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.
The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County have released renderings for a refresh of the Page Museum and surrounding Hancock Park by three architectural firms—Dorte Mandrup, Weiss/Manfredi, and Diller Scofido + Renfro. The latter's concept removes Howard Ball's fiberglass sculptures of a doomed mammoth family, sparking a mini-controversy. The L.A. Times is already running a feature on "Mammoth Memories: L.A. loves the La Brea Tar Pits' potentially displaced creatures."
Howard Ball drives a mammoth sculpture to the tar pits in his Volkswagen Beetle, 1967
As that suggests, the save-the-mammoth case is nostalgia-driven. Personally I hate nostalgia. Give me the wrecking ball for Randy's Donuts, already.

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
Diller Scofido + Renfro's point seems to be that the mammoths are kitsch, and 21st-century Los Angeles should aspire to something better. I half agree—unlike the nostalgists, I'd say the value of Ball's mammoth sculptures lies more in the concept than the physical objects. They're something like a Disneyland exhibit, to be replaced (not conserved) once their service life is up. (Ball was part of a Disney team designing dinosaurs for the Ford Motors Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. Visitors drove Ford convertibles through Mesozoic and Ice Age scenes. After the fair the prehistoric creatures were relocated to a Primeval World display at Disneyland.)
Walt Disney and caveman with a World's Fair mammoth. Photo: Disney History Institute
I don't know the physical condition of the mammoths. A half-century of exposure to sunlight and petroleum  fumes can't be the best thing for fiberglass. If the sculptures are past their expiration date, one possibility is to commission a contemporary artist for new Pleistocene sculptures. Since Ball's time we've got laser-scanning, 3D printing, AI-based reconstructions, and augmented reality; plus serious artists schooled in these techniques and interested in science, climate, and the environment. The Weiss/Manfredi proposal contemplates the participation of artist Mark Dion, an interesting choice. There are many ways to go forward. But we shouldn't shouldn't limit discussion to a binary save/don't save the mammoths.
Natural history sculptor Howard Ball


Anonymous said…
A glass rail/fence around the tar pits? What planet do the designers of that feature live on? At least they won't be the ones who'll have to do constant Windexing of such areas. I guess that's a matter for only the hoi polloi to worry about.

Makes me think of all the floor-to-ceiling windows planned for the neighboring debacle known as the Govan-Zumthor Museum of Red Ink and Bankruptcy.

Luce said…
"I hate nostalgia" I disagree with your position........the dying mom trapped in the Tar Pit is placed next to three or four concrete minimalist concrete squares by Donald Judd...that are really really boring. The adjacent green Japanese floating pavilion is to be saved. There are always a few styrofoam coffee cups floating in the oil water tar pit next to mom. This is LA....this is our reality, our Nortre Dame, Our "Crown of Thorns"......Save it.
Anonymous said…
I recall thinking years ago those concrete squares were some type of prep material for a construction project at LACMA. Hip-trendy-cool deconstructionist will be a style hard to ever have nostalgia for. Consider that as sort of the flip side to works by Norman Rockwell.
Elaine Edgar said…
My Father was actually the one who worked with Howard Ball. Wayne Edgar. He did the fiberglass work and was driving the VW to take the elephant to the Tar Pits. I remember going to Howards studio after school everyday on the way home. He worked with my father a lot doing the Jungle Ride for Disneyland etc. My father was a large part of this as well.
I know all about the Disney era. I was there too. We went to his studio every once in a while. I'm his neice.