Arts + Culture

Artist creates playful tribute to L.A.’s red cars

UCLA alum is winner of a competition sponsored by UCLA Arts and international mall developer

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When Nova Jiang came to Los Angeles as a design media arts graduate student at UCLA, she had to depend on city buses to get anywhere because she had no car. “I had an understanding of the city that was very limited because of my lack of mobility,” the artist said.

But that got her thinking about the way the city’s public transportation infrastructure works. Her fascination with how one’s world is shaped by public bus systems and subways eventually led her to create the largest art installation she has ever made — “Red Car” — a tribute to the beloved Pacific Electric red cars that once spanned four counties in the Los Angeles region on more than 1,000 miles of track before it rolled into the sunset in 1961.

Jiang’s playful artwork, which resembles a giant replica of plastic model parts that children snap off a plastic frame before assembling them into a finished model, was created because of a collaboration between the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and Australia-based Westfield Corp. to support emerging artists by sponsoring a competition to create a permanent installation for a new mall. The public is seeing “Red Car,” which measures 22 feet by nearly 18 feet, for the first time today at the opening of the $350-million Village at Westfield Topanga, an upscale, open-air mall located in Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley.

John Vande Wege
Workers at the new Village at Westfield Topanga mall install artist Nova Jiang's "Red Car"

The competition that Jiang won was open to UCLA students and alumni and offered the winner a $200,000 budget to create the artwork. Jiang’s concept, which evokes the red car’s historic role in opening up the San Fernando Valley to development as well as happy childhood memories of hours spent building models, bested 40 other proposals and was the top choice of a jury of renowned artists, architects and designers, including three UCLA faculty/artists. The art installation featuring red car parts, fabricated from composite metals and attached to a steel frame, hangs on the exterior wall of a two-story parking structure and faces the main escalators that will bring shoppers into the mall. 

“Westfield’s commitment and support to the student teams involved in the competition was truly remarkable, and witnessing the enthusiastic and highly skilled presentations for the project was inspiring,” said professor and architect Craig Hodgetts, who was part of the judging panel.

“That piece resonated really incredibly well with the jury,” said Steve Hamilton, Westfield's vice president of design. “One of the things we were after here was this sense of place and this connection to the history of what happened here in the valley. And ‘Red Car’ spoke to that, not just in a nostalgic way, but in a positive way looking forward into the future” of public transportation in Los Angeles.

That was exactly Jiang’s vision in creating the piece. “There’s a sense of optimism about the structure,” she said. Jiang, who graduated from UCLA in 2009 with a master's in fine arts degree, shows pieces of the red car disassembled, but implicit in the artwork is the potential that it may one day be put back together again.

To design the piece, Jiang tapped into UCLA Special Collections and other research holdings to dig up everything she could find about the red car, including engineering drawings. Tracking down red car societies, hobbyists and fans, she asked for advice on how the cars were built. “I became obsessed with all the details,” she said. Curiously, the mall is located near the spot where the San Fernando line of the trolley system ended.

She also worked under the guidance of two UCLA professors, Christian Moeller and Jennifer Steinkamp. “They both do a lot of large-scale public art projects, and they’ve been really generous in sharing their experience with me,” she said. Moeller introduced her to his fabricators, Carlson Arts of Sun Valley, California, while Steinkamp gave her advice on budgeting, scheduling and riding “the emotional roller coaster of doing a project that’s way bigger than anything I’ve ever done before, reassuring me that it’s going to be OK,” Jiang said.

Early on, she ventured to San Pedro to see an original electric trolley that had been salvaged and then rebuilt, as well as newly built ones. She rode one along a route that followed the path of the original track.

“For a dollar, you can ride on it all day,” Jiang said. “It gives you some of the experience of what it would have been like to ride on it.”

Jiang said she hopes the public will feel the optimism reflected in her work at a time when Los Angeles may once again be on the brink of another golden age of public transportation. And she’s thankful that she has had a chance to have her work permanently installed in the city where she lives.

“Projects with big budgets usually go to artists who have completed work on a similar scale before,” she said. “So it’s difficult to get started unless someone decides to take a risk and give you a chance to share your ideas. I am super excited about the millions of people who will see it.”

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