Divine Immersion at USC Pacific Asia Museum

Becoming Horizon Object, Divine Immersion, Nick Dong, Images courtesy of USC Pacific Asia Museum, photographer: Peter Perigo.

DIVINE IMMERSION: The Experiential Art of Nick Dong

USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena
Through October 3, 2021

Art is magic…But how is it magic? In its metaphysical development? Or does some final transformation culminate in a magic reality? In truth, the latter is impossible without the former. If creation is not magic, the outcome cannot be magic.

Hans Hoffman

Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Divine Immersion: The Experiential Art of Nick Dong at the USC Pacific Asia Museum is a wildly ambitious exhibit composed of multiple installations that skillfully blend light, sound and movement to not only stimulate awe and wonder but to positively affect the mood of the viewer.  The aim here is art as intervention – as an antidote to the many stresses and strains of the pandemic and to mitigate the damage caused by enforced isolation. As the viewer enters the exhibit the following questions are posted: what kind of energy are you bringing into this space? Is there something weighing you down that you wish to let go? How have recent events influenced you?  

Dong harnesses technology (along with the help of engineers) to bring his beguiling installations to life while evoking magic and miracles, as objects spin slowly while barely levitating. In the first room, four pieces of furniture are situated on the periphery of the space. A rocking chair (Divine Moments -Rocking Chair, 2015, Free standing sculpture, found furniture, motorized and electronic components, Loaned by Foster Goldstrom) has three bone white gourd-like objects, covered with delicate Escher-like pencil drawings (not sure if these are ceramic pieces or painted gourds) ever so slightly simultaneously levitating and moving above the chair seat.  Nearby, a beautifully distressed jade green vanity, with elegant wooden finials (itself a work of art) has a golden lotus shaped metallic ball gliding glacially in a proscribed pattern across the faded surface. (Divine Moments- Vanity, 2021, Free standing sculpture, found furniture, motorized and electronic components, Music by Stephen Carter Hicks). Across the way a tall, elegant grandfather clock has individual installations in three glass covered side panel niches. These video game-like installations are composed of quicksilver shifts of color and flashing lights with Busby Berkeley-like choreography (the first time I was here the clock was mute merely standing like a sentry with mirrored surfaces visible in these three niches hiding the surprise within.) The fourth piece, unceremoniously placed in a corner is a forlorn round table with a single rock–like object placed on it.  Inscribed with drawn lines, it is like a lonely mountain on a desolate plain, an apt metaphor for all of us in quarantine.

Dong requires that the viewer stand still long enough to watch the sculptural elements shift and move (to the constant hum of the background music). This insistence on stasis reminds me of the words in Sister Corita Kent’s iconic serigraph that says “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” Buddha).  Dong’s intentional fusion of the old and new reflects the three basic tenets of Buddhism – that nothing is lost in the universe, that everything changes and that there is cause/effect/karma. Though Dong is Chinese I couldn’t help but be reminded also of Japanese Shintoism where spirits inhabit all inanimate and animate objects and imbue them with sacred power.

Next, one enters an empty, very bright, white space with a door leading to an enclosed installation (Heaven 2019, a one-person-at-a-time installation, aluminum, mirror, musical and kinetic components), which clearly owes a debt to Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms.  The wall text states, “Heaven arrives to those who enter and sit, one at a time.” Claustrophobics should be aware that it is a darkened, mirrored room and once the door is closed there is literally no visible exit.  Those who can tolerate this situation (I had to come back for a second time to do that) are rewarded with mysterious and unexpected events that occur and play with one’s perception.

Meditation, restoring balance and harmony are implicit themes here, especially in the work entitled (Immersion, 2021, Hanging singing bowl installation, bronze belt, aluminum, and kinetic components, Music by Stephen Carter Hicks.) This installation occupies one room with a bowl spotlighted in the center. The viewer is requested to strike the bowl once initiating a continuous and random ringing of bells from high above.  Although the intention of this work (according to the curatorial wall text) was to eliminate the outside world from the viewer’s experience, this reviewer found the lighting too bright, and the spill over of musical sounds from the other installations to be too distracting. Perhaps if there were a curtain between rooms, this installation would help the viewer be more mindful.

“Becoming Horizon,” 2021, Hanging Installation, aluminum, acrylic, musical and kinetic components, celebrates the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe and is my favorite installation.  A metal structure that references a house or even a bed with a canopy has a platform created with hundreds of movable mirrored parts in an orderly grid. In the middle is a silver shape hovering and turning slowly. There are reflected shimmering lights both underneath this structure and on the wall behind and the ceiling above. These moving images resemble stars in the sky, dust motes, pollen drifting lazily, tadpoles swimming and even particles moving in the blood stream seen through a microscope. The gridded quilt-like form is not static as first imagined but is subtly shifting magically impacting both the ethereal music and the pace of the projected visuals like an unseen conductor.  This compelling piece seems to breathe and, along with the heartbeat thump of the music, is hypnotizing, luring the viewer into a meditative state of mind while pondering the unknowable universe.  

Outside the installation is a magnetic board that asks viewers to post their feelings before entering and then again after going through the exhibit. Anxiety, sadness and restlessness were high on the list going in and then many viewers left feeling elated, their mood and energy elevated by this provocative and conceptually complex show fulfilling the intentions of the talented Nick Dong.

PACIFIC ASIA MUSEUM
46 North Los Robles Avenue
Pasadena, California 91101

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