Art@Site Carl Cheng Water Lens Tower

Carl Cheng


Water Lens Tower

Kaiser Mental Health Center
Like a mirage, this towering four-legged fountain looks over the Harbor freeway from the parking lot corner of the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Center. Painted white and made of steel, the fountain drips water from the top through two lenses into a lighted concrete pool at the bottom. The lenses are made of layers of acrylic and glass with water pressed in the middle.
Art is public art when it is accessible without restrictions. Usually, this means it is located outdoors in an open public space. In recent years, this premise has been compromised by installations in privately controlled corporate plazas, where gates and fences have sometimes been erected to keep visitors out during evenings and weekends. The installation of the "Water Lens Tower" test the fundamental definition of public art even further.
The Community Redevelopment Agency required a public art component be included in the expansion of the Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Center. Kaiser, however, was legitimately concerned about uninvited people entering the grounds of their gated facility. The tension between the CRA requirement and Kaiser's concerns were partially resolved by the design of the sculpture, by the site where it was installed, by illuminating the sculpture at night, and by Kaiser agreeing to keep trees and plants from obstructing the view of the work from the street.
After being informed of the CRA's public art requirement, Kaiser decided to commission a work from a local artist of Chinese descent. From a list provided by the CRA, Kaiser invited Carl Cheng to submit a design for the facility. His first proposal was a pagoda styled structure, incorporating a greenhouse already on the grounds. Planners in the CRA, however, were concerned about the design's lack of compatibility with the proposed site and the lack of visibility of the work when viewed from the street. Cheng then developed a design that essentially was the one that was completed.
Cheng installed his work on a bluff overlooking Chinatown so it could be seen from a distance. Constructed of 6" square galvanized steel rods, his set-back structure has at each of the two lower set-backs a lens with a top surface of glass and a bottom surface of acrylic plastic. Distilled water is pumped through a leg of the tower to a molded acrylic globe at the top of the structure, where it drips approximately 10 feet through a clear plastic tube into the uppermost lens. After circulating through the lens, the water drips 10 more feet through another plastic tube into the lower lens, before dripping into a small pond at the base. The lower lens creates water patterns on the floor of the patio while the top lens creates what Cheng calls "a hot spot", which appears like a broad, diffuse version of the point formed when a magnifying glass is used to concentrate sunlight. Both the hot spot and water patterns move across the site during the day. Thermometers on three legs allow the visitor to relate temperature changes to the sun's movement.
According to Cheng, creating public art is a process having an outcome that cannot always be predicted. In a statement attached to one leg of the sculpture, Cheng described this work "as an environmental art tool to communicate the sun's movement at this site...The Water Lens Tower commemorates the knowledge that the sun is not getting brighter but is getting darker". However, after the work was installed, he found that the "hot spot" and water patterns only appear when the sky is perfectly clear. Rather than relating to the sun, as Cheng originally hoped, he felt the work has become an unexpected indicator of the amount of smog and haze in the air.
Carl Cheng’s public artworks often combine technology with natural elements such as sand, water, and illumination. Cheng notes that his sculptural installations and public art projects 'result from an attitude that says, ‘We, humans, are not adversaries of nature but are a part of nature.’' He has exhibited throughout the United States, China, England, and Japan. He received a Los Angeles Business Council Beautification Award for his Metro Green Line Marine/Redondo Station project and the 1990 J. Paul Getty Visual Arts Fellowship. Cheng is a well-respected advocate for public art. On July 31, 2000, he published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times entitled 'Public Art: More Than a Pretty Distraction' in which he described the challenges and overwhelming rewards of public art. Carl Cheng received his MA from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Carl Cheng (b. 1942, San Francisco, CA) is one of the first Asian-American artists to establish themselves in Southern California in the post war period. His expanded art objects—'nature machines,' 'specimen viewers,' and 'art tools'—were made under the auspices of his corporate DBA John Doe Co., and are intended to 'model nature, its processes and effects for a future environment that may be completely made by humans.' Cheng’s interactive objects—many of which were made in his outdoor 'nature laboratory'—use viewer participation and systems art to question corporate responsibility, individual freedom, and the effects on the natural environment of a growing mass-consumer material culture. Throughout five plus decades of practice, Cheng has addressed environmental change, being a member of a generation who watched not only the rapid growth of Los Angeles, but also the rapid growth of Asian cities, where he traveled extensively.