The stark room with black walls is dark except for the fluorescent glow of three circular screens, each 3 feet in diameter. They play videos of a man and a woman, filmed from above, inhabiting a 12-foot-tall tank filled with nearly 2,000 gallons of water. The liquid rises and falls as it circulates in and out of the tank, but the performers don't seem to notice.
Look right and the man floats naked, staring blankly as if in a state of suspended animation. Look ahead and the woman is dressing herself in a black gown and underwear that swish, ghost-like, in the water around her body. Look left and the man is in a business suit, lying at the bottom of an empty tank; water suddenly rises above his face, climbing to the rim until he disappears from sight.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Holoscenes" exhibit: In the Feb. 18 Calendar section, an article about the "Holoscenes: Quaternary Suite" exhibit by Lars Jan at the Pasadena Museum of California Art said that the show includes circular video screens 3 feet in diameter. The video screens are 7 1/2 feet in diameter.
The effect is strangely unsettling — like watching grown humans in utero.
The video installation, called "Holoscenes: Quaternary Suite" and playing at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through May, is the work of Lars Jan. The artist, 36, does not find water a soothing subject. He believes that water, and the fact that climate change is making more of it as ice caps melt and sea levels rise, will come to define life in the 21st century.
The idea for "Holoscenes" came to him after he saw a Pakistan flood photo taken from above, showing people in colorful tribal clothing submerged in water while struggling to reach boxes of emergency aid that had been airdropped nearby.
"Some were up to their necks in water and others to their waists or ankles," Jan said. "So their bodies were bisected at different levels, and it looked like a Raphael painting."
The idea that this deeply troubling image could also be beautiful consumed him. At the same time he started noticing what he called an "aberrant pattern" of flooding around the world. He researched climate change and learned that geologists are debating whether the Earth has crossed out of the Holocene epoch and into one informally called the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have begun to have a lasting effect on ecosystems.
Jan began to think about ways to contextualize these ideas. He had a recurring vision of a man in a clear box reading a newspaper while the box filled with water. Rather than reacting with panic, the man would continue to read his paper, as if this were a regular occurrence to which he had adapted.
Four years later, last October, the performance installation of "Holoscenes" premiered at the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto. Jan's performance and art lab, Early Morning Opera, produced "Holoscenes" during a single block of time, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Performers took turns engaging in everyday activities inside a custom-fabricated acrylic container. The box, 13 feet tall, was equipped with a hydraulic system that pumped 15 tons of 90-degree water into or out of the box in less than a minute.
"One person is just cleaning, another is selling persimmons, someone else is getting dressed or drinking tea. Someone else is tuning his guitar, another is making her bed," said Jan, whose intense gaze comes with a fractured sense of concentration as his brain skips from subject to subject. "The water is this ultimate puppeteer and is incredibly transformative as it shifts and acts upon those everyday behaviors."
"Holoscenes" is an umbrella project, and the "Quaternary Suite" in Pasadena is one of many artistic raindrops dripping off of it. The videos and photos on display were taken in a prototype tank that was smaller than the Toronto installation.
In late March, the tank from Toronto will be used for the first time in a U.S. show, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. The site is 20 feet from the Gulf of Mexico in a location that has been predicted to be underwater in 50 years.
In October, the tank will be in use at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Jan also is visiting Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to see if "Holoscenes" might work there.
This is just fine with the performers inside the aquarium, moving with the ebb and flow of the waters.
"You find yourself holding your breath for a very long time without realizing it. It's not a feat, it's about adaptation," said Geoff Sobelle, who appears in the tank video at the Pasadena museum and has performed in the larger touring tank. "There's definitely a womb-like quality. You feel free and vulnerable. There's sound and light, but it's so abstract that it's divorced from meaning.... It's like living inside of a poem."
Sobelle performs with Annie Saunders, who said she'd rather be in the tank than anywhere else.
"I feel very euphoric and calm," Saunders said of her "Holoscenes" work. "It's a similar sensation to what I have when I'm free diving. Something turns off in my head, and I feel peaceful."
Soothing as it is for those inside, viewers on the outside might feel an uneasy sense of something bordering on panic, or at the very least, mild anxiety while the water rises. Perhaps it's an innate fear of drowning or just a quotidian reflex involving our complicated relationship with water from amniotic fluid to the grave — the one that Jan feels compelled to explore.
Or maybe we need look no further than the effect that a striking image can have on the brain.
Said Erin Aitali, the exhibition manager at the Pasadena museum: "I really appreciate the conceptual content of the work — that [Jan] had this whole thing that went on in his head about how water will be the predominant issue of the 21st century. But the thing that is amazing about his work is that you don't need any of that to appreciate it."
'Holoscenes: Quaternary Suite'
Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena
When: Wednesday through Sunday, through May 31
Info: (626) 568-3665, www.pmcaonline.org