Why the Mammoths Matter
|Installation of La Brea sculpture by Howard Ball, 1968. Photo (c) 2103 Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Museum Archives.|
|Howard Ball drives a mammoth sculpture to the tar pits in his Volkswagen Beetle, 1967|
But the La Brea sculptures play a unique role in melding the urban to the primordial. I think we need them, or something like them.
Here's why: To the average citizen, the tar pits are an eyesore. They look bad and smell funny. Why not pave them over?
You can explain that La Brea is a major paleontological site. You can tell them the Page Museum does a fine job of explaining the science. So: Why not keep the museum and pave over that awful tar pit?
Ball's sculptures provide the answer. They function like a war memorial, a retablo, or a 15-second political ad. That is, they present a deepfake drama to reveal a larger truth. A mama mammoth has become stuck in the tar. Her mate watches as her baby trumpets in horror. It's all fake. But it's a cue for people who know a little about the tar pits to explain them to a child, a parent, or an out-of-town visitor. The mammoth tableau makes an impression, as the murky lake alone wouldn't. With the mammoths, the bubbling ooze on Wilshire Boulevard makes sense. La Brea is a trans-species memento mori, a special place.
|A Weiss/Manfredi rendering of a future tar pit, with Howard Ball's sculptures|
|Walt Disney and caveman with a World's Fair mammoth. Photo: Disney History Institute|
|Natural history sculptor Howard Ball|