Mind-bending visions

Times Staff Writer

"ECSTASY: In and About Altered States." An exhibition named for the psychedelic drug favored by ravers. Lots of mind-bending artworks, including a room with giant mushrooms spinning upside down on the ceiling, a gallery furnished with benches that slide across the floor and a strobe-lighted curtain of falling water that looks like a screen of static crystals.

Paul Schimmel is at it again, and he thinks he's onto something.

"People are going to love this show," he said. "There's great art in it, and it's going to blow their minds."

Schimmel has organized dozens of exhibitions during his 15-year tenure as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. As head of a freewheeling curatorial team, he takes on artists' retrospectives and art historical investigations, while his colleagues pursue similarly challenging projects. But every so often he comes up with something really big -- a multiartist theme show so provocative and ambitious that it can't be ignored.

First came "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s," a 1992 exhibition focusing on the dark side of contemporary life. With a title that recalled the Charles Manson murders and artworks that expanded upon "a dominant myth of L.A. as a haven for cultism of all kinds," as the curator put it, the show packed in a young crowd and grabbed lots of attention in the media.

"Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979," a landmark historical survey presented in 1998, tracked the work of about 150 artists and collectives for whom public performances and the creative process were far more important than well-crafted objects. "Public Offerings," in 2001, explored the phenomenon of youthful creative energy in an overheated art world where stars are created before they leave art school.

And now there's "Ecstasy," opening next Sunday at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo -- and reopening the building, shuttered for renovations since January. Budgeted in "the high six figures," Schimmel said, and better known in art circles as "The Drug Show" or, more pointedly, "Paul's Drug Show," it will fill 60,000 square feet of exhibition space with installations, paintings, sculptures, videos and photographs by 30 artists from Los Angeles to Helsinki, Finland, and Tokyo. Some of the artists' works represent altered states of mind that they have experienced under the influence of drugs or hypnosis; others simulate those experiences in works that explore heightened consciousness and play with viewers' perceptions.

"This is not pharmacology. This is art," Schimmel said, looking over photographs of the work during an interview in his office with project coordinator Gloria Sutton. But the exhibition acknowledges drug culture's role in the creation of art much more directly than is usual in the halls of high culture.

"Narcotourism," a series of printed text panels and postcards by Francis Alys, a Belgian artist who lives in Mexico City, tracks his experience of walking around Copenhagen under the influence of a different narcotic on each day of a weeklong visit. "Halcion Sleep," a 26-minute video by Canadian artist Rodney Graham, documents his rainy night ride through Vancouver, Canada, in the back seat of a car after taking a sleeping pill.

"It's a metaphor for time-based, often highly reductive, early video that kind of puts you to sleep," Schimmel said of Graham's work. "You are supposed to drift off with him. It's a very funny thing. As he is falling asleep, the lights of the city are beginning to get brighter. Things run rather counter."

Modernist precedents

ALL the works in "Ecstasy" were made during the last 17 years, but the show is grounded in early 20th century Modernist precedents. Utopian idealists, including Russian painter Kasimir Malevich and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, were interested in the concept of art as a transcendent experience in a social realm, Schimmel said. Later movements, including Surrealism, Light and Space art and experiential performance and installation, expanded upon the idea.

Still, Schimmel didn't conceive of "Ecstasy" as a historical survey.

"Most things start because you are looking at something else," he said, reflecting on the origin of the exhibition. "In the latter part of the '90s, I was working with Charlie Ray and Sigmar Polke. In each of their oeuvres there were very important pieces that had to do with trying to find an equivalency between a state of mind and a work of art."

Ray, a Los Angeles-based artist, is represented in the show by a simple wood table holding ordinary objects that rotate at an almost imperceptibly slow speed and a life-size photographic portrait depicting the artist under the influence of LSD. The image is mounted in a convex frame and hung on a convex wall in an installation meant to tweak viewers' spatial perceptions. Polke, a German artist not in "Ecstasy," has investigated mind-altering drugs as a creative tool, photographed an opium den in Pakistan and made images of psychotropic mushrooms.

"The exhibition has been in process well over three or four years, and it has gone in as many directions as there were years," Schimmel said. "It is far less didactic and representational than the title would imply. It is far more experiential in dealing with visual phenomena, and that's really what connects it to Los Angeles. You will see a number of younger people in the exhibition who owe a significant debt to the experiments of the Light and Space artists in the late '60s. People don't write about it now, but at the time it was very much associated with altered states of consciousness, with drug culture, expanded time. In an odd way, it does come around."

But those who expect "Ecstasy" to be packed with psychedelia and '60s nostalgia are in for a surprise, he said. The work with the strongest connection to that era is actually the most youth-oriented piece -- a multimedia rave club installation by Eli Sudbrack, a 27-year-old Brazilian who lives in New York, calls himself assume vivid astro focus and uses the acronym avaf.

"It's like psychedelia mediated through consumer culture," said Sutton, who describes avaf's work as Aquarian Age aesthetics adapted for a post-9/11 audience. For "Ecstasy" he has reinterpreted a bar in Berlin as a collective museum experience.

Schimmel speaks of the work he has selected in terms of conceptual art, perceptual investigations and pure experiential environments. The show isn't divided into neat categories, but some themes loom large.

Take mind-altering mushrooms.

"I could have done a whole show on mushrooms," he said. Instead, he chose three artists who have made enormous installations based on the fleshy fungus.

Among the first works visitors will see is Roxy Paine's "Psilocybe Cubensis Field," a floor installation of 2,200 life-size polymer mushrooms, individually modeled and painted by the New York-based artist. Known for creating huge art-making machines as well as labor-intensive naturalistic environments, Paine has made a faux field of mushrooms likely to inspire thoughts of psychedelic trips and questions about verisimilitude.

To be installed nearby is Tokyo artist Takashi Murakami's painting "Supernova." Measuring nearly 6 feet high and 10 feet wide, it's a cartoon-like image of bright-colored mushrooms, their caps dotted with long-lashed eyes. A huge mushroom standing in the center presides over a field of tiny offspring in a cheerily ominous tableau.

But the piece de resistance of mushroom artworks is Carsten Holler's "Upside Down Mushroom Room," which will occupy a huge, enclosed space of its own.

"If I hadn't been able to get it, I wouldn't have done the show," Schimmel said. "It's that essential."

The ambitious three-part installation by the German scientist turned artist is part of his "Synchro System" sculptures, meant to induce trance-like states. Viewers approach the "Upside Down Mushroom Room" through a corridor emblazoned with hundreds of tiny light bulbs and proceed through a pitch-black hallway.

The light-filled chamber is intended to "wash out all optical information," Sutton said, "and the dark hallway wipes out perceptual spatial orientation. Then you walk into the 'Upside Down Mushroom Room,' which has nine psychotropic mushrooms suspended from the ceiling. Because of the effect of the optical and perceptual blankness, you have the sensation that the room has flipped upside down."

The sculptural mushrooms -- made of polystrol, polyester, wood, paint and metal, and motorized to make four revolutions per minute -- simulate the red and orange variety of fly agaric mushrooms that appear in German folklore and fairy tales. Installed on the ceiling, they also replicate an aspect of vision, in which images appear upside down on the retina before being inverted by the brain.

Expect the unexpected

ARTISTS such as Fred Tomaselli of New York and Paul Noble of London will show works that simply hang on walls, but they are far from conventional. Tomaselli's intricate, web-like images of orbs, explosions, a falling man and a hummingbird are constructed of pills, leaves and bits of printed paper embedded in resin. Noble's two monumental drawings of a fictional world run on for some 40 feet.

"It's about the world being divided between a utopian fantasyland and a dark, dystopic aftermath of humanity," Sutton said. "But because it is done in pencil on paper, it's impossible to take in the entire image. When you back up to see the whole length, there is nothing there."

"You have to march along and read it in this kind of experiential way," Schimmel said. "You can't see it unless you are right up on it, and when you are right up on it, you are lost in his mind. That is very important to him."

In sharp contrast, multiscreen videos by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist and Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila will surround viewers with big, colorful, moving images. The artists portray private dreams and surreal nightmares in mesmerizing narratives that can be simultaneously seductive and scary.

Still other artists will show installations that invite audience participation or produce spectacles likely to draw crowds. Danish artist Jeppe Hein's sliding benches -- which Sutton likens to motorized skateboards -- are activated by people who sit on them. "Flag Project" by Tatsurou Bashi, a Japanese artist who lives in Cologne, Germany, requires a trip to the grounds of nearby City Hall. Those who want the full effect must ascend scaffolding built around a flagpole and enter a shipping container decked out as a living room -- with an up-close-and-personal view of the California state flag. The idea, Sutton said, is to transform the flag from a distant icon into an object of contemplation.

As for museum-bound spectacles, there are plenty of choices, including Danish-born, Berlin-based Olafur Eliasson's sparkling curtain of falling water that bisects a darkened room, and a walk-through, floating grid of light-emitting diodes created by Erwin Redl, an Austrian who lives in New York.

Pierre Huyghe, a leading French artist, has pulled out all the stops in a huge box-like sculpture that functions as a stage for a sound and light show. A recording of Erik Satie's "Trois Gymnopedies," reorchestrated by Claude Debussy, fills the space with music as colored light mingles with fog in a sort of psychedelic concert.

Unlike more traditional artworks conceived as one-on-one experiences, these pieces, Sutton said, "play on a shared, collective experience and group dynamics."

They also cost lots of money to ship and install.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to get corporate funding for an exhibition such as "Ecstasy," even though it is likely to reach a large audience, Schimmel said. "This is a show that questions boundaries, not only perceptual but social. Maybe the biggest challenge was trying to find some edgy, youth-oriented corporation that would go for it."

That didn't happen, so the money had to come from MOCA board members and other supporters.

But Schimmel is confident, as usual.

"It should be popular," he said. "It will be interesting, rich and memorable. I like to think a lot of young people who have never been to MOCA will come for the first time and really have an experience."

Those who turn out for the opening will get a bonus. Italian artist Lara Favaretto's "Confetti Canyon" -- a pair of cannon-like contraptions made of camera tripods, PVC pipes and electric fans -- will be mounted on the roof of the Geffen and rain down confetti in front of the museum.

"Three tons of confetti," Schimmel said. "Well, it's MOCA. Get out the big guns."

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'Ecstasy: In and About Altered States'

Where: The Geffen Contemporary, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles

When: Next Sunday through Feb. 20. 11 a.m. to

5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Price: $5 to $8

Contact: (213) 626-6222, www.moca.org

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