Velaslavasay Panorama

Review

of an Exhibition

by Jason Jay Stevens

Published on March 03, 2009, Modified on October 13, 2009

  • Description:

    When on the Westside of Los Angeles, one is advised to seek out and pay a visit to the Velaslavasay Panorama, located at the Union Theater, between the University of Southern California and the Santa Monica Freeway. The multimedia exhibition found here is a notable example of artistic intent employed for a worthy and noble objective, that of immersive spectacle, benefiting any member of the public who enters the Theater’s rotunda.

    The panorama was a popular entertainment in 19th Century Europe, in the form of giant rotunda galleries built especially for the purpose, typically 40 meters in diameter, around the inside of which a canvas, commonly 15 meters tall, was painted, representing a scene in 360 degrees. Maximum effort was made to generate the most convincing illusions with the most accurate detail. The most common panoramas portrayed a vista of a city or a recent military battle, and in doing so, served both as a public attraction and as a sort of journalistic investigation of far-off places and events.

    The panorama phenomenon preceded the great public museum wave of the late 1800s; some of its techniques transferred directly into the development of dioramas and taxidermy displays. As an artistic, cultural, and social public spectacle, the panorama is also clearly an ancestor of the cinema and the motion picture: the IMAX, one might say, of the early 19th Century.

    The Velaslavasay Panorama is a rare contemporary example of the form, first exhibited in 2001. The current exhibit is titled Effulgence of the North, presenting a meditative immersion into an arctic landscape, with icebergs and ocean stretching as far as the eye can see—to the apparently distant horizon— crowned by the boreal moon and draped in a shimmering curtain of northern lights. Radiance shifts subtly over time, and occasionally we hear the slow ebbing of the resonance of moving icebergs.

    It’s a preciously good show, and a unique and thoughtful space, if not definitely a spectacle by the standards of our media-decadent age. Critically, if old-fashioned charm has no appeal for you, the Velaslavasay’s grand ambitions and immense potential should inspire the curious observer.

    The subject of the current exhibition is radical when compared to traditional panorama displays. The hosts display a boldness by choosing to take us to a place void of any obvious signs of life, bathed in the colors of a frigid palette, where drama unfolds only very slowly. And right in the Heart of Spectacle-Land, Los Angeles, California, wouldn’t you know it.

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