Sunday, August 05, 2007

I meant to post this some time ago, but with Comic-Con, it got lost in the shuffle. I apologize for the delay.

I attended the grand unveiling of "The Effulgence of the North," the new panorama on display at the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles back on July 21st. I had been eagerly awaiting the evening, as well as the chance to flee up to Los Angeles for a day and unwind. The experience was not what I thought it would be, but I had a fine time nonetheless.

After some other stops in L.A., I arrived at the Panorama right as the event was starting. As seen in the picture above, the Velaslavasay Panorama is in a converted movie theater. The back half of the auditorium is where the stage for the panorama was built, which leaves the front half of the auditorium available for presentations, with a bit under a hundred seats, I'd reckon (I'm bad at reckoning, I should note). The theater isn't much to see on the inside, with bare, unadorned walls, and a very small lobby, containing a shrine to their previous location (that red dot atop the theater is the cherry that topped their previous location). But it's nice that the space is being put to use, for an art form even more archaic than the silent films for which the Union Theatre was built. I got one of the last seats, and their was a substantial standing room crowd, in addition to what was outside (I didn't have time to see the garden before the show started). That was probably my main surprise of the evening: There were a hell of a lot of people in attendance. When I did go out to the garden, I could barely move, and quickly gave up on the Bavarian food and went back inside. The crowd cut into my enjoyment slightly, but I am happy that the grand unveiling event was such a huge success for the institution, and hope it bodes well for their future.

The entertainment for the evening was overseen by Alpenhorn virtuoso Loren Marsteller. If I learned nothing else from the evening, he taught me that the curve of the alpenhorn is natural, with the alpenhorn crafter finding a tree naturally curved from the pressure of snowbanks on mountainsides. He played briefly, before making way for Tony Hartenstein, Yodeler and accordionist, who performed at the New York World's Fair of 1939. He was quite a hoot, and the crowd really enjoyed his performance. (The pictures I took of him didn't turn out so hot, but you can see a picture of Herr Hartenstein here).

The centerpiece of the evening's schedule was a lecture by Prof. Erkki Huhtamo. This was quite interesting, but probably went on a bit too long. The first half of the presentation was a more scholarly lecture about Albert Smith and the moving panorama Albert Smith's Daring Ascent of Mont Blanc, which was quite interesting, and pretty funny. While Albert Smith regaled crowds in 1850 with his climbing exploits, his drinking exploits during the climb seemed more interesting to this crowd (he invented a game, while climbing Mont Blanc, in which he and his fellow climbers would throw some of the copious bottles of alcohol in their provisions over the side of the mountain to see which would reach the bottom first; Smith had to be dragged up on the final ascent in a drunken stupor). Huhtamo followed the lecture with a magic lantern presentation, intended, I presume to lessen the disappointment that the actual moving panorama of Smith's exploits is no longer extant.

While I enjoyed Huhtamo's presentation, I was relieved when it was over, as I was eager to go outside and see the gardens and get a pretzel or something to eat. That's when I realized just how crowded the place was; I decided to go see the panorama, since that's why I was there, and then give the outdoors portion another chance.

I waited in line fifteen minutes or so to see the panorama (they were letting in about ten people at a time, to keep things manageable), and then I ascended the spiral staircase which led up to the viewing platform, surrounded completely by "The Effulgence of the North." In reading about the history of panoramas, I fell back on the familiar notion of the sublime in understanding their appeal, and expected the painting to evince a humbling force on the viewer, due to its awe-inspiring scope. So I was a bit disappointed and underwhelmed when I first emerged atop the staircase. The panorama is recessed a few feet from the viewing platform, and from that, combined with my height, it felt that, if anything, I was dominating the panorama. But as I continued to look at the panorama, I came to realize that it was my expectations, and not the painting, that were flawed. Rather than being imposing and awe-inspiring, I found the panorama quite peaceful. My attention tended to wander away from the towering icebergs, and instead to the vast ocean. There was a minimalist charm to the whole thing; my least favorite portion of the panorama was the busiest, where the depiction of the aurora borealis really failed to make an impression. There was a 3-D element to the display, with iceberg sculptures and painted ocean giving a depth to the display; a necessary touch to accent the immersive experience, even if it reminded me a bit of Sea World's penguin encounter. A soundtrack adds the cracking of ice, and changes in lighting simulate the passing of time, and encourage the viewer to focus on different aspects of the panorama (though I enjoyed lingering on the darkened spaces).

Overall, I was very impressed with the craftsmanship, and found the panorama a rewarding, tranquil experience. I ended up lingering in the viewing area for a good fifteen or twenty minutes; had I not felt guilty, knowing the long line to get in, I would have stayed longer. Finding that the crowd outside had not abated, I left immediately after, and sadly did not get my photo taken as an old-timey mountaineer (society's loss, I reckon). If you find yourself in the area, it's well worth a visit. I don't know that I would make a special trip just to see the panorama, but in the past, the Velaslavasay Panorama has hosted some very interesting events in keeping with the Victorian appeal of the artwork, and with the official opening of their new location, they are now even more suited to host no-doubt enertaining spectacles.

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