A Mind-Bending Head Trip (All Legal)
LOS ANGELES — "Ecstasy" is the trippy, messy, highly entertaining survey put together by Paul Schimmel of the Museum of Contemporary Art here. It sprawls through the Geffen Contemporary, the museum's cavernous warehouse in Little Tokyo, which too often begs for attention but is now jammed with blissed-out mobs.
The show's title derives from the eponymous recreational empathogen and popular underground mood-lightener officially called MDMA and sometimes prescribed by therapists for post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Schimmel informs us in the show's catalog. The cheeky pharmaceutical peg is a bit of Hollywood salesmanship of the sort he employed 13 years ago when he named a survey about dark, angst-ridden Los Angeles culture "Helter Skelter," after the Manson murders.
In that case, diverse artists were lumped together under the noir umbrella for the sake of a theme that played off against the cliché of sunny Southern California. The tactic disturbed some less-sibylline types (me, included). But in the long run the show turned out to be uncannily prescient and helped propel several participants (among them, Raymond Pettibon) to global stardom during the 1990's, in the process opening a few eyes (again, mine included) to the depth of the Los Angeles scene. Mr. Schimmel is a reigning impresario of such trend-making extravaganzas.
"Ecstasy" may invite knee-jerk reactions similar to the ones for "Helter Skelter." It starts with a dumb joke: a tiered crystal fountain by Klaus Weber, a Berlin artist. The fountain, we're told, is laced with LSD. (There's a verifying certificate on the wall.) Mr. Weber imagines enclosing an entire city block, traffic lights and all, in a steel-and-glass pavilion (one-way glass would let people look out but not in), with the burbling fountain as its centerpiece. There's a model of the pavilion. It's a kind of symbol for the show as its own rabbit hole.
Nearby, Takashi Murakami's mural-scale panorama of psychedelic mushrooms beckons alongside Roxy Paine's "Psilocybe Cubensis Field," a sculptural re-creation in polymer of hundreds of the same. Visitors can ogle Mr. Murakami's satiny picture from a cushioned bench that periodically rolls unbidden across the floor. It's a Candid Camera-like gag by a Danish artist named Jeppe Hein, meant to be mildly mind-bending.
In all, there are 30 artists, most of them familiar to aficionados. For every artist here you might imagine a dozen who could have been, but there's no claim to completeness. A few works were made for this occasion, most have been exhibited elsewhere. Among the latter is the intended showstopper, Carsten Höller's "Upside-Down Mushroom Room," devised in 2000 for the Prada Foundation in Milan. It orchestrates a viewer's passage through a darkened zigzag corridor into a bright white room where ceiling fluorescents are embedded in the floor and sculptures of humongous red and orange mushrooms (a potent variety) slowly rotate on the ceiling, which is to say, from the upside-down floor.
Visitors wait patiently in line to get in. Local fire laws evidently required emergency lights along the hallway, muting the desired impact of pitch blackness yielding abruptly to blinding light. Some accompanying catalog claptrap about Mr. Höller's "investigation of doubt as a radical critique of Enlightenment rationalism" induces the predictable eye-rolling. But the work is a coup de théâtre.
Some big idea seems to be mixed up in all this. It's not about glorifying drugs or drug culture, the show's red herring. Mr. Schimmel writes about the appeal of Ecstasy to clubgoers and ravers in the 90's. It provided, he says, "intense feelings of connectedness with one's companions and with humanity in general." He continues, "This experience is not about the hippie ethos of 'Turn on, tune in, drop out,' but about overcoming the isolation of contemporary life - the pervasive sense of disconnectedness that is to some degree due to the failure of hippie ideals, to the cynicism and greed that followed the dissolution of 1960's counterculture."
You might say ecstasy serves as the operative metaphor for a desired encounter with art, which, if only temporarily, removes us from our daily selves and takes us to a heightened state of awareness. This is a banal concept on its own. But Mr. Schimmel also seems to have in mind the elevation of a kind of participatory, nonrational, visionary art that is neither youth-besotted and market driven (see the contents of last summer's "Greater New York" at P.S. 1 in Queens, for example) nor dry and preachifying.
That various works in "Ecstasy" are familiar spectacles geared to the madhouse environs of today's biennials and that other works service the desires of deep-pocketed collectors doesn't quite obliterate the general point. As "Helter Skelter" also did, but in a very different way, the show seems to want to shift the tone of these big planetary overview exhibitions, in this case away from soft-core politics and bauble-appreciation. Its historical idols are Goya and Blake.
And what results, among other things, is curiously not unlike the museum's recent "Visual Music," a modernist overview of synesthesia, the link between music and art, which included all sorts of mood-enhancing, Op-like visuals. Works here like Ann Veronica Janssens's video of flashing lights would have fit right into that exhibition. So might Pierre Huyghe's minitheater, an empty stage with gelled lights and smoke: nothing, set to a score of orchestral music, before which visitors gladly zone out on scattered pillows.
That work riffs, consciously or not, on the whole Southern California Light and Space movement of the late 60's and 70's. During recent years, innumerable 20- and 30-something artists have conspicuously mined brands of 60's and 70's art, tapping into an aesthetic of groovy colors and collectivist aspirations, but with the knowledge, as Mr. Schimmel put it, of past failures. There is a dream of radicalism and the cynical sense of its inevitable corruption - an awareness that utopia and dystopia are often the same.
Such a posture is implicit in the deadpan quality of Mr. Weber's pavilion and fountain. It's also in Mr. Murakami's mushrooms, which are really mushroom clouds. It defines the angry, funhouse installation by the fashionable Brazilian-born Eli Sudbrak, who prefers to be known as Assume Vivid Astro Focus, and who has devised a kind of disco with pounding music and flashing lights, entered through beaded curtains, dominated by the ominous figure of a naked Janus.
A dark undercurrent also pervades Olafur Eliasson's curtain of rainwater illuminated by strobe lights. Most of the artists in "Ecstasy," including Mr. Eliasson, were born between the late 1950's and early 70's. They look back on the fallout of the counterculture era from the perspective of the next generation.
Their art has its historic roots in Surrealism and Romanticism. At the heart of Romanticism was the sense that genius, hedonism and madness are all linked in the creative process. "House" by the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila is a lush multiscreen film about a quiet young woman going insane in a forest cottage. Glenn Brown's creepy parodies of old master paintings consist of slick, Dalí-esque swirls of airless paint that turn his subjects (a Landseer dog, Rembrandt's "Flora," a Tiepolo angel) into Frankenstein monsters. Coldly nostalgic, they are virtuosic renditions of what their sources might look like to somebody on a bad acid trip.
Fred Tomaselli's collage paintings strive for an equivalent pizazz, harking back to poster art of the 60's. (The catalog includes examples by Sture Johannesson.) Hallucinatory supermosaics entailing pharmaceuticals and other natural and unnatural elements, Mr. Tomaselli's pictures have become more and more densely layered in recent years. "Organism," a new image of an Icarus figure tumbling into a busy patchwork of dizzying patterns, is, you might say, madly ornate.
There is often a premium on laborious production here, belying the laid-back hippie ethos. Paul Noble's immense pencil drawings may come as a discovery for some viewers. He concocts fantasy scenarios of colossal cityscapes and strange creatures that can recall Bosch, Escher and Piranesi. They are filled with letters and symbols that drift in and out of logic.
Equally crafty is Tom Friedman's reproduction of a tiny medicinal capsule, installed as if in a Tiffany window. It consists of dozens of colored granules made of hand-rolled Play-Doh. Mr. Friedman has also produced a truly outlandish sculpture: a model of one of the World Trade Center towers with an airplane just touching it. Meant to represent the instant right before disaster, I suppose, its message is jarring, but no one even seemed to notice it the other day, when the galleries were packed.
Instead, crowds gravitated toward Erwin Redl's installation: a galactic grid of tiny green LED lights. And people removed their shoes to enter, one by one, Massimo Bartolini's all-white room, in which the corners are rounded so that floor, walls and ceiling become indistinguishable. Turning the classic white-box gallery into an isolation tank or womb, save for a single borrowed painting of the American Southwest and a climate monitor, the work slyly restores to the act of looking at art in a museum at least a measure of its intended otherness.
Meanwhile, Sylvie Fleury's "8" was clearly irresistible. A shiny gold walk-in orb lined on the inside with black velvet and rhinestones, it can bring to mind Yayoi Kusama's classic mirrored room with colored lights, into which one person is admitted at a time. With "8," when the hatch is shut, a visitor stares into the night sky of glittery rhinestones and hears voices. They are from the soundtrack of the 1958 Zsa Zsa Gabor sci-fi movie, "Queen of Outer Space."
Talk about ecstasy.
"Ecstasy: In and About Altered States," organized by Paul Schimmel with Gloria Sutton, remains at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, (213) 621-1741, through Feb. 20.