Few things thrill more than getting to experience a piece of immersive art. 2-D art hanging on a wall is all well and good, but there’s something that sends the senses into overdrive about experiencing art that lets you walk in it. Pieces like Sondra Carr’s It Wouldn’t Be Make Believe, in which the artist turned a hotel room into a foreboding and dense jungle by hanging strips of green paper next to each other, makes the viewer feel like an animal pushing through tall grass. Olafur Eliasson conjured the ghost of a waterfall at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art with his stunning Beauty installation. And then there’s the jewel in the Phoenix Art Museum’s collection, Yayoi Kusama’s You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies. Viewers walk in a mirrored infinity room with strings of LED lights suspended in the dark; it’s a piece of art that makes you feel like you’re standing in the twinkling void of space.
Travis Hutchison’s "Moonage Virtual Reality" exhibition deserves a place of honor on that list of immersive art pieces. The twist to the filmmaker’s trio of film art works, though, is that all the walking you’ll be doing is from the neck up.
Opening this Saturday in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Ellman Fashion Design Gallery, "Moonage Virtual Reality" is a tribute to three of Hutchinson’s artistic heroes: Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Kenny Scharf. Displaying outfits that were designed for or inspired by these three style titans (including a Campbell’s Soup dress), the exhibit also features a cardboard viewfinder painted by Scharf. But all these physical pieces of art are just window-dressing for the real draw: the 3-D goggles scattered across a cluster of white tables and swivel chairs.
"Moonage Virtual Reality" is the first time the Phoenix Art Museum has exhibited a VR art show, and if the quality of this show is any indication, PAM's curators would do well to keep exploring this medium. Hutchison’s films are an overwhelming delight. Viewed through VR goggles with a set of headphones piping in audio, each of the three films (varying in length from three to seven minutes) is soundtracked to a piece of music. The Scharf film is scored to the B-52s, while the Bowie and Warhol films are soundtracked by Bowie singing, respectively, “Hang On To Yourself” and the Velvet Underground deep cut “Foggy Notion."
The goggles and headphones fit snugly, doing an excellent job at canceling out the outside world. One of the first things I noticed about experiencing Hutchison’s VR work is how quickly you forget about the geography of the real world. Spinning around in my chair, trying to take in all the images swirling and dissolving around me, I forgot about the table in front of me. The people in the room seemed to vanish; like a potent dose of psychedelics, the world outside “the experience” ceased to exist.
The least impressive of the three was Mick Rock's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It wasn't uninteresting — all three films gave me sensory overload — but the imagery of the film, edited together from Mick Rock’s archive of Bowie photographs, wasn’t surprising. Anyone with the slightest interest in Bowie or glam rock has seen these iconic images before.
What made the film interesting was how Hutchison played with the format: creating circles of Aladdin Sanes that surrounded the viewer, or turning images of Bowie in a kimono into a stretched-out giant. The film took full advantage of its 360-degree capabilities, projecting imagery overhead and at the viewer's feet at the same time. It was a bit like watching Jacques Tati’s masterful film Playtime, where the screen is so filled with detail that you don't know where to look. It’s the kind of thing that offers multiple, conflicting planes of action and asks you to decide where you’re going to place your attention. Mick Rock, like the other two films in the "Moonage" series, demands repeat viewings to take it all in.
Also assembled from external material, Billy Name's The Warhol Silver Factory uses Name’s photography and Warhol’s art (in particular his silkscreen flowers and Velvet Underground banana) to create a seven-minute tribute to Andy’s factory. We pass through tunnels of swirling Nicos; Warhol Superstars as tall as buildings loom over and pass through us; shots from Chelsea Girls and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows come and go in the blink of an eye. Most of the film is black and white, using Name’s silvery photography style to re-create the stark monochromatic look of old VU album photos. Indeed, the very feel of the film feels like a visual counterpart to the Underground’s gleefully chaotic “Sister Ray”: the images pile on, twist, and shatter like the layers of noisy distortion in that iconic tune.
One of the things that makes Billy Name stand out from the other two is how tactile it feels. It’s like being plopped down in the middle of a pop-up book. There were moments where I felt like I was going to slam into the images like a wall, while other instances I could feel my hand shoot out, a reflexive attempt to grab hold onto something floating within reach.
The most fascinating of the three films was dedicated to the most obscure member of Hutchison's trinity. While Kenny Scharf is hardly an unknown, being a contemporary of Basquiat, Haring, and the B-52s, his profile pales in comparison to the long shadows of Mr. 15 Minutes Of Fame and the Thin White Duke.
While the other films cycle through a barrage of imagery, Kenny Scharf's Cosmic Cavern is a static location shot. We get positioned in a recreation of one of Scharf’s extraordinary cosmic rooms: a Nickelodeon fever dream of neon colors, paint splattered pianos, Kool-Aid red lawn chairs, undulating streamers, and spinning disco balls. Imagine every punk squat and house party you ever visited getting drenched in glitter and radioactive slime and you have some sense of the overwhelming, candy-coated world on view in this film. The B-52s chirped in my ears as I whipped my head back and forth, trying to see as many things as I could in this densely packed room. I felt like I had sneaked into their mutant Love Shack, where all the light bulbs were painted with highlighter colors.
Hutchison said he chose these three artists because of how they formed a kind of historical chain, connecting the '60s, '70s and '80s. Each of these three men, according to Hutchison, were believers in living their art and were obsessed with dreaming up ideas about space and the future.
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Watching these three films back to back, you get a sense of that evolution of space: the seductive yet cold clique-ish world of the Factory; Bowie’s cosmic cult of personality, where one man’s sound and vision is too massive to be contained by a single planet; and finally Scharf’s cavern, where there are no people at all, the ultimate party chamber with no one left to party inside it.
The best art drowns out the rest of the world. It creates a new world for you to explore and lose yourself in, much in the same way children in the throes of play forget about all the bullshit of the adult world by treating their sandbox like a castle. Time and space went away while I was caught up in the virtual worlds of Hutchison’s "Moonage." It made me forget my own body for awhile. I can’t think of a higher form of praise for a piece of art than that.
Correction: an earlier version of this piece misspelled the artist's name. It is Travis Hutchison, not Hutchinson.
Moonage Virtual Reality. August 11 through September 30 at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue; 602-257-1880; phxart.org. Entry included with a general admission ticket, which is $18-$23 for adults. Please be advised that the Museum has issued a health warning: If you have photosensitive epilepsy or are prone to motion sickness, it's advised that you don't view this exhibit. More information can be found on the exhibition's page.