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Arts & Culture

Artwork removed from San Diego airport finds new home

Nine months after the San Diego International Airport abruptly removed a public art installation, the artist has found a new venue for the controversial piece at a local nonprofit gallery.

Evan Apodaca’s video installation “Monumental Interventions,“ which is critical of San Diego’s military presence, opens Saturday at the Athenaeum Art Center in Logan Heights. The piece uses the mouths of beheaded statues of well-known figures to express opposition to the local military industrial complex and its role in world conflicts. The severed heads are computer animated and speak the words of San Diego residents.

Monumental Interventions’ debut at the Athenaeum caps a bumpy journey. In March, San Diego International Airport officials unceremoniously stripped Apodaca’s public art video piece from the wall near Gate 48. An airport official told KPBS in a statement that the installation was brought down because it didn’t match Apodaca’s original proposal. But Apodaca said the genesis of the takedown was a complaint by an airport volunteer worker who called the piece “woke bullshit.”


“That person's comments went way up the chain of command at the airport, which directly caused the removal of the artwork,” Apodaca said.

Just weeks before the airport slammed the door on the piece, Apodaca said the Athenaeum opened theirs to show the work at its center. Executive Director Christie Mitchell declined an interview. But in a statement, she said the center offered Apodaca a solo show because of his hyper focus on issues affecting Southeast San Diego.

“His video works are the result of years of research and thinking, and we are excited to be making them available to our audiences, and to provide a space for various perspectives,” Mitchell said.

Apodaca said the Athenaeum’s invitation has renewed his excitement about the project he started in 2017.

“It's not easy to enjoy sometimes because the subject matter is so intense, it’s about violence,” he said. “And so the fact that someone wanted to support it and wanted to support me in getting these ideas out there just felt like a dream come true.”


Elizabeth Larison of the National Coalition Against Censorship had in July called the removal of Apodaca’s work from the airport censorship. She now says the advantage to showing artwork in non-government spaces, such as galleries and museums, is they may be more receptive to contentious ideas.

“Particularly if it goes with their brand or their mission or the artistic tastes and expectations of their clients and their audiences,” she said. “They may be less concerned with controversy.”

Larison said her organization doesn’t track how many censored artworks move on to private showings, but said it does happen.

And while it may seem like Apodaca’s art might get fewer eyeballs at a gallery instead of an international airport, Larison said suppressed work draws even more interest because “it’s like putting a dare out there.” That’s what happened when singer Barbara Streisand tried to get the California Coastal Commission to get rid of a photograph of her Malibu home, taken to document erosion.

“The Streisand Effect means that the attention brought by the censorship act itself can help artists show with other places,” Larison said. “And I think it naturally begs the question among audiences of ‘Well, what was so bad about that, that it shouldn't be available to me to assess on my own as an audience member?’”

San Diego artist Evan Apodaca measures one of his pieces for his upcoming art exhibit at the Athenaeum Art Center. Dec. 5, 2023.
Amita Sharma
San Diego artist Evan Apodaca measures one of his pieces for his upcoming art exhibit at the Athenaeum Art Center. Dec. 5, 2023.

Apodaca has now expanded Monumental Interventions to include a segment on the grave environmental effects of the nearby Navy base and shipyards on Barrio Logan, considered one of the most polluted communities in California.

Apodaca has also added pieces to the exhibit. One highlights San Diego’s anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Another is a tapestry of headlines documenting the Red Scare in the early years of the Cold War. And he has co-created a map depicting San Diego’s defense contractors, what they produce and where they sell their weaponry.  

“We know it's a military town, but we don't know the exact violence that is inflicted,” Apodaca said. “And when you see the specifics of the violence, those are things that individuals in San Diego don't know much about.”

But he added, those are the very things San Diegans need to know.

Apodaca’s exhibit opens at 5 p.m. Saturday and at the Athenaeum at 1955 Julian Ave. in San Diego. It closes on Feb. 23, 2024.