Part Kubrickian, part Wilsonian (as in Robert), with a nod to Isadora Duncan, Lita Albuquerque’s “hEARTH,” a performance installation created with her daughter Jasmine Albuquerque and composer Kristen Toedtman, on view at Sunnylands Center and Gardens (the former Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage), served as a kind of prequel to outdoor exhibition Desert X 2017.
One of 16 new site-specific art installations dotting the Coachella Valley, Albuquerque’s lifelike ultramarine blue sculpture rests on a mandala-like circular bed of crushed marble, the surrounding trees and foliage in a state of flux, depending on weather, time of day and onlooker’s point of view, also giving the prone, intensely life-like sculpture with an ear to the ground, a kind of knowing, Buddhistic cast.
That the model for the sculpture was Lita’s daughter, Jasmine, who also choreographed the work, marks the fifth time the internationally celebrated installation and environmental artist, painter and sculptor has teamed up with her offspring, an acclaimed dancemaker and performer in her own right.
The one-time performance, attended by what looked like a hipster pilgrimage, featured Jasmine, two other dancers (Danny Dolan and Danny Axley) and 15 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale who performed Toedtman’s original composition.
With a libretto by Lita (sample text: “Got to, got to ... listen to the silence ... ”), the work was further animated by Jillian Oliver’s eye-catching costumes.
Born in 1946 in Santa Monica and raised in Tunisia, North Africa and Paris, France, Lita settled with her family in the States at age 11. Bursting onto the California art scene in the ‘70s as part of the Light and Space movement, she won kudos for works pertaining to mapping, identity and the cosmos — all executed in natural landscapes.
Lita, who was recently honored by Art Palm Springs with its Lifetime Achievement Award, continues to work on an epic scale: from having made art at the Pyramids of Giza (her installation and exhibition “Sol Star” won the prestigious Cairo Biennale Prize in 1996), to placing spherical sculptures across Antarctica that reflect the stars (“Stellar Axis: Antarctica,” 2006), hers is a visual language that cracks open the time/space code, bringing the viewer into her world in an unmistakably humanistic and poetic manner.
But in the mother-daughter collaboration canon — at least in the art world — there appear to be few teamings, with only Betye and Alison Saar coming to mind. And although both Saars create work that explores African American heritage, theirs is not necessarily done in collaboration. (Pairings of the Hollywood ilk, however, seem more prevalent, and have included Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, and Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.)
Since the Albuquerques seem to stand alone, then, one might wonder when Lita, who is on sabbatical from a 30-year teaching career at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, first began collaborating with Jasmine.
Ever cosmologically-minded and striking with high cheekbones, long dark hair and probing brown eyes, Lita recalled that her first filial partnership was “in the womb,” adding, “Jasmine was born in 1983, and that year I did a collaborative project, “Abhasa,” through [USC Fisher Museum of Art director] Selma Holo.”
Explaining that she had been asked to work with composer Harold Budd and the visual artist and writer Robert Kramer, Lita said she was interested in the idea of Los Angeles and people at night, particularly those asleep.
“It was the underside of things — things happening that nobody knows. I started driving around L.A. at night, taking pictures on the freeway — everywhere. At that time I was pregnant, and Robert — he’s been a mentor — said to me, ‘I always start from the present moment and since you’re pregnant now, why don’t we put L.A. in the stars — the idea of the city sleeping in the middle of the star system.’”
From that, Lita continued, “he projected an image of the earth on my stomach and we twisted it, so when we projected it on a 40-foot wall it looked just like a galaxy. It was sun-like, and the center of the galaxy was the earth projected onto my belly. So from the very beginning when Jas was in the womb, she was part of my artwork.”
Another piece of art from that time period is Kent Twitchell’s 18-by-96-foot mural that lives beneath the juncture of the 101 and 110 freeways. With Lita’s hands framing her near beatific face, the mesmerizing work, “Altar Mural,” was made for the 1984 Olympics.
“It’s fascinating,” said Lita, who is currently represented by Los Angeles’ Kohn Gallery and Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach, “talking about the fact that when I was pregnant with her, she was so much a part of the art.”
Needless to say, Jasmine, the middle of three children who grew up in the hills of Malibu as part of a free-spirited family, does not recall either of those “collaborations.” But she does remember that she was always inspired by her mother and that it felt natural to do art.
“She never put any pressure on us to do anything, but my surroundings and the people around my mom were all artists.”
Jasmine, who has a degree in history from UCLA, instead chose the terpsichorean route. Beginning jazz and ballet lessons at nine, she performed in an annual “Nutcracker,” tackling various roles from Snow and Flower to Marzipan. But as she grew to be 6 feet tall, with size 13 shoes that she says are purchased in “stripper” or “tranny” shops, she gravitated toward contemporary dance, eventually making her way to Budapest, Hungary, where she studied abroad for a year beginning in 2003.
Since then, Jasmine has been teaching for 12 years, both at Heartbeat House and Ryan Heffington’s Sweat Spot. (Heffington is the Grammy-nominated choreographer of Sia’s “Chandelier” and currently choreographs the Netflix series, “The OA.”) From 2007-2009, Jasmine was also a member of Heffington’s “psycho-dance” troupe, Fingered, and continues to work on projects with him, including dancing last year at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was in 2010, though, that Jasmine co-founded the phantasmagorical female trio, WIFE, with Kristen Leahy and Nina McNeely. Now on hiatus, the group employed body-mapping animations, sculpture, original music, costumes and a singular movement style, with famed choreographer William Forsythe raving about a performance he’d seen last fall.
Two years after WIFE formed, Lita asked the group to make choreography for “Spine of the Earth.” Mounted as part of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” it took place at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City, with daughter Isabelle Albuquerque (another frequent collaborator but one more behind the scenes), who also helped coordinate and organize the event.
Recalled Jasmine: “It was a massive project, and there were supposed to be 500 people involved, but on the actual day it was 300. Our goal was to create a spiral out of all the people and have them walk down a staircase. It was initiated with a skydiver that would then proceed down the stairs, and since everyone was wearing red, you could see the red line from an airplane and from buildings around there — there was even drone footage.”
If that sounds like an enormous undertaking and something akin to an ephemeral, albeit live-action Christo work, it was, with the volunteer cast having only one rehearsal the day of the 30-minute performance and a number of older participants not up to the challenge.
“Since the stairs drop off and are different sizes, the idea was to get them on the same stepping pattern,” added Jasmine. “They also held onto each others’ shoulders, but some couldn’t do it.”
Thinking big is nothing new for Lita Albuquerque, whose 2004 work, “Golden State,” created in collaboration with architect Mitchell de Jarnett, was the largest public art project commissioned by the state in California’s history. She explained: “The works don’t start small and then get big — it’s the other way around because when I have hundreds of people, I also trust that Jas can work with them.
“And,” continued Lita, “it was seminal to have WIFE perform because I knew that their company and with the dancers that they knew, they could take that on and train people. Some were 80-year-old women, although we did have to turn down one woman in her 90s.”
The duo’s follow-up collaboration, “An Elongated Now,” was another large-scale performance piece, this taking place between the Laguna Art Museum and that town’s Main Beach in October of 2014. Complementing the time-bending beach march was “Particle Horizon.” Running through mid-January, 2015, it was installed in the museum’s Segerstrom Gallery, which was covered in white salt, with moving stars projected around the space. The focal point was one of Lita’s signature pigment figures (in this case, the artist herself), a cerulean-colored sculpture resting on a pedestal.
The performance started at sunrise with a handful of people and grew over the course of the day to number several hundred, each wielding a small blue light. Dressed in white, the performers formed an arc near the water’s edge before proceeding to the museum then heading back to the beach again at dusk (signifying the vacillation between nature and culture), the blue glow mirroring the ocean’s waves.
Jasmine, who wore red for the performance and whose character was, according to Lita, “a 25th century female astronaut in the year 6,000 B.C. on a mission to spread interstellar consciousness,” recalled:
“I weaved in and out of the people for the walk along the beach, and everybody ended up in the [gallery] after the sun set. I did the vocals for that [with Marc Breslin narrating], and mom had her body cast in blue the way mine was at Desert X.”
Like mother like daughter — and vice versa — would seem to be at the heart of the Albuquerquean aesthetic. With regards to process, Jasmine pointed out: “Mom comes up with the idea, we discuss it, it morphs and takes shape. It’s usually her throwing out something crazy and me trying to minimize and simplify it. Her ideas are very grandiose,” she added with a hearty laugh, “and [seem to] involve a million people!”
Lita, whose artistic reach is long, and once saw her collaborating with architect Cesar Pelli on a library in Minnesota, has her own perspective. “What I think is interesting, because it is a mother-daughter relationship, is that we give each other a lot of room. I have the reins, for sure, and maybe it would be different if she wasn’t my daughter, but I also trust her completely.”
The feeling is mutual, especially when it came to creating “20/20: Accelerando,” a film and sculpture installation that were on display for several months last year at the USC Fisher Museum. The story was a continuation of the astronaut saga, with Jasmine reprising her role, as well as vocalizing and dancing with several other performers as part of the opening day event.
Working with artist and composer Robbie C. Williamson, Lita had adapted her 2003 text, “GenIus Remembered,” with the 26-minute film melding myth, nature and sound, many of the concepts that have imbued the artist’s work for decades. Parts of the visually sumptuous film were shot in Hawaii, where the mother-daughter connection was readily apparent.
Explained Jasmine, whose voluminous mane of blonde hair adds to her leonine presence: “On day one we were in a river, and she had me jump in and swim upstream. That was under a massive waterfall, and I had to climb onto a rock and dance in a cave. On a different day, I had to jump off a 50-foot cliff, which was something crazy. Robbie jumped first — he had a GoPro camera — and he filmed me descending into the water.
“I freaked out on the way down,” added Jasmine, “and landed as if I was sitting in a chair. I thought I had broken my legs, but we got the shot.”
It’s not every mother who puts her daughter through “Survivor”-like maneuvers, but Lita sees things differently. “I’d never even thought about the filming being dangerous. I just thought Jas could do it because she didn’t say she couldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t force her.
“I’ve taken her to places — both of my girls, actually — that are far out and could be considered dangerous,” added Lita. “I guess I’m a big risk-taker, or I like adventure, let’s put it that way.”
Casting one’s own body for a sculpture could also be considered an adventure. While Lita’s was a relatively easy procedure for “Particle Horizon,” creating Jasmine’s for “hEARTH” was another matter altogether: it took 14 hours and was meant to resemble a Laocoön sculpture from ancient Greece.
“They put me in a unitard and covered me head to toe in Vaseline,” recounted Jasmine, “and the thing that made it tricky was the position. I was not laying on my back, but was kind of on my hip and twisted. After about 20 minutes, my body parts would go numb and I had to get up and move.
“They would cover me from my knee to my foot, then break me out of it, then go back in and continue building. It was also tricky for the sculptor, who had 19 parts to put together and also marked and shaped it. It was,” she exclaimed, “a torturous process.”
Jasmine’s choreography for the work was as daring as the sculpting process was agonizing, with the trio of dancers running, rolling and leaping heavenwards, occasionally rooted to the velvety green grass of Sunnylands. The singers also moved ceremoniously during the hour-long performance, puncturing the afternoon air with meditative vocals, the stretches of silence offering moments of profound beauty.
Said Lita, whose work can also be found at the Whitney Museum of Art, MOCA and the Getty Trust, among others: “I thought Jasmine’s choreography was amazing, and it’s really the first time that she created a piece on her own. It’s not that I told her, ‘I want you to move this way or that way.’ With [Kristen], the composer, she looked at everything phonetically, and Jas would look at everything with movement. I looked with color and visuals.
“In terms of the movement of the singers, I wanted the idea of a clock, with 12 singers positioned around the circle [where the sculpture was placed]. So the concept,” continued Lita, “was the figure with an ear to the ground listening to the silence, which was about distilling the idea of what the desert meant to me.”
Curiously, the dance element almost didn’t happen. As Jasmine tells it, she initially thought the work should involve singers only. “I called my mother and told her, ‘I don’t understand the purpose of the dance.’ She yelled back, ‘Well you better find the purpose.’ That blew my mind because it’s the first time she yelled at me like that. But I sort of liked it, thinking she was really serious about this.
“Then she said, ‘It’s a good thing you don’t know what you’re doing because that means you’re on a good track.’ It was a very beautiful moment,” Jasmine acknowledged. “It may not be the easiest thing working together, but it’s both fun and challenging. I also don’t know if I have elements that want to impress her because she’s always been so wild and daring and willing to do the craziest stuff.”
Jasmine, who has also choreographed music videos for Bob Wayne, Devendra Banhart and Tennis, and performed in videos for The Acid, Beck and Ry X, among others, added that there was also a momentary mother meltdown.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to be an artist anymore, I am done with this s**t.’ It was amazing that she would say this in front of me. But I just said, ‘Mom, of all people — you’ve been doing this for 50 years and are sick of coming up with ideas. You have a right to feel like this. It’s OK.’ That,” noted Jasmine, “brought us even closer.”
Indeed, the Albuquerque bond — emotional, physical and artistic — seems forged, in addition to DNA, from steel, and continues to grow deeper with time.
Added Lita, whose upcoming projects include a July trip to the Namibian desert: “The fact that Jas, from the time she was being formed and has been part of my work, is pretty wild. What it did for me, also, was it made me see her from her point of view.”
A closing performance of "hEARTH" at Desert X is scheduled for Sunday, April 30 at 1 p.m. at Sunnylands Center and Gardens. Click here for more information.
Top image: Lita Albuquerque, "hEARTH," 2017. Resin, white marble dust, aluminum, audio components, performance. Sunnylands Center & Gardens. | Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X