Katie Grinnan, <em>Excavation 2</em>, 2008.

Excavation I and Polaris eschew the artful flourishes of the works described so far. Consequently, they become the most daring works in the show. The first effectively establishes an association between the remote site of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan and the Schindler House in Hollywood. Excavation I places the model-sized form of El Castillo on the manicured lawn of the Chase Courtyard. A few feet away, earth has been excavated from the ground to accommodate the inverse shape of the pyramid made from a silicone mold. In this instance, the form of El Castillo is clearly legible as miniaturized ancient architecture. Where Alignment addressed the gigantic space of the sky in relation to the viewer’s body, Excavation I presents a miniature space, one that is physically inaccessible to the viewer except through imagination and projection. This situation of the body in relation to a miniature tableau evokes a space of reverie and interiority.8 The insertion of the tiny El Castillo into the carefully considered geometries of the Schindler House’s surroundings leads me to conceptually equate two iterations of cultural production and preservation: a majestic Mayan compound that has been named a U.N. World Heritage site and the preciously preserved modernist architectural treasure in Los Angeles, each a living ruin in its own way.9

The artwork entitled Polaris presents a minimalist gesture that potently connects to the “here and now” of the viewer and the city that lies beyond the bamboo stands that bound the Schindler House. A tripod, topped by a clamp that holds a chunk of concrete, Polaris is a disconcerting object. Clearly a device like a telescope, it is moveable (although, as a viewer, I am not sure if I am allowed to touch it). Its squarish piece of concrete invites use as a frame for viewing. The work’s siting in the Schindler sleeping loft, with its entrance hidden behind the main entrance door and its narrow, creaky staircase, contributes to a sense of intrusion and insecurity about its meaning. Is this art? Where am I looking from? Moreover, what am I supposed to be looking at? The apartment building next door? Polaris snaps us out of romantic reverie about ancient civilizations and aesthetic pleasures induced by most other works in this show. Succinct and literal, it forces the viewer, as voyeur, to engage in a more self-conscious act of looking. Of all the works in this show, Polaris seems like it could generate compelling and fundamental questions no matter where it was located.

Katie Grinnan, <em>Observatory</em>, 2008.

Albeit a radically different work, Robert Smithson’s Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan (1968) haunted my reflections on the entire Polaris exhibition. Driven afterwards to reread Smithson’s nerdy and hallucinogenic text, I thought about his delineation of site/non-site in relation to Grinnan’s project. Smithson’s is a receding horizon. For him, the encounter with the land and culture of other civilizations (the Mexico of 1968 that overlaid an ancient Mayan civilization) is always framed or mitigated by language and informed by history. (He compulsively cites the texts he reads and the maps he consults during his travels.) The Real is always at a remove. Experience is dematerialized into documentation, image, and text. I speculate that this was Smithson’s way of resisting the romanticization that unexamined tourism can easily generate.

Two terms defined by Stewart—journey and excursion—are helpful when considering intersections and differences between Smithson’s and Grinnan’s perambulations around the same physical and conceptual territory:

The journey belongs to the moral universe of pre-industrialism. It marks the passage of the sun through the sky, the concomitant passage of the body’s labor through the day, and the pilgrimage or passage of life. It is an allegorical notion, one that suggests a linearity and series of correspondences which link lived experience to the natural world. In contrast, the excursion is an abstract and fictive notion; it emerges from the world of mechanized labor and mechanical reproduction. The excursion is a holiday from that labor, a deviation and a superfluity of signification.10

In contrast to Smithson’s journey-oriented project, Grinnan’s exhibition Polaris exists in the realm of the excursion. Gathering souvenir snapshots, important artifacts and “plain old rocks” from her travels and observations of stars, Grinnan embraces their materiality and employs devices of fiction and poetry—reverie, symbolism, and syncopated formal or aesthetic affinities—as her preferred method to present questions of history and place.

Karen Dunbar is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.


  1. Stewart, 54-69.
  2. Stewart would probably interpret this equation as an enactment of a typical desire, expressed through the miniature, to apprehend a cultural other at a remove in a timeless and “uncontaminated” manner. Ibid., 66.
  3. Ibid., 61-62.
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