Friday, January 27, 2012

Artist seeks to bury jetliner in Mojave Desert location

You've probably heard of the underground railroad. Now try to wrap your mind around an underground jetliner.

Swiss artist Christoph Buchel has applied for a conditional-use permit in Kern County that, if approved tonight, will allow him to bury an intact Boeing 727 commercial jetliner 38 feet below the surface of the Mojave Desert near Boron.

Yes, you read that right. The artist wants to dig a huge hole, place a 153-foot-long aircraft in it and carefully cover it with desert sand and soil.

Known as the "Terminal," the curious project would allow a limited number of visitors to experience the subterranean art project via a long underground tunnel connecting the plane to a parking area.

"At this point in time, we've received no letters in opposition to it," said Scott Denney, operations division chief for the county Planning Department. "But we have received a lot of inquiries."

The project site is about 2.5 miles north of Highway 58, west of Boron. The 5.3 acres were purchased by Terminal Project LLC in two adjoining parcels in 2010 and 2011, according to real estate records. The organization paid $21,000 for the undeveloped desert land.

Buchel was said to be out of the country. He didn't reply to an email Wednesday.

Greg Otto, a consulting engineer on the project, said his job is to make sure the 727 remains stable, intact and safe for visitors. Otto's company, Los Angeles-based Buro Happold, does a lot of work with artists creating large projects, he said.

All jetliners are built to withstand tremendous pressures that come with multiple take-offs and landings, Otto said. But he will be looking at details like "soil load on a window" and pressure on the aircraft's wings.

"It's a pretty cool idea," Otto said, "to place an airplane in a different context than we're used to seeing it. It could be surreal in many ways, and profound in others."

All engines, jet fuel and potentially hazardous materials will be removed from the plane prior to installation. The interior will retain the appearance of a commercial passenger plane, but new electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems will be installed.

Visitors will be able to use the plane's restrooms, which will be connected to an on-site septic system.

According to the project description, visitors will experience the geological strata through the jetliner's windows -- though it doesn't explain how that can be accomplished after first digging up the natural strata.

Nearby Mojave Airport has several decommissioned airliners in its "airplane boneyard," so it seemed possible that Buchel might buy a used 727 from Mojave. But airport General Manager Stu Witt said he's never heard of Buchel.And there's no out-of-commission 727s on the lot.

"I'm told a non-flyer with serviceable parts removed may be worth $30,000," Witt said in an email. "But that is a wild guess of a genetic craft."

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was expected to organize shuttle trips to the site as part of a major exhibition scheduled later this year. But in a development that brings added uncertainty to the project, a MOCA spokeswoman said Wednesday the museum is no longer connected to Buchel's project.

Eccentric? Extraordinary? Fantastic? Bizarre? All of these adjectives and some that are less generous may apply to such an unusual, off-beat idea. But when the artist Christo announced he would install more than 1,000 large yellow umbrellas along the Tejon Pass in 1991, criticism and wisecracks turned to praise among many area residents when the massive project was completed.

Bakersfield artist Art Sherwyn said there's something interesting about Buchel's choice of untouched, virgin land as the site of his subterranean installation. Sure, it may seem weird at first glance, Sherwyn said, but maybe it's a symptom of the post-modern dilemma many artists face.

"Maybe one of the problems is that art history has gone so long, people have to go so far outside the box to find something unique and different," he said.

"Art is about emotion, creating something that will inspire some kind of emotional response," Sherwyn continued. "People who step onto that underground 727 will experience something they will remember for a long time.

"Artists want to be remembered," he said. "It's hard to be remembered as a landscape artist."

The Kern County Planning Commission will consider the conditional-use permit 7 p.m. today in the supervisors' chambers of the County Administrative Building, 1115 Truxtun Ave.

Planning department staff have recommended conditional approval. 

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