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Return of the hippos: Coachella art installation takes aim at human foibles

Return of the hippos: Coachella art installation takes aim at human foibles
A hippo works on an art installation called "H.i.P.O Hazardus Interstellar Perfessional Operations" on day two of the Coachella Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Coachella hippos are back, and this year they’re going to new heights.

In 2013, the nonsensical performance art installation featuring actors in latex hippopotamus masks by artist duo Dedo Vabo made its first appearance at the Indio festival in “Power Station.” Then in 2015, the hippos mesmerized audiences by ridiculing 9-to-5 culture in the three-story “Corporate Headquarters.”

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This year, the hippos have launched a space program “H.i.P.O.” (which stands for Hazardus interstellar Perfessional Operations) — the plan is to conquer and destroy the galaxy.

At an eight-story-tall, lopsided rocket in the middle of Coachella’s Empire Polo Field, small crowds gather around several of the six performance spaces — little rooms with glass windows allowing festivalgoers to watch from the outside — where the hippos are prepping for their journey into the beyond.

Inside one room that appears to be a spaceship break area, three hippos wear party cone hats. A bulletin board on one wall is filled with fliers promoting the hippo union and hippo rights. The hippos lumber through the room — one lounges with its feet propped on a table, another gets tangled in a phone cord.

In another room filled with workout equipment, a hippo wrestles with a silver insulated duct, pumping air into its white spacesuit. Elsewhere, a hippo struggles with a hanging bookshelf filled with bowling pins and broken trophies.

Reactions from viewers vary from “Why are they doing this?” to laughter to quite a few expletives.

"It might seem like it's just a bunch of [dummies] walking around and masks at times," said artist Derek Doublin, half of Dedo Vabo. "But there's a lot more to this installation than what meets the eye."

Doublin was standing with Vanessa Bonet, his Dedo Vabo partner, during a shift change inside the rocket structure. The backstage interior is a maze of wires filled with green and white spacesuit costumes and stage managers in headphones directing the performers on stage.

A hippo performer takes a break inside Dedo Vabo's Coachella performance art installation "H.i.P.O."
A hippo performer takes a break inside Dedo Vabo's Coachella performance art installation "H.i.P.O." (Makeda Easter)
An imposter hippo mask inside Dedo Vabo's Coachella art installation "H.i.P.O."
An imposter hippo mask inside Dedo Vabo's Coachella art installation "H.i.P.O." (Makeda Easter)

“H.i.P.O” is Dedo Vabo’s most complex project, the artists said, taking about 10 months to design and build. About 180 artists, engineers, special effects and animatronics experts, including master maker Charles Wills, who sculpted the hippo masks, are involved in the project.

Performances take place for 12 hours each day, with the performers and other crew working in shifts of about three hours. And all of the parts inside the performance spaces are alive and interactive. For instance, a silver robot that may appear from the outside to be a static prop, can actually be operated from inside using levers.

But what does it all mean? Does it mean anything at all?

The goal, Doublin says, is to hold a mirror up to "the distorted reality of human existence.”

“It's like evolution, human evolution has been really clumsy,” he continued. “And you can kind of see little hints of that through the hippos and what they're doing, what they're trying to achieve."

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