Visual Arts

The Space Between

Deborah Hopkins, curator of exhibitions at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, likes art that "gets out of the frame and jumps off the pedestal" — an apt way to describe the works in "Thin Skin" (known to many of us as "the bubble show"), on view at the museum for another month. The exhibition features 22 artists from 13 countries; it has been lovingly assembled by Independent Curators International, a group that describes itself as "dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of contemporary art."

The art in "Thin Skin" is definitely contemporary — including works by big new art-world names such as Pipilotti Rist and Ernesto Neto — and so are many of the intriguing notions that the art explores.

"The show touches on the idea that our worlds are no longer self-contained," Hopkins explains. "We're able to be in touch with people all over the world. Those barriers, those bubbles we've created, no longer really exist in the way that we've become accustomed to. Plus, with the Internet, discussion about those in-between spaces — what is space, what is real and what is virtual, and what's in between those — is really relevant."

Hopkins' favorite "Thin Skin" piece is a standout 1994 work by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, which she admires for its economy of means and describes as "the quintessential work of art in the show. It transports you." The piece is a circular pool — an elegant puddle, really — into which a drop of water falls, every second, from the dark above. The pool looks calm, but in the reflection that is projected onto the wall behind it, ripples dance endlessly across its surface, like amoebae under a microscope. The result is elemental, refined and simply mesmerizing.

Another piece Hopkins cites as particularly powerful is Siamese Breath (Twins), by Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont. What looks at first to be two deflated, discarded balloons becomes two figures seated back-to-back in a meditation pose, once the viewer blows air into the hollow skins. (There are disposable straws for this purpose, which fit onto the snaking orange tubes extending from the figures' navels.)

"That artwork requires your participation," says Hopkins. "It's not really a work of art until you give it life. It sort of encapsulates everything about life and death and in between in that one piece."

The artist with the greatest name recognition here is Andy Warhol, who is represented by his 1966 installation Silver Clouds. This room full of puffy, silver, pillow-shaped balloons is enormously popular with children, and it's easy to see why. The balloons are large but light, and they fly off at the slightest touch. Small fans positioned in the upper corners of the room create a gentle stream of wind that pulls the pillows up to the ceiling, where they stay until other pillows knock them into movement again. It doesn't take long. Even grown-ups can't resist pushing the pillows around to make them dance.

Another favorite with young visitors (there are many this time of year) is Lee Boroson's Slurry, a dense but welcoming forest of translucent blue fabric columns filled with air. Boroson has said of this particular piece, "You leave the space you know and enter the space that you're interested in," which pretty much sums up how children tend to operate in the world. During the course of an hour or so, every child who approached the piece walked directly into the columns and started exploring. Most adults, familiar with the usual museum experience of looking and not touching, walked around rather than through the columns. (I recommend walking through them, whether you're large or small.)

Like the bubbles, spheres and "inflatable structures" it explores, "Thin Skin" feels both airy and profound, temporary and timeless. As curator Hopkins says, "You can approach the show on any level you want. You can appreciate it for the whimsy and the materials used, but there is a lot more meat if you decide to go there." In other words, it will blow your mind if you let it, but very gently. It's this combination of the disposable and the deep, wrapped in a shiny package, that makes "Thin Skin" such a satisfying experience, especially on a baking summer day. And when you leave the exhibition, be sure to step into James Turrell's Knight Rise, a kind of minimal desert Pantheon, just outside the SMoCA building, where you can sit, take a deep breath, and sense for a moment that the sky is the roof of your own bubble.

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Deborah Sussman Susser