In The Southern California Desert, An Artist Has Transformed The Iconic Hollywood Sign Into An Icon For Land Repatriation
By Jonathan Keats
March 31, 2021
Back in 1923, some Los Angeles real estate developers erected a billboard in the hills above Hollywood to advertise a new neighborhood. They dubbed their development Hollywoodland, heralding their geographic conquest with forty-three-foot-tall letters. Held in place with telephone poles, the illuminated white sign was bold enough for people to read on Wilshire Boulevard.
What the sign did not say, but the real estate deeds made clear, was that Hollywoodland was restricted territory. Only Caucasians were allowed to buy the ersatz Tudor and Spanish Colonial houses, and buyers promised not to sell their homes to non-white customers for the next half century.
Abandoned and later reassembled in abbreviated form, the Hollywood sign is now one of the signal landmarks of Los Angeles. Few recall the legacy of racism. Fewer still remember the Indigenous tribes that lived on the land prior to white colonization. In the hills where the Hollywoodland sign was erected – and throughout the surrounding region now known as LA – the Tongva people maintained hunting grounds and villages. And the Cahuilla lived a hundred miles inland, in the region now called Palm Springs.
For the first time in memory, the Cahuilla ancestral territory is marked. With deliberate irony, the land is signposted with letters resembling the iconic Hollywood typography. The monumental white sign reads Indianland.
Although officially sanctioned and permitted, the Indianland billboard is not a conventional real estate ad. It’s an artwork by the Tlingit/Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin, commissioned for the 2021 edition of Desert X, and aptly titled Never Forget.
As in previous years, Desert X is a vast outdoor exhibition featuring site-specific sculpture and painting set against a spectacular desert backdrop. Works include a monumental segment of wall erected in Desert Hot Springs by the Saudi artist Zahrah Alghamdi, and a series of mural-scale abstract paintings on the side of a Palm Springs building composed by the Swiss-Argentine artist Vivian Suter. And the Southern California artist Kim Stringfellow has recreated one of the “jackrabbit homesteads” that settlers cobbled together in the ‘30s, evoking life on the frontier by furnishing the dwelling as she imagined the original owner would have done.
In comparison to these works, Galanin’s billboard stands out as radical, and not only as a political statement. Although allusions to Pop Art are inevitable – especially given Ed Ruscha’s many paintings of the Hollywood lettering – Galanin’s sign is a work of land art that works with the land on levels ranging from the historical to the financial.
As it turns out, the advertisement is serious – and it significantly inverts the racist policies of Hollywoodland. Galanin has set up a GoFundMe campaign where people can contribute money to acquire legal title to a nearby swathe of land for return to the Cahuilla people. “Reparations for what has been forcibly taken from Indigenous Nations must be grounded in ceding land,” reads the GoFundMe webpage. Never Forget “is a monumental invitation to landowners: to seek out in Indigenous leadership for land relationships, to center Indigenous knowledge in creating sustainable practices, to contribute to real rent initiatives, and to transfer land titles and rights to Indigenous nations and communities”.
The practical goals of Galanin’s work are laudable, even if the challenges faced by the Land Back initiative are evident in the fact that his GoFundMe has raised less than ten percent of the $300,000 asking price despite favorable coverage in the New York Times. While repatriation needs also to be addressed directly by the federal government, Land Back is a worthy means of transferring land in private hands, and it effectively circumvents governmental machinations that have prevented Natives from fully possessing the Reservation land guaranteed by treaties.
However Never Forget deserves also to be admired as art, a point that might be overlooked in the charged political context. Galanin has succeeded in creating land art that is as physically grounded and as conceptually abstract as the definition of land itself. In that respect, it is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, more encompassing in its way than the Romantic operas to which the fancy German word was once applied.
Land art has a long history of proffering encompassing environments, from Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty to James Turrell’s ongoing Roden Crater. And some site-specific artists including Gordon Matta-Clark have seamlessly combined physical and legal structures in the creation of monumental sculpture. Galanin is a worthy heir to these traditions because he brings something new and important through his connection of contemporary practice to a far older heritage.
Whether practiced by the Cahuilla of Southern California or by the Tlingit of Alaska, stewardship of the land was an all-encompassing art long before art became a means of fostering appreciation for ‘natural’ landscapes. Never Forget should therefore perhaps be seen less as an artwork in its own right than as an advertisement signposting a Gesamtkunstwerk-in-progress, commenced long before American was colonized and to be continued for generations ahead.