Check out the parking lot

Rebecca Solnit

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I’d spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Wordsworth wrote in ‘Tintern Abbey’ of those rural places which, in ‘the din/Of towns and cities’, gave him ‘unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,/As have no slight or trivial influence/On that best portion of a good man’s life.’ It isn’t hard to imagine what he would think of multistorey parking garages – he fought to keep a railway line out of the Lake District – but I wonder if he ever felt the weight of the din of cities in pastoral places and calculated what their effect might be. Not that I’m against din or cities as such, but I do wonder about these leftover spaces. Someone remarked to me recently that the reason you lose your recent memory after a blow to the head is that you haven’t had time to edit it yet. We edit, but life lies also in the outtakes. And they get grimmer and grimmer. Perhaps what’s terrifying about these new urban landscapes is that they imply the possibility of a life lived as one long outtake.

The world seems to be made more and more of stuff we’re not supposed to look at, a banal infrastructure that supports the illusion of automotive independence, the largely unseen places from which our materials come – strip mines, industrial agriculture, automated assembly lines, abattoirs – and where they end up: the dumps. Los Angeles consists mostly of these drably utilitarian spaces, in part because cars demand them, and it is a city built to accommodate cars. These spaces tend to be grey, the grey of unpainted cement, asphalt, steel and accumulated grime; and they tend to be either abandoned or frequented by people who are also discards, a kind of subterranean realm hauled to the surface. Or not.

When the new Getty Museum opened off the stretch of the 405 freeway that connects Los Angeles proper to the even more suburban San Fernando Valley, much was written about Richard Meier’s architecture and Robert Irwin’s gardens. Remarkably little was written about the parking garage, though it’s the first structure you encounter on arriving at the Getty. (Theoretically, you could take a bus there, but this is, after all, a museum in LA up on a bluff above the deep canyon the 405 runs through; it isn’t close to anything, except some mansions up in the heights with it, and public transport is largely an underclass phenomenon.) The old Getty in Malibu had been modelled after a Roman villa, all colonnades and porticos, and the new one, too, is full of Europeanate historical references. It is Dante’s Divine Comedy as a theme park, and just as in the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is the most compelling part.

You take the Getty exit, and if you’ve been heading north, swing over the overpass and, after a few wriggles, dive into the garage. You come out of the smog-filtered Los Angeles light (which always gives me the impression that a thrifty God has replaced our incandescent sun with diffused fluorescent light) into a dark passage. The garage is underlit, with a low-slung ceiling and construction that evinces the massive weight first of the cement slabwork and then of the floors and earth above. The weight presses down on you as the signs urge you onwards. Down you go, and down, and further down, spiralling into the seismically unstable bowels of the Los Angeles earth in circles of looming darkness, questing for a parking space of your own, further and further down. I believe there are nine circles, or levels, in this vehicular hell. Finally, you find a place for your car in this dim realm, stagger to an elevator, and move upwards more quickly than Dante ascended Purgatory.

Though you aren’t in Purgatory yet. The elevator opens onto a platform where you can catch a monorail up the hill to the museum. Disneyland too has a monorail, and though on my first visit to the Getty I thought of it as a nice tribute to its sister amusement park, we perplexed everyone around us by walking up the unfrequented road the quarter mile or so to the museum. Altitude correlates neatly with economic clout in urban and suburban California, so although the presumed point of the Getty was to let people look at art, first they parked, then they looked at the mighty fortress of the Getty hunched up on high, and then up there at various junctures they got the billionaires’ view. Purgatory was the museum itself. There you went through the redemptive exercise of experiencing art, lots and lots of it, from ancient times through to the early 20th century, room after room of altarpieces and portraits and still lifes and drawings.

Having soaked up more art than you’d possibly be able to recall once you were back on the 405, you reach the gardens at the far end of the property. From a strictly real-estate point of view, what makes the place so imperial is what the San Francisco Bay Area artist Richard Misrach calls ‘the politics of the view’, a subject he discovered when he moved from the plebeian flats of Oakland to the professorial heights of the Berkeley hills and discovered that what he’d been missing all those years was vista. (This resulted in his book Golden Gate Bridge, a series of photographs of the Turneresque-tourist view of the bridge from his front porch, or rather of the atmospheric effects swirling around it.) Irwin is thought to have chosen out of contrariness to make a garden in which this splendid and even more splendidly expensive view disappears. Here, in Paradise (a Persian word that originally meant ‘enclosed garden’), you walk downhill accompanied by a stream in a stony bed to a garden which, like the garage, is circular, though in this case the circles are truly concentric, forming a shallow basin whose outer ground level becomes its horizon by the time you’ve descended a few rings through the bright erratic plantings. They were chosen by Irwin, who is no gardener. Annoying Richard Meier by obscuring the view and cluttering up the rugged Modernist space with a fussy garden was one thing: Irwin chose to annoy the rest of us by putting in the centre of his garden what looks like a hedge maze but, unlike a proper garden maze, is made inaccessible by a moat. Symbolically, I suppose, it’s because you can’t quite reach the centre of Heaven that you end up back in Hell. It’s the parking garage to which you must return before getting back onto the 405 to enter and merge and exit and otherwise wend your way.

California has often been imagined as Paradise, Hell, and everything in between. Paradise is, actually, a small town in north-eastern California; I know two film-makers who grew up there, and it’s now filling up with conservative retirees. Hell is nowhere explicit on the map, though Death Valley, Devil’s Slide, Mount Diablo, Devil’s Postpile National Monument, and a few other sites have satisfyingly infernal names. And probably the whole place is Purgatory, since nearly all of us are so, so to speak, hell-bent on self-improvement. Something about my dear weird Golden State obliges it to assume allegorical and oracular proportions. A quarter of a century ago, everyone from Jean Baudrillard to Umberto Eco scanned it as a sort of crystal ball in which the future could be seen; the New York Times routinely portrays it not as Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but as his Ship of Fools (Schwarzenegger’s election as governor has deeply gratified the rest of the nation, which can now reflect even more confidently that, though we have better weather and really are inventing their future, we’re totally feckless freaks).

One of the reasons often given to explain why the American film industry settled in Hollywood is Southern California’s ability to simulate almost any part of the world: it has lush agricultural areas, deserts, mountains, forests, oceans and open space in which to build Babylon or Atlanta, all drenched in ceaseless light. That is to say, to be in California is to be everywhere and nowhere and usually somewhere else (in the posher parts of LA every house seems to be dreaming of elsewhere: this half-timbered job is in the Black Forest and that one next door is the Alhambra). And as the Los Angeles writer Jenny Price recently remarked, to say ‘I ate a doughnut in Los Angeles’ is a different thing altogether from saying ‘I ate a doughnut.’ The invocation of LA throws that doughnut on a stage where it casts a long shadow of depravity or opportunity (which, here, might be the same thing). She added that just as Lévi-Strauss once remarked that animals are how we think, so Los Angeles, and by extension California, are also how we think – about society, about urbanism, about the future, about morality and its opposite. It’s as though, in the golden light, everything is thrown into dramatic relief, everything is on stage acting out some drama or other.

Sandow Birk, who early in his career restaged great watery history paintings – The Raft of the ‘Medusa’, Washington Crossing the Delaware – as surfing scenes, has long been picking California’s allegorical crops. A Southern California surfer himself, he once painted a brilliant series – In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias – in which the cultural clashes between San Francisco and LA were depicted as a multi-ethnic battle, complete with fast-food sponsors and gang colours carried by the armed factions. Another series, Incarcerated: Visions of California in the 21st Century, an inspection of California as Heaven and Hell, represented all 33 state prisons in this incarceration-crazy state. Each painting in the series was a landscape, harking back to all the finest traditions of that genre; they just happen to have, in foreground, middle ground or background, a prison (whose architecture, come to think of it, has much in common with airports, parking garages, shopping malls and other everyday spaces of human management in the US).

And now comes Birk’s California Divine Comedy. His Dante’s Inferno is a large-format paperback; the Purgatorio’s artwork is completed – Purgatory is my own hilly hometown, San Francisco – and should appear in another year. Paradiso, location undisclosed, will presumably appear some time after that. Hell, naturally, is Los Angeles. Birk’s edition of the Divine Comedy is faintly reminiscent of Gustave Doré’s, and its line drawings depict not a landmark LA, but the back-alley Los Angeles of anonymous dead-ends. Each of the 34 cantos has a frontispiece above the argument and a full-page illustration inside. Canto I sets the stage nicely with a tipped-over shopping cart on what appears to be a vacant lot. The words ‘Canto I’ seem to be spray-painted on one of those oblong cement wheel-stops that mark the front end of a parking space.

Birk’s editor told me that he initially considered approaching a rapper to translate the Divine Comedy’s terza rima into street slang but when he was told that this would turn the project into, for example, Ice T’s Comedy with illustrations by Sandow Birk, he took on the project himself with a friend, surf journalist Marcus Sanders. Their translation is into the vernacular of guy inarticulateness, with a little slang, which is to say its frequent awfulness must be intentional. Throughout most of the English-speaking world, citizens speak English like, well, native speakers, and the ability to speak well is a pleasure and a power. But from George W. Bush on down, the United States, especially its male portion, is fraught with inarticulateness and often committed to it as well. Jane Tompkins, in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, traces some of this to a frank distrust of language and an association of speaking with opening up, compromising and otherwise surrendering. John Wayne, she points out, spoke in monosyllables, often to denounce communication and chatter. Yup. Nope. It was, after all, gay men who would argue in the heyday of Aids activism that silence = death, an equation that goes well with Tompkins’s argument that speech amounts to the unmanly opening up of an orifice. I sometimes think that a certain kind of right-wing belief system is propped up on syntactical delusion: conspiracy theories rest on beliefs and associations that don’t make sense politically but can be swallowed by those who can’t make sense grammatically. (Thus when the television interviewer Diane Sawyer asked Bush some months ago whether the administration knew Saddam Hussein had WMDs or thought he could ‘move to acquire those weapons’, he answered: ‘So what’s the difference?’) This inarticulateness seems to create a need for other means of resolving conflict, so that once I caught myself thinking that if these Americans speak English like a second language, perhaps guns were their first language. A steady diet of television’s sentence fragments doesn’t help: complex thoughts require complex syntax. I’m not sure Birk’s is always up to the challenge. His Dante begins: ‘About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,/I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place . . . I can’t really describe what that place was like./ It was dark and strange, and just thinking/about it now gives me the chills.’

‘Text adapted by’ is how Birk and Sanders are credited on the cover. Nobody will read their Divine Comedy as an ideal translation. Perhaps it will draw in young readers, but there’s an odd awkwardness to the street language embedded with the rolling names of medieval Italian sinners and elaborate scenarios of Dante’s tortures. The classics lend themselves to adaptation – the Odyssey to Dublin in 1904 or the Southern US during the Civil War (Cold Mountain) – but Birk’s text is too literal to be a real reinvention and too reinvented to be a functional translation. Turning Dante’s greyhounds (in Canto XIII) into pit bulls gives local colour, but it doesn’t do much for the landscape of souls turned into suffering trees. The text is too weighed down by the power and the particulars of the original, and they are only there to situate the arena where Birk is at ease and inspired: the free visual interpretation of the Inferno.

So Birk’s book is better looked at than read. His pictures are a critique of urbanism in the vein of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, rather than a contribution to Dante studies or theology. LA has little to give Dante, but Dante via Birk has much to give LA. The city’s invisible territories and Dante’s phantasmagoria go together beautifully: in Canto XXI, the winged devils of the fifth ditch fly towards Dante and Virgil as they overlook the freeway from a clifftop. There is a cyclone fence behind them, a one-way sign in the lower right, another shopping cart, this time full of the possessions of a homeless demon, and the flying demons carry beggars’ signs: ‘Will work for food’, ‘Homeless veteran’. In another full-page picture, hypocrites form a long line winding downtown, with more freeway and mini-mall signage in the middle ground. Among the hypocrites are quite a few Los Angeles cops. For most of us there are days when a few demons circling around the pilings holding up an overpass would be perfectly apt. Birk has got at the parts of LA that recall Piranesi, not David Hockney, the sinister noir terrain of freeway overpasses and cuttings and drainage ditches that create a stacked-up, tangled vertical landscape far from the flat, sunshiny LA of the usual iconography.

In some ways, the writhing full-page illustrations are relief to the genre-scene frontispieces. In Hell, something happens; in the genre scenes, all is quiet, and a sense of inertia, inevitability, of pure doom is there, the doom that disaster alleviates. The frontispiece to Canto VII is a gas meter, one of those metal contrivances disgorging pipes like some sort of mechanical heart, and this one is stuck into a wall full of cracks. Sometimes they’re more cheerful. One is a drum kit. Another is a police motorcycle. In one, a skateboarder flies through the air, only feet and board visible in the oval engraving.

The cover of Birk’s book is also its masterpiece. It remodels Frederick Church’s gargantuan 1862 luminist painting Cotopaxi, Ecuador into a vision of all California as Hell. The same belching volcano is there on the horizon filling the sky with sun-reddened smoke, the same vast gorge in the central foreground. But Birk has turned the gorge’s sublime waterfalls into a sort of terraced lava-bottomed mining pit around which emblems of all California gather. There are palm trees and oil derricks and power lines in the foreground, along with signs for chain stores and, rather in the mode of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, a skull sitting on a plinth inscribed ‘Inferno’. In the middle distance a shattered Golden Gate Bridge reaches toward the gorge then breaks off, and birds, black against the backlight, fly through the ruddy scene and perch on the power lines. Freeways snake throughout this vision of Hell, the red tail-lights of departing traffic balanced with the yellow-white of approaching headlights in what looks like California’s most frequent invocation of Hell: the rush-hour traffic jam.

Sandow Birk’s ongoing project has been to revamp the language of history painting so that it fits California. This means bringing a Californian sensibility (surfer jokes, burger-joint references) to reiterations of history paintings while attempting to come to terms with a place where the idea of history is itself problematic. The mythology would have it that California went from pristine wilderness to suburban paradise in a single bound, thus erasing the genocide of the Native Californians and the marginalisation of the Californios, who lived here when California was still part of Mexico; to say nothing of the environmental disaster and drive-by shooting that was the gold rush and the epic corruption of the railroad corporation that ran California into the 20th century. But Birk has attempted to revive history painting without painting California’s past. Or is it that he has revised history painting to reflect the reinvention of history as a matter of places and classes and bodies rather than epic moments and heroic men? He has done what the new historians do: sought out patterns of meaning in what has been overlooked – literally, in the architecture of odd corners, figuratively in the history of class and consumption.

Birk’s surfer series mocked histories that had unfolded elsewhere; In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias portrayed a comic battle in a fictional future that said much about the present (and included images of ‘The Bombardment of the Getty Center’ and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in ruins); and his prison paintings were situated in the absolute present. History is what gives a place meaning, and Birk has wrestled with the conundrum of California, a place full of amnesiac erasures of history and impositions of histories that never happened, a place whose roots are, in some strange way, in the future. Rome was the eternal city; California, as Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, is the eternal present tense.