By Steven Rosen (Correspondent) / Los Angeles Daily News /2005
One room makes you larger, and one room makes you small …
It’s natural to paraphrase lyrics from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a 1960s-era psychedelic-rock classic, while describing the “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” art show at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
This is an exhibit inspired by the legacy of the hippie era, during which often-drug-induced attempts at consciousness expansion became a mass social movement and impetus for widespread, often-rebellious artistic expression.
For this show, some 30 international artists have submitted works – many room-size installations, including films – that address the quest for the ecstatic experience. The show’s origins are in an earlier MOCA exhibit, 1992’s “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s.” That contained Charles Ray’s “Yes,” a luminously smooth portrait of the California artist high on LSD. “Yes” is in this show, too. All the art here was created since 1990, and certain pieces were done specifically for the show.
Some “Ecstasy” work means to consciously evoke and revive the druggie, blissed-out spirit of that 1960s experience. Others wryly comment on it or critique it. And some look for fresh, new artistic means to heighten and change the viewer’s consciousness today.
There is gentle humor but also a utopian questing in German artist Klaus Weber’s sweetly idealistic “Public Fountain LSD Hall,” the show’s first piece. It is a three-tier antique-crystal fountain made by the same company that once fabricated a Victorian-era fountain for the Crystal Palace of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Liquid – containing legal amounts of potentized LSD, the museum says – gurgles forth.
Nearby is a display about the artist’s proposal to isolate and encased a town center in a glass and steel box and install a fountain that circulates trace amounts of the psychoactive drug that allows for heightened perceptions. It was proposed for Dresden but who knows – Pershing Square, maybe?
MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel, the show’s organizer, said in an interview that “Ecstasy’s” title isn’t meant to imply this show is solely about drug-inspired or -induced art. (Ecstasy, itself, is the colloquial name for a drug popular among rave-party aficionados.)
“It has multifaceted meaning about collective experience,” he said. At the same time, drugs most certainly do have something to do with this show’s existence. “Throughout the 20th century, artists have alluded to or made use of mind-altering drugs and mushrooms to extend consciousness and take them outside the realm of reality,” he explained.
And one would be hard-pressed to miss the drug reference in the room-size “Upside Down Mushroom Room,” by Belgian-born Swedish artist Carsten Holler. After walking down a long, dark entrance, visitors arrive in a room to find 10-foot-tall fabricated mushrooms bathed in bright light. The effect is dizzyingly mad as a March hare; it makes one feel like Tom Thumb to sit underneath these giants.
But another artist who uses mushrooms as a subject, Roxy Paine of New York, goes for a more elegiac and loving effect. In “Psilocybe Cubensis Field,” she has individually molded and hand-painted 2,200 life-size psychedelic mushrooms and placed them on a section of the Geffen’s cold gray floor as if it were a tiny field.
Clustered or separate, they look fragile and vulnerable, a bit like the birds in “March of the Penguins” or even an indigenous village in the remote wilderness. Paine has brought an artistic approximation of nature – a reverse earthwork, in a way – into the post-industrial expanses of the museum.
One phenomenal work explores notions of ecstasy quite apart from any drug connections. It is Austrian-born, Brooklyn-based Erwin Redl’s “MATRIX II,” consisting of row upon row of vertical strands of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in a dark room. There are 5,000 lights in the 200-square-foot space. The effect of looking upon them, or walking through them, is disorienting and consciousness-altering, but in a calming, peaceful way that turns the room into a sanctuary.
Redl said his inspiration is the spare, post-Minimalism Light-and-Space environmental art of James Turrell and Robert Irwin, as well as earthworks like Walter De Maria’s “Lighting Fields” in New Mexico. It’s not about drugs and the 1960s at all. “I love that period for the freedom it inspired, especially the music, but not really the psychedelic art,” he said. “For me, it (art) is about purity of space.”
“Ecstasy’s” most famous – some might say notorious – piece already has been shut down by city officials because it lacked proper permits. MOCA is looking for another site. It was a site-specific work by Japanese installation artist Tatsurou Bashi called “Kariforunia,” located atop a 30-foot-high flagpole near City Hall on First Street between Main and Los Angeles streets.
There, the artist built and furnished a spacious room with a lovely, mind-expanding view of downtown L.A. and a closer one of the top of the pole and its state flag. The pole was right in the middle of the room.
Figuratively and literally, it was far-out art. While it was briefly open, I climbed up into it via a temporary staircase and encountered two proud workmen installing finishing touches. “When I drive by from now on, I can tell my son I touched the top of this flag pole,” one said.
ECSTASY: IN AND ABOUT ALTERED STATES
Where: Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave. downtown Los Angeles.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; through Feb. 20.
Tickets: $8 adults; $5 students; free 5-8 p.m. Thursdays. (213) 626-6222. http://www.moca.org
(PHOTO: Carsten Holler, Upside Down Sculpture, location of installation unclear)