Why you should care

Once it’s dismantled, the experience is gone forever.

The coldest place in Los Angeles? It might just be a curious slice of the Arctic located in a historic building a mile north of the sunny University of Southern California campus. Inside the 100-year-old structure rests an unlikely ancestor to today’s virtual-reality experiences — a predigital take on immersive environments: the panoramic painting.

Effulgence of the North depicts a somewhat sci-fi Arctic landscape in a stunning 360-degree painting. It’s an homage to a once-popular artform and the second work by artist Sara Velas in her ongoing project, the Velaslavasay Panorama. Panoramas — large-scale paintings of dramatic, historical or natural scenes — were most prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Velas’s first piece was a depiction of the unsettled Los Angeles area. Plans for Effulgence date back to 2002, but it didn’t come to fruition until 2007, after Velas had moved the project to the Union Theatre, a 1915 movie house that has served as a neighborhood cinema, a tilers union headquarters and a film club for USC students.

It’s kind of creaky and feels spooky.

Sara Velas, artist

To see Effulgence, walk up a short spiral staircase, which leads into a former union office space. Instead of a scene of polar bears and bright midnight sun, you’ll be greeted with jagged walls of ice that stretch toward a distant horizon, illuminated by a clouded moon. The landscape, which barely feels like it could exist on Earth, is partly inspired by vintage science fiction depictions of the Arctic, according to Velas. Still, she’s modest when she talks about the panorama’s effect on viewers, which “generally fall into three categories. One is underwhelm-ment — like, is that all there is? Another would be fear. People are afraid of the dark. It’s kind of creaky and feels spooky. And then the third is meditative calm and serenity.”

Ten years might seem like a long timeline for an art exhibit. But, as Velas explains, once a panorama is taken down, the accompanying sculptures (Effulgence is supplemented by a few plaster ice floes) are dismantled, and the piece ceases to exist in that state. “It has this ephemeral life and then goes away,” Velas says. To supplement the painting, there’s been an Arctic trading post, a “Polar Film Club” devoted to archival documentaries and modern experimental film and talks by historians of the Arctic. In 2010, the theater showcased a 270-foot moving scroll telling the story of California, The Grand Moving Mirror of California, which was based on an 1850s script and required a live pianist, narrator, sound effects artist and several other staffers for performance — including someone to keep the canvas flat and moving smoothly.

But while much of the Velaslavasay Panorama project is devoted to historical excavation, the next exhibit will showcase how the panorama format continues to be relevant. As president of the International Panorama Council, Velas has discovered that artists around the world — in Turkey, Cambodia, China — are still creating these works, sometimes supplemented with technological advancements, like a rotating platform or synchronized video projections.

After a decade-long run, Effulgence of the North will close later this year. The next exhibit, likely to debut in 2018, will be a panorama made by Chinese artists, the first of their 360-degree works to be shown outside China.

GO: Velaslavasay Panorama

  • Address: 1122 W. 24th St, Los Angeles (website)
  • Hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
  • Fee: $6 suggested donation ($4 for students and seniors)
  • Pro tip: If there’s a line to enter the panorama, check out Novi Tuskhut, a replica of an Arctic trading post, located on the ground floor; if it’s a sunny day, relax in the outdoor garden behind the theater.

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