Since the “Strange Pilgrims” exhibit opened in late September, pictures of the bubbling mass of white foam spewing onto the Laguna Gloria lawn have made the rounds on Austin social media.
It’s not surprising. Though it’s activated only on Saturdays at 1 p.m., Roger Hiorns’ installation — called “A Retrospective View of the Pathway” — has proven irresistible to children and adults alike.
Who doesn’t want to experience the joyful sensation of running your arm — or your entire body — through a cloud of soft, shiny bubbles as they gurgle out onto the green lakeside lawn?
Not every piece in “Strange Pilgrims,” which runs through Jan. 24, is as gleefully playful as Hiorns’ bubbles. But it’s nevertheless all a good, and thought-provoking, time.
The ambitious show, organized by the Contemporary Austin, smartly includes a range of experiential art that encompasses the whole gamut of mood and sensibility, from giggle-inspiring spectacles like Hiorns’ bubbles to a darkly sublime four-projector, 16mm film installation, “Dream Displacement,” by the late and much overlooked Paul Sharits, a seminal work from the 1970s that exhibit curator Heather Pesanti rescued from oblivion and reintroduced to the world.
Some pieces are mystical, like Angelbert Metoyer’s installation of indigo blue figurines, arranged in the Contemporary’s Jones Center gallery much like they are in Metoyer’s New Orleans home.
Others are strangely voyeuristic. You can sit down, flip through magazines and help yourself to the coffee and cookies laid out in a pair of scrupulously realistic offices created by British artist Phil Collins.
Your anxiety is teased out, too. Bruce Nauman’s “Green Light Corridor” is a mere 1 foot wide but 40 feet long. It challenges the less claustrophobic — and not-so-thick visitor — to shimmy through its entire length, emerging on the end relieved but dizzy from the intense green fluorescent light.
And there’s a bit of nervousness — and funhouse effect — to Charles Atlas’ multichannel video installation inspired by the tornado warnings the artist experienced as a child in the Midwest. As it projects on the wall and spills on the floor, a black-and-white spiral induces more than a little disorientation.
“Strange Pilgrims” boasts a nicely democratic gamut of artists, from internationally recognized, established names like Yoko Ono, Atlas and Nauman to emerging folks, including Austin-based Andy Coolquitt and the local photographers’ collective Lakes Were Rivers.
The Contemporary uses the entirety of its two sites for the show, which takes its name from a collection of stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Its downtown Jones Center, its 14 acres of lakeside grounds at Laguna Gloria and the historic Driscoll Villa there, and even the historic gatehouse building at Laguna — all are utilized to inventively display art.
And in a somewhat rare collaboration between a city-centered arts organization and the University of Texas, nearly a third of “Strange Pilgrims” is on view at the University of Texas’ Visual Arts Center.
More than 2 1/2 years in the making, initiated as soon as the Contemporary came under the leadership of director Louis Grachos, “Strange Pilgrims” feels a bit like a declarative gesture — in a good way.
Its focus on experiential art keys off Austin’s festival culture and the city’s penchant for participation — especially anything outdoors — and signals the Contemporary’s leadership has read Austin’s spirited personality correctly.
The show is accompanied by a suitably weighty catalog with scholarly essays. Published by UT Press and with essays by several UT scholars, it’s a sign that the Contemporary is serious about making a lasting contribution to the erudition surrounding contemporary art.
In terms of local cultural politics, there’s much to be positively said about the Contemporary’s engagement with UT — both the use of the Visual Arts Center and the participation of UT art scholars.
But unfortunately, in practical terms, the on-campus Visual Arts Center is hardly accessible for all but the most intrepid off-campus art fan. The center lacks evening and Sunday hours, too, though it is open Saturday afternoons. And with so many of the exhibit’s most ambitious projects on view at the UT center, one wonders how many will ultimately experience the entirety of this impressive experiential show.
Inspired by Garcia Marquez’s stories of travelers and their journeys, “Strange Pilgrims” asks the public to make one of their own.
When: Through Jan. 24
Where: Contemporary Austin, Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.
Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.
Visual Arts Center, 2300 Trinity St., University of Texas campus
Cost: $3-$5 admission covers entrance to both sites of the Contemporary;UT’s Visual Arts Center is free.
Information: 512-453-5312, thecontemporaryaustin.org