Suppose you saw two hollow stainless-steel objects--one resembling a flower on a stem, the other, a stem minus the flower--"growing" out of a boulder-sized chunk of earth.
Suppose you knew this was a piece called "Untitled (containment)" by Los Angeles artist Daniel Wheeler, part of his one-man exhibition at Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa (through April 9). Would you sniff the flower?
It may sound nutty, and you know not to touch works of art. But in this case, you'd be right to follow your instincts and ignore convention. If you smell the flower-like component--the petals of which accommodate your nose (how curious!)--the aroma is richly loamy, rank, earthy . If you sniff the stem, memories of school drinking fountains--that tinny aroma, water tainted by metal--come flooding back.
These aspects emphasize the influence of a container on its contents, as well as the relationship between the human sensory capabilities and natural design. The human body itself is also a container, of course. The piece suggests any number of unanswerable questions about how our "outsides" influence our "insides" and the symbiotic adaptation of humans to the natural world and vice versa.
Mind and body are prime subjects for Wheeler, 34, who manages to combine a discursive philosophical breadth and a knack for juxtaposing visually compelling objects. Combining aspects of social science, poetry, craft and philosophy, Wheeler tests viewer-participants' abilities to connect their bodies' actions with their minds' inferential power.
His new installation, "You Are Here," at Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery (through March 12) is about something most of us never contemplate: the experience of being human, imprisoned within your own skin. You are there (in the outside world) and also here (inside your body). But you can never float away from yourself and inspect yourself at a distance.
You enter via a tiled bathroom in which all the fixtures are inoperable. The sink has no drain; the shower-head, no openings for the spray; the toilet, no drain. Walking through the shower-doorway, you enter a translucent tunnel of paper bags, large enough to allow a short adult to stand upright.
The tunnel leads to a domed structure hung with dated electrical appliances: hair dryers, an eggbeater, an electric knife, a buffer, massagers, a fan. A few of them briefly turn at random, seemingly triggered by your movements.
A metal ladder leads to one of three openings atop of the structure. If you climb up and poke your head out, you can survey the white-walled gallery, which also contains what appears to be an observation booth.
"You Are Here" explores the classic philosophical dilemma that each of us is trapped within a body that can know the outside world only through incomplete and (at some level) incommunicable sense impressions.
The mind-body duality set up by the piece begins in the bathroom. While obviously recalling bodily functions, the gleaming, improbably sealed bathroom fixtures are the equivalents of abstract mental concepts--ineffable, closed systems that resist practical applications.
The tunnel recalls the essential condition of being inside your skin. By constricting the space, Wheeler intensifies your self-awareness. Released into the expansiveness of the domed room, your interaction with the electric objects replicates the mind-body duality: an inextricable yet mysterious and only partially controllable connection.
Climbing the ladder and peering out of the "neck" of the dome--as if trying on a huge, air-filled shirt--you mentally enlarge the boundary between where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. Your newly spacious self--a mind with a body attached--must now re-enact the normally unconscious everyday experience of fitting together what you see and feel with what you know.
If you return to the bathroom and exit the other side, you can enter the classroom-like booth and observe the interiors of the tunnel and dome on a bank of surveillance monitors. In this simulated "out-of-body experience," you become an all-seeing eye. But unlike the electronic "seeing eye" hooked up to the electric gadgets, your vision has no useful application--except the prurient one of watching people caught unawares.
Suddenly, what you know is only what you see. The mind-body problem snaps into disturbingly practical focus: the questionable value of Big Brother style surveillance.
"Pseudesthesia & Synecdoche," the title of Wheeler's Costa Mesa gallery show, is an apt wordplay ( synesthesia refers to a multiple sensory experience, such as when a color evokes a specific smell; synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part represents a whole). The 12 individual pieces and the installation, "divining," relate in various ways to the intersection of self-awareness, sensory input and the arbitrary systems we impose on the raw data of experience.
A seemingly effortless sleight-of-hand involving a sheet of paper, shadows and two ceramic knobs attached to a chain--"Untitled (balls)"--evokes the figurative "pull" of sexual attraction. In "Untitled (observatory)," a baseball cap mounted on a vintage revolving contraption contains not a head but a ceramic stomach with a bellybutton: the gut as self-defining seat of the emotions--by extension, the ancient Greeks' notion of the "omphalos" or the navel-like stone that defined the center of the spinning world.
There are no smugly clever effects in Wheeler's art, no dumb one-liners, just rich veins of association waiting for viewers to mine them.
* "You Are Here," through March 12 at the Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, State College Avenue at Nutwood Avenue, Fullerton. Hours: noon-4 p . m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 3-7 p.m. Wednesday; 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3 suggested donation. Artist Daniel Wheeler performs "Autopsis" on March 11 at 7 p.m. (On that day, the gallery will open at 3 p.m.) (714) 773-3262.
* "Pseudesthesia & Synecdoche," through April 9 at Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa. Hours: 6-10 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday and by appointment. Admission free. (714) 646-5665.
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