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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

REVIEW: To the Moon - Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang - Dowse Art Museum

It's just over 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon yet space travel is still the final frontier.  We've built computers the size of a human hand with more computing power than the technology used tat the time.  We've developed rockets and aeronautical wonders that can reach far into the solar system.  We have space stations and Virgin Shuttle trips and all manner of satellites.  But the idea of just going - just jumping in a vehicle and taking off - isn't quite there yet.  Space remains the ‘outer’ world.

It remains to be seen if you and I will ever get there, should we even wish to go.

But, what if you could, you know, just go?  That’s the question NASA's one and only artist in residence, Laurie Anderson, put to us all during her time there.  Her work, To The Moon, is an expanded virtual reality piece created with artist Hsin-Chien Huang allows you the freedom to hover, fly, and soar across the surface of the moon, dive into craters and negotiate strange creatures made of scientific formulas. 

Welcome to the dark side of the moon.  Go there - if you dare.

The twenty five minute VR half-hour experience begins through sliding doors, decorated with a huge image of the moon.  You pass images from the VRsimulation projected on the wall, in a sort of waiting room.  A place where you can prepare whilst other patrons finish up their journeys.  You take your seat, one of four stools.  A kindly assistant puts on a VR helmet with headphones and two gun-handled controllers, which he explains, will allow you to fly around the virtual space when a ring on your virtual hands lights up.

We begin gently, in a dimly-lit space, surrounded by planets, flying atoms, meteorites and so on.  Look down and you feel like we're lifting into the ceiling.  Look around to see empty chairs, where the other patrons should be.  There's a sort of feeling of loneliness, that you're the only one here.  Isolated in the coldest, most desolate place.

The headset gives you full 360-degree view - up down, behind.  Even with feet firmly on the ground, it’s almost impossible to remain when the walls of the room disolve and the floor propels you into space.  And just as you become comfortable exploring one world, you’re thrust into another - moon craters,  mountain peaks, dinosaurs created from fractal equations.

I was warned that the experience could illicit some strong emotional, physiological responses, vertigo or nausea.  While at times I was both exhilarated and a little alarmed, I was never really terrified, as others have reported.

My 11 year old daughter came along for the ride.  Her experience was more of wonder and she found some of the 'scenery' quite perplexing.  There is one scene for example, where a barage of strange box-like asteroids fly at you.  You try to brush them away but your hands have morphed into oddly spider like tenticles.  She was a bit concerned that her whole body had transmorphed into a huge moon-spider.  That was until she looked to her right and saw the luna shadow of herself riding a donkey, like Don Qixote towards a huge crater.  I laughed out loud at this moment, perhaps a little too loudly.

This is one of many dream-like scenes.  i don't want to completely spoil the experience but it would be sufficient to say that it is a magical, disorientating, bizare and sometimes perplexing experience.  But also one of wonder.  Anderson finishes the work with a statement, delivered in her trademark vocal style - that we have mastered many things but not the stars.  The images that appear and then dissolve are all in our imagination, because that's all we have - for now.

For followers of Laurie Anderson, this work is totally expected.  It's almost too tame.  Maybe not 'avant garde' enough.  But like all her music/art projects, she strikes a happy medium between excess and access.  I think she does it perfectly here. 

The $10 ticket price was perfect.  Not too expensive to make it an elitist experience, which often happens at Arts Festivals.  Locating the work at the Dowse Art Museum in the Hutt makes it all the more accessible to families and even the elderly - widening the potential audience.  Punching well above its weight, the Dowse has been quietly peddling wide-appeal accessible art to the residents of this cultural wasteland for many years.  And they are doing a brilliant job of it.  The lack of suitable spaces in the city was a blessing in disguise for the Hutt.  Here's hoping the trend remains for future events, too.

Festivals offer us the oppotunity to stretch ourselves, as an audience, as art lovers and as novices.  Even the artistically agnostic can occasionally step into a gallery, if there's the right incentive.  It remains to be seen if Anderson's immersive art work will really achieve this but if anything can, this will be it.

I'm also looking forward to Anderson's other collaborative works at the Festival - Here Comes The Ocean, Drones, and Concert For Dogs.  All different.  All interactive, all challenging and immersive.  And, I hope, just as exhillerating.

Review by The CoffeeBar Kid

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