five finalists for the Hammer's inaugural Mohn Award. The prize — which pays out $100,000 over two years and includes a book published about the artist's work — is given to the top artist in the museum's inaugural biennial, "Made in L.A.," featuring new work from 60 young or under-recognized L.A. artists and running through Sept. 2.
The twist? It is museumgoers who vote to determine the prizewinner — a process that has angered many L.A. artists and fueled a discussion about whether popularity is an appropriate goal for visual art.