The entryway to “Substrata” at EPOCH Gallery consigns you to a steep snowy slope several yards from a building appearing as a futuristic ski lodge. At your every pause, you find yourself revolving, as though involuntarily attached to the axis of a slow-moving carousel. Turn around and see a white sun glowing in the haze, hovering just above a turret-esque hill in the distance. The only sound is that of a low murmuring breeze whose presence, inexplicably, can neither be felt nor seen; the papery leaves of nearby trees remain perfectly still. The eerie winter land furnished with weird architecture seems an improbable setting for an exhibition. Not a soul is in sight. It’s as though you’ve stepped into C.S. Lewis’ magic wardrobe to Narnia. Stranger still is the fact that all this exists only on the Internet.
Artist Peter Wu founded EPOCH, a virtual reality exhibition space, in April of last year in response to the difficulties of displaying art during the quarantines. He devised and co-curated this group show in collaboration with Alice Könitz, an artist known for her own experimental gallery-cum-artwork called “Los Angeles Museum of Art” (LAMOA). Since its inception in 2012, Könitz’ mobile, modular gallery has shown many unrecognized artists, taken a variety of forms, and inhabited numerous places, including conventional exhibition venues. For “Substrata,” Könitz created a special online iteration of her project: The aforementioned lodge-like structure is a 3D model and digital rendering titled LAMOA Display System #8 (2021), a multifaceted artwork that, in turn, doubles as an intriguing repository for pieces by nine other artists.
The format of this exhibition, as with EPOCH’s five previous shows, simulates a walkthrough of a surreal gallery. Circular icons and occasional arrows demarcate spaces that may be entered with a click of the mouse. There are two ways to navigate the show: You can either explore the environment spontaneously by clicking on the designated icons, or you may go directly to each artwork via an interactive floorplan map. This singular manner of experiencing art evokes the feeling of a video game and a treasure hunt. Wending your way through LAMOA Display System # 8 is like traversing a dreamlike maze full of surprises. Rooms lead outside and then back inside to other modules; there are catwalks, tunnels, spiral staircases, blind alleys, and areas that turn out to be impassable or inaccessible. Unless you are particularly patient, chances are, you will at some point resort to the map so as not to miss pieces you may have left behind. Next to each work is a small information icon that can be opened for explanatory text, and in some cases a higher resolution image.
Throughout, individual pieces play on notions of context—whether ecological, architectural, social, or some combination thereof—in various intriguing ways. Several are digital constructs specific to the show. In Gabie Strong’s animated 3D sculpture, Life Drone (2020), a droning soundtrack sets off the eerie yet calming effect of observing a quaking aspen inside a small chamber subtly undergo a full year of seasonal change in three minutes. Outside in the snow, two towering digital sculptures by Haena Yoo underscore society’s overwrought reverence for products manufactured by drug and cosmetic companies.
Other artists are represented by 3D reproductions of artworks that exist as objects independent of the show. These gain a strange new resonance in virtual reality. For instance, Gina Osterloh’s framed portraits of herself wrapped in tape seem like windows to a parallel world against LAMOA’s wainscoted walls punctuated by wintry landscape views.
The darkest and most captivating section is a claustrophobic cavern lurking beneath the strange architecture. Here, partially submerged in a flowstone pond, painter Sterling Wells’ Plein Air Set-up with Rhodochrosite and Crabs (2021) overtly conflates tangible and virtual reality. For this piece, Wells and Wu collaborated to create a 3D modeled replica of an elaborate setup that had been used to paint an actual watercolor from a computer-generated image of a crystal inside a cave pool.
Since the lockdowns began last year, myriad galleries have replaced or complemented their traditional programs with online presentations; but I have seen few, if any, attempt anything this imaginative. Virtual reality offers a more inspiring platform than the typical banal slideshow format, which is actually little more than a glorified image inventory. With its playful juxtapositions amid ingeniously contrived environs, “Substrata” can be understood as a collage-like collaborative installation.
Nothing could ever replace the experience of seeing art in the flesh. However, unfettered by the physical exigencies of three dimensions, the immersive fantasy of shows such as this can stimulate one’s imagination in ways that no real-life exhibition ever could. Sights and sounds such as the horrible subterranean screams of Nikita Gale’s four-minute audio piece, Cave Study (Theater/Shelter) (2021), are liable to linger in one’s mind as fodder for nightmares long after leaving the scene.
“Substrata” is accessible online at epoch.gallery, January 9-March 5, 2021.