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Opening June 26, 2007 and ongoing at the Skirball Cultural Center, West Los Angeles

by Diane Calder

Imagine bestowing a friendly pat on the flanks of a stately zebra, sending his black and white stripes rotating in a dizzying spiral of patterns. Or peering into a peephole in the belly of a portly polar bear, viewing a diorama depicting her miniature counterpart cast afloat on an ice flow. These enticements and more await children and their extended families at the newly opened $5-million permanent installation "Noah's Ark," an exhilarating 8,000-square-foot, play-oriented, hands-on, realization of the flood story, populated with kinetic sculptures and puppets of more than 350 animals.

All of the animals here were recreated with sustainable, fair trade, environment-friendly, found objects and “repurposed” materials transformed to exemplify compelling discernments of the properties that define various members of the animal world. The zebra’s haunches were fabricated from wind turbines. (Think of them as a homage to Marcel Duchamp, creator of “Rotative Plaques” and readymades, and a master of double meanings.) The polar bear rests her ice bucket neck on the rim of an old-fashioned, claw footed bathtub. Two anacondas owe their flexibility to coils rescued by the ingenious puppeteer Chris Green from sofa springs. Crocodiles whose heads are violin cases, wear tire tread hides. Often the materials employed in the animals’ construction recognize cultural aspects of their homeland, alluding to flood stories and myths from a variety of cultures. For example, the paper headed Asian elephant incorporates vegetable steamers and rain drums from Thailand into its massive body.

"Noah's Ark." Installation by Olsen
Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.
Puppets by Chris M. Green.
Photos: Grant Mudford.

"Noah's Ark," detail, animals by
Alan Maskin of OSKA Architects.

Disney type clichés have been avoided; these animals do not speak in a human voice. Although text messages projected in the form of light rays could be construed as emanating from the heavens, neither God nor Noah are personified. Visitors take responsibility for loading animals onto the ark and orchestrating the sounds of rain, wind and thunder announcing the storm’s coming. They tend to the needs of the animals, preparing food and cleaning up “poop.” The opportunities for fun and physical activity built into the installation are designed to promote messages supporting community action, cooperation and respect for nature.

Evidence of interest in Noah’s ark has resurfaced in a far broader context, and across the usual cultural and political boundaries. Various segments of the populace have begun to acknowledge evidence that ecological concerns, particularly rising sea levels that could result from global climate change, represent a significant looming threat. Universal Pictures has enlisted Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm that reaches out to religious groups, to promote their new film, “Evan Almighty. ” It stars Steve Carell as a politician who abandons Congress in order to build an ark. Environmental activists at Greenpeace have organized the construction of a small scaled version of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat in an appeal to world leaders to take action on global warming.

The Skirball’s vessel is much grander than the structure being erected on Turkey’s mountain top. Occupying the entire second floor of the center's Winnick Hall wing, the ark is enhanced by an outdoor amphitheater and a "rainbow mist" installation by architect Moshe Safdie and environmental artist Ned Kahn. It is perhaps fitting that the winner of the competition for the construction of this ark was Olsen Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects of Seattle, a town that weathers more than its share of rain. Principals Jim Olson and Alan Maskin and their crew studied and planned for years, visiting children’s museums and accessing over 450 flood narratives. Olson’s solution, as cleverly designed as a ship in a bottle, splits the ark into two sections connected by a glass bridge. Impressive wall graphics and strategically placed mirrors add to the magic. Even the wood in the second section has been aged to add to the suggestion of the passage of time.

Viewers are motivated to move through various areas in the ark towards a rainbow.  As they progress, a series of special events, including storytelling and art making, will take place. Staff trained by Chris M. Green, the world-renowned puppeteer whose kinetic sculptures are central to making the installation such a treat, bring rod, marionette and wearable bunraku-style puppets to life.