A sign instructs people to avoid the 'Chain Reaction' sculpture, which is being assessed by city officials to determine if it is structually deficient. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CIVIC CENTER — A prized piece of Santa Monica public art will undergo testing this week to ensure that it’s structurally stable after 20 years of exposure to the elements and human tampering.

A team led by renowned conservationist Rosa Lowinger will begin the careful work of opening up Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad’s monumental work “Chain Reaction” and taking samples of the fiberglass, concrete and chain links used to make the piece.

Lowinger has also done work on a huge statue of Amida Buddha at the Jodo Mission in Lahaina, Maui, and assisted with the preservation of art after the earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010.

Once a section of “Chain Reaction” has been cleared, engineers will be able to check the internal steel armature that comprises the interior of the piece to see if it is still in good condition.

Then, the samples collected by Lowinger’s team will be lab-tested to determine their strength, said Public Art Supervisor Malina Moore.

The goal is to find out as much about the condition of all the materials used to make the work to ensure that it doesn’t represent a hazard to the public, Moore said.

“Its age, the conditions, the fact that no one has looked at the inside of it since it’s been installed and because it could be a public safety hazard we need to make sure (it’s stable),” Moore said.

The work’s composition presents unusual challenges for the team brought in to inspect it.

“Chain Reaction” was originally envisioned as cast bronze, but the fabrication was “prohibitively expensive,” said Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick.

Failing that, Conrad and expert fabricator Peter Carlson developed a second concept — using a fiberglass core over a steel armature with copper link chains used as decoration around the outside.

“It was a pretty innovative solution,” Cusick said.

That leaves Lowinger’s team to the delicate process of uncovering not one but three layers of materials for inspection.

That shouldn’t be too much of a problem, Lowinger said.

“Here’s the thing: Contemporary art and public art is often times made of materials that are unusual and in combination,” Lowinger said. “This was fabricated by a well-known and respected fabricator. (Conrad) had it made by the best of the best.”

Despite two decades of weather, and the occasional young person using the statute as a jungle gym, Lowinger suspects that the piece is in good condition.

“One can’t say until one really knows, but I think and hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Lowinger said.

Lowinger and her team will be working on taking samples and opening up the space for the engineers’ work today and Wednesday.

The Lowinger team has a $10,000 contract with City Hall to complete the work.

The potential for a problem with “Chain Reaction” came to light in June when Building and Safety official Ron Takiguchi saw children gripping the chain links on the outside of the sculpture.

Takiguchi requested a temporary fence to protect the sculpture, and got in touch with Cusick to bring in the conservationists and engineers.

“Chain Reaction” came to Santa Monica in 1991 amid a fiery public debate. The work represents the mushroom cloud created by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan to bring an end to World War II

ashley@www.smdp.com

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