Lee Deigaard is looking for patterns. The New Orleans artist’s work, SubMERGE, is installed inside the circular ramp that winds its way to the third floor at the Contemporary Arts Center, and the piece fits beautifully into the space.
The installation offers multiple experiences from inside and above, making Deigaard’s creation feel site specific to the CAC’s unique 360 Emerge Theater. The combination of ambient environmental encounters and its uncanny repetitious approach feels like scientific inquiry, but replete with visual, aural, and olfactory evidence for the experiment.
The first-floor room is roughly 150 square… or circular… feet, featuring ambient sound and active projections meant to be fully sensed. Depending on your approach, this room could be entered first and investigation starts there. The whole thing took on a mystical feel, however, when experienced from the second or third floor down. Deigaard wove a forest ceiling above the installation whose existence within the space created an authenticity that was alarming. Plywood cutouts in curvilinear forms left tantalizing views into the space below, and green rubber hoses snaked their way over the tops of the “trees.”
Until seeing SubMERGE from above, you are probably taking all the associations you have with a rubber hose for granted. The sound of flowing ocean water alternating with gentle rain suggests the wetness of the hose, and hanging it overhead adds a little drama and danger to the prospect of entering the space. Maybe the danger comes from the hose’s serpentine nature, that they imitate treacherous, sinewy beasts waiting to drop on the inhabitants below. The unnatural kelly-colored camouflage lends some natural pizazz to the jumble, greening the scene and scrambling the eye into action.
Deigaard keeps SubMERGE humble by not trying to fool us. The “trees” in the exhibit are clearly propped up with tubular metal legs, a little forest amid the slick architecture of the CAC. Once loose inside the installation, you are free to roam around Deigaard’s woodland world but you have to watch your step. Each tree is supported by three or four projecting legs, and this is one of those purposeful acts that a casual observer mistakes for accidental.
Elsewhere, three acrylic magnifying lenses protrude like shiny eyeballs from a blank wall, wired and inviting. The strange similarity between the human eyeball and Deigaard’s space-age window-orbs warrants investigation, rather than demanding attention. Yes they are slick, yes they are clever, but they are also deliciously subtle and a major success.
The corollary suggestion between looking and being looked at is used with razor-sharp ingenuity to draw you into a pose against the wall. Once there, the orbs’ contents proceed like a mindless and pleasurable slide show. They are silent aerial views, clinical and removed from the sound of water and the smell of the plywood by which we are grounded. They are detached from Deigaard’s other reality and are best viewed with one eye shut.
The self-consciousness of peering like a peeping tom never hits you because of the straining you must do to perform the “passive” watching. Once you come back to SubMERGE’s earth from the precarious, cold overview of the all-seeing eyes, you will love its “real world” that much more, possibly another comment about the hubris it takes to only ever look at the “big picture.”
The artist’s skill at portrayal almost exceeds her protest against belief in a false natural world. It feels and sounds so real, but Deigaard wants us to know for certain that it’s not. She reminds us that it is a primal tendency to expect to get wet when we hear the rain, and instinctually hold our breath when we swim with the minnows.
The answer to the question of how and why our bombarded brains force the plywood and rubber-hose ceiling into a tangle of tree tops is Deigaard’s whole point: we seek nature, against our conscious will. We need it, we crave it, we suffer and inflict suffering without it because it is in our nature to return to it.
Lee Deigaard’s 'SubMERGE' is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center
(900 Camp St.) through Feb. 2, 2014.