Viewers are required to activate Outer Body/Inner Experiences. | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Viewers are required to activate Outer Body/Inner Experiences.

Viewers are required to activate Outer Body/Inner Experiences.
Seat of power: Lawrence Malstaf's "Nemo Observations."

Because of its increasingly immersive nature, installation art has pushed gallery-goers beyond passive viewing routines and into active participation. And with nearly all the works in Outer Body/Inner Experiences, at Wood Street Galleries, this concept is extended further still. While it is possible to walk around each of the five works and touch nothing, to get the full experience, viewers must activate them. The emotional or intellectual experience follows, reflecting just one of the exhibition title's implications. 

Nowhere is viewer activation more necessary than in Belgian artist Lawrence Malstaf's "Nemo Observatorium" (2002), where a cyberpunk-inspired throne stands at the center of a giant PVC cylinder. A visitor must flip a switch to commence the whirring of five fans, which send Styrofoam beads whirling around the cylinder's periphery in amazing, ever-changing patterns. The installation's use of wind to blow chaos around the visitor -- who remains untouched by the influx of air -- seems somewhat Buddhist in philosophy: not only an impressive demonstration of physical laws, but a visual representation of enlightenment. 

Buddha is actually part of San Francisco-based Jim Campbell's "Shadow (for Heisenberg)" (1993-94). The work is a wily nod to quantum mechanics' Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that a particle's position and momentum can never be mutually defined. It's fitting, then, that as visitors approach the work, the glass box around the diminutive Buddha sculpture fogs to opacity, leaving only its baffling, seemingly all-pervading shadow behind. This somehow suggests that the more we humans scrutinize and intervene, the more veiled larger spiritual and scientific matters become. 

Nearby, Canadian Luc Courchesne's "Where Are You?" (2005-10), a seeming prototype for virtual reality, is absolutely dependent on viewer participation. And although wonderful in concept, the controls for piloting various panoramic photo environments into the surrounding satellite dish-shaped walls are embedded in an iPhone system that can be easily misdirected. Moreover, each image's resolution is too faded and grainy to trigger an inner experience, whereby the visitor is entirely absorbed by the illusion. 

Korean artist Airan Kang's "Installation" (2009) is far less dependent on viewer participation, although her "digital books" -- volumes covered in resin, illuminated by colorful fiber-optics and trimmed with scrolling LEDs -- are mesmerizing. Kang's previous works, like "The Space of Book," have involved motion sensors, which are not in evidence here. Yet "Installation" still seems to fit a more abstract notion of the exhibition's concept. Here, the outer body of each book is emphasized, while the internal experiences, created by words, are elevated above the seeming imperative of viewer participation. 

In a black-box space close by is British artist Matt Stokes' "Long After Tonight" (2005). The projected video documents a one-night reunion of Northern Soul devotees, whose Motown-inspired subculture swept northern England in the 1960s. But instead of the decadent Blackpool crowds, given to pulling all-nighters at places like club Mecca, Stokes films a Scottish group that met in a church social hall. For the documented reunion, Stokes films the group not in the hall, but within the red-walled opulence of the church itself, allowing viewers to recognize corresponding passions. The weeping icons gaze down at the sweat-slicked dancers, captured in slow motion. Although viewer participation is invited (and seems almost inevitable, given the music's allure and the dancers' infectious spirit), it is not required. Still, the exertions of the dancers' bodies suggest a religious fervor, revealing their internal experience and tying the work to the show's theme. 

While these final two works allow the visitor to remain passive, they do possess a more complex thematic implication. With them, the show deftly moves into a consideration of the ways in which physical essence, or the Outer Body, can be both container and catalyst for spiritual transport, or Inner Experience. 


Outer Body/Inner Experiences continues through Sept. 23. Wood Street Galleries, 601 Wood St., Downtown. 412-471-5605

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By Mars Johnson