Finding Wonder in San Diego Installation Art
On view through August 24th
By Evan Senn
Strolling up to the B Street Pier on San Diego’s harbor, there are no signs advertising the massive art exhibition “Wonderspaces,” but facing the sidewalk there is a large entrance that shows only white desks and a small sign with a ‘W’ on it. Walking into “Wonderspaces: With Creative License” feels a bit like walking into an ominous maze at an amusement park. There are corridors with flashing lights, strange sounds, mirrors, and hoards of young people taking selfies; however, around almost every corner the space opens up into small wonderlands of weird, strange, and surreal installations.
“Wonderspaces: With Creative License” is the second iteration of “Wonderspaces,” following the debut event in 2017 that brought over 66,000 visitors to a San Diego art event specializing in immersive art installations. Cleverly titled, this second life of “Wonderspaces” pushes the boundaries of convention and limitations in art and design, and plays with technology as if it were simply another medium in a mixed media work of art. Fifteen different immersive art installations and projects engage visitors and force them to step outside of any expectations in every facet. The most memorable and transformative installations in the large space include Submergence by Squidsoup, Into the Breath by Stefano Ogliari Badessi, Black Balloons by Tadao Cern, The Border by Carolin Wanitzek, Impulse by Martin Messier, and Dinner Party created and written by Charlotte Stoudt and Laura Wexler and directed by Angel Soto.
Because of the Instagram hype, Submergence is by far the most populated—there are 8,064 individual LED lights strung into a giant cube of lights that dance to music and change color with a flare for playfulness. There are very few attendants, especially in or near this installation, which prompts an abuse of space by insta-hungry attendees in order for them to get the proper photograph of themselves getting “cultured” in this photo-friendly place. The lights in Submergence have a choreographed sequence that plays in an evocative rhythm that few visitors care to wait out. Every minute of this 12-minute piece is entrancing to witness, but the overall design of the dance is not unlike a sexual experience, playing with each movement of light and color flirtatiously until the tension builds, climaxes, and then releases to begin again. It feels a bit magical to be so small in comparison to the dancing light cube, and not dissimilar to watching fireworks, every new burst of color and light is sensational.
Submergence neighbors two other enchanting installations, Into the Breath and Impulse. Into the Breath is one of the most beautiful art objects I’ve seen in a long time—a giant, pulsing, shiny, bright yellow translucent tadpole of a structure is big enough for people to walk into, and walk around in. It moves, breathes, and feels as though it has a living energy about it. Inside you can find couples kissing, kids laying down and staring up into the top of the structure, and others simply sitting inside and admiring the creation. Badessi, the artist, created Into the Breath out of plastic bags and wrap, and used a fan to fill it with air so that it can keep its shape without a more fixed structure. This ephemeral, strange, golden object is said to be a Chinese dragon, playing with your senses and questioning how we consider mundane everyday items like plastic bags. To be inside the dragon (or tadpole) feels otherworldly and meditative.
Into the Breath is placed in the center open space of “Wonderspaces,” right next to the snack bar, and a singular enclosed exhibition in the shape of a circle. Inside the circular enclosure with many entrances is a brightly colored jungle made out of paper called The Border by Carolin Wanitzek. The Boarder is an adult-sized diorama world that forces visitors to feel wonder and adventure as they enter this seemingly magical and definitely whimsical space. Wanitzek says that The Border visualizes the edge between dreams and reality. As if a graphic-designed jungle was made into paper, this colorful place allows people to feel the palpable playfulness in this crafted landscape.
Across from The Border, there is an attendant stationed, with a long line of people around her, and a curtained entrance to another project—this is Dinner Party. At first, completely fascinated that someone would use a strikingly similar title as Judy Chicago’s historic work, I thought it would be an immersive comment on that work—but I was very wrong. Dinner Party is the first fully immersive installation work that is also a virtual reality artwork. With elements of a thriller film, historic reenactment, political commentary, and a game, this artwork is one of the most impressive works of art I’ve experienced in a long time.
This short virtual reality thriller dramatizes an actual account of an alien abduction from the 1960s. Betty and Barney Hill experienced the first nationally known UFO abduction case in the U.S. and their stories are recreated in this piece. Once you enter the space for this project, you are transported back to the 1960s with a tastefully decorated ‘60s style living room set, and when its finally your turn, you’re invited into a dimly lit silent dining room, with a giant banquet table full of other people who can’t see you. Every seat at the table is taken by a person wearing VR goggles and headphones, each completely immersed in their own experience. The dark dining room feels intimidating, but the VR experience that follows is exciting and intimate.
The dinner party you’re physically in, as well as the dinner party you’re about to witness in your VR headset, is transformed through the abduction into a place of isolation, bewilderment and otherness. The cohesion in both symbolism and experience of this piece shows us the vast possibilities that Virtual Reality has as an art medium, literally and virtually blurring the real and the constructed.
The VR piece is all about the investigation of two different perspectives of the same event, this abduction which, if you speak to any other person after your own experience at the Dinner Party, is a slightly different experience than your own. The piece as a whole shows viewers that there are two sides to every story, and two people can be in the same exact situation but experience completely different things, broadening perspectives and exploring creative innovation in the process.
Further back into the building there are more family-geared installations and interactive pieces, as well as an anxiety-inducing film-flooded room called The Corridor by Toby Dye that is inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s master manipulation. As you make your way back toward the entrance and exit, Tadao Cern’s Black Balloons float ominously like death and life holding hands in a white room, which feels both sullen and energizing. You also stumble upon Impulse by Martin Messier, on the opposite side of Submergence, toward the exit. Impulse is an electrical ballet of circuitry that mimics a sound poem or dance. With five sections full of live electrical circuits and wires interacting with one another, all synced up to a computerized sound and light program, the performance is loud and industrial, latching onto all senses of its viewers. Its circuit lines are not unlike the brain, and watching this electricity dance around the giant metal boards feels familiar yet also foreign.
One issue kept arising in the experience of these fascinating works of art, and that is context. “Wonderspaces” had zero wall text and zero forced information for visitors who didn’t think to ask for a brochure, catalog or press kit. When asked about this lack of information or context, they explained that attendants are placed all over the building for any questions that people have, and that they wanted each visitor to experience these immersive installations for themselves without being told how to feel or think about them. The issue with that is that no normal visitor was asking the attendants any questions about the perspective, the purpose, or the artists—they were more inclined to shrug in a lack of understanding, play with interactive aspects of the installations, or take selfies without the slightest grasp at the meaning or process behind the artworks or even that these were in fact artworks.
The use of tech in this iteration of Wonderspaces is but a mere glimpse at the future of art, and the variety of tools and media available to artists now, which is absolutely fascinating in the evolution of our art history. Other installations in Wonderspaces included: Akousmaflore by Scenocosme, Magnetic Field by VOID, Body Paint by Memo Akten, HOSHI by Nonotak Studio, To Do by Illegal Art, Levitate by Everyware, Volumen by Filip Roca, and Never Ends by Bengfang. All of the installations in “Wonderspaces: With Creative License” push the boundaries of what we consider art to be but do so with such powerful creativity and with such innovative use of technology, every moment spent in this space is in fact a moment of wonder, even if the significance may not be clear to all who enter.
“Wonderspaces: With Creative License” is on view through August 24, 2018. B Street Pier, 1140 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101.