Confusing interchanges, sketchy off-ramps, and dangerous, dark neighborhoods make hunting for East Bay art an adventure. One warehouse in West Oakland's Lower Bottoms neighborhood internalizes that sense of excitement and dread this month with "Labyrinth" -- a sprawling, two-story, improvised maze of an art installation -- that fills the entirety of the 4,500-square-foot LoBot gallery.
The goal of "Labyrinth"'s eight collaborating artists is to shatter the cliques and comfort zones of a normal art opening by plunging viewers into abject darkness, jarring them with thundering atonal noise, and making them grope their way around on their hands and knees to the paintings and installations. This one-of-a-kind, slightly scary edifice took three weeks to construct, organically built up from little more than chalk outlines on the smooth cement floor to 18-foot towers of wood, nylon and cardboard.
Dalem Haters, a group of traveling artists from Greenland, introduce the space with a blasted, two-story wooden edifice composed mostly of wooden pallets, furniture, and other regional scrap screwed and nailed together. Tetanus, anyone? They carve out tunnels and hang rope ladders to set the heart rate for the rest of the exhibit. They also paint most of the wooden surfaces with traditional glyphic shapes, including an archaic map of the maze to illustrate what lies ahead.
Next, the labyrinth's textures transition from salvaged wood to rope and bone. Scott Hove's section knots together a maze of rigging latticed with ritually arranged animal femurs. The knots form a central, sacrificial open space occupied by large black Fender amps, sound-effects pedals chained into each other, and little in the way of conventional musical instruments. All night long, experimental East Bay musicians will pop up in the maze for thirty-minute sets of blaring electronic noise and drums that enhance the sense of menace.
East Bay artist Amy Frieberthauser's own maze section uses huge sheets of beige, skin-like nylon fabric that has been safety-pinned and tied into crawlspaces. This lighted installation goes kinetic as groups of people move through the translucent tubing like food in an enormous alien intestine. It's art that digests you.
In the back of the space, Oakland artist Eric Groff continues the tunnel motif with a claustrophobic nest of dense, dark, low passageways containing lighted installations. The cardboard box and wooden wall materials fuse with plaster, glue and paint into a smooth cave-like sheen. Arrangements of Star Wars AT-AT models and dolls reference the Chuck E. Cheese years that viewers reclaim in this hipster Discovery Zone. Groff's work spits people out into a final, barren topiary garden, the work of J. Neson and Rob Streff.
In this section, viewers examine the ornate dioramas and detailed paintings of French resident Pierre Allen much more intently than the typical gallery patron. Then they poke their heads up Neson and Streff's fabricated tree trunk, and climb into the 12-foot treehouse looking out over the whole sprawling, evolving warehouse -- the view is a collaborative simulacrum of the city itself.
Kids in jeans and spiked belts scramble over treacherous makeshift walls to peek in on a costumed Minotaur playing a guitar in the center of the exhibit. The Minotaur -- whose musical name is Rubber O Cement -- adorns himself with a plush toy assemblage of fangs, horns and tail, and he's jumping around his cage like a GWAR extra, bent over a guitar made of one string and what looks like a curtain rod. The most screeching, awful noise emanates from the area as dreadlocked women in kilts straddle the walls, fists pumping the air.
If the gallery's goal was to alter behavior patterns, it accomplished its mission. Off in the nylons, two girls share a 40-ouncer while sitting cross-legged in the cozy tube. All across the warehouse, hipster heads poke out from different spots in the vertical exhibit, like Fraggles.
Easily one of the two-year-old gallery's biggest, boldest shows, "Labyrinth" is also one of its luckier ones. Several people frown at all the combustibles, and one woman mutters "Where's the fire department?". Visitors had signed a waiver at the front door limiting the gallery's liability in the event of a sudden, four-alarm, Great White Nightmare. When the narrow passageways begin to fill with white stage smoke and guests, thoughts of exit routes and panic run through my own mind. But strange, alien sounds and the promise of unexplored areas draw me back in, danger be damned. Most people inside don't seem to care at all.
By the end of the night, the accident tally yields only two: one person fell down some stairs, and lanky cocurator Adam Hatch nearly took a dive. Lasting injuries: zero.
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