"This is cool," he exclaimed to no one in particular about Alice Briggs' labyrinthine Industry of Memory. All shiny aluminum floors and black painted walls, the maze is cool, like the set of a science fiction movie or an Alice in Wonderland adventure gone totally techno. A Phoenix reviewer likened it to the command cab of a 1930s blimp.
Viewers walk through dark corridors and come into chambers of light, where the shiny metal glistens on such oddities as Plato's Easy Chair, a cross between a throne and an electric chair. Then there's a wall of mirrors that almost but doesn't quite replicate the infinity-mirror experience in your standard department store dressing room, not to mention a room of painted encyclopedias occupying painted shelves.
In the final chamber is a painting that's a wonder of Renaissance perspective, rendered in a deliciously limited palette of white paint and gray charcoal, with the warm brown of its wood base showing through.
But it's not hard to see that this elegant piece is about more than cool. High-tech dials and clocks and wires loop ominously around the labyrinth, and a sharp metal cutout in the throne would do awful things to Plato's posterior should he ever choose to sit in it. A labyrinth, even one as refined as this, can entrap as easily as it can entice.
Though it's composed with fine precision, its wood beams receding into infinity, the final painted image in the final chamber is a prison cell. A man is behind the bars writing with a quill pen, apparently serene in spite of his grievous circumstances. All around this painting, beautifully executed in charcoal and white and gray acrylics, are masonite boards on which Briggs has laboriously painted the entire text of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. A Braille translation is punched into the wood.
Yet the young man so taken with Briggs' temporary corridors didn't stop to decipher all of Plato's words, nor did he finger their Braille counterparts. He didn't squint at the encyclopedias either to decipher their message ("I am trying to remember, I am trying to remember," written over and over). No, he took in the art with his senses, letting his eyes drink in the elegant colors and the eerie shadows, allowing his feet to feel the punctured aluminum, and off he went.
His experience brings up the inherent difficulties of installation art, especially pieces like this one: It's visually alluring but laden down with scholarly references. Should art be about reading? Or is it primarily a sensory experience? Briggs' installation tries to merge the two goals, but only the most diligent of visitors is going to take the time to tease out all the piece's allusions.
Briggs herself says she doesn't mind at all that plenty of viewers miss her allusions.
"I think that's fine," she said by telephone. "I like to have a piece read on a number of different levels. It's like any sort of experience--10 people walk into a room and each one would give you a different report of what was happening. ... Every experience is valid."
For the record, Briggs said that The Library of Babel by Luis Borges inspired the book chamber, and Albrecht Dürer's investigations of perspective triggered the prison painting. And the mathematical formula written on one wall--6.022 X 1023--is Avogadro's Number.
But Plato's words on perception, which she quoted in the piece, are most apropos here.
"He talks about perception and how we often mistake things for a reality that they aren't. It's an apt metaphor for what happens to people--rather than living life to the nth degree, they lead a kind of counterfeit or indirect life, with television or film or the Internet. Plato was talking about perception--it's hard to sort out what we're seeing."
Indeed. Plato could have been talking about Briggs' own elusive installation art. It is hard to sort out what we're seeing here and why. But Industry of Memory may just be about multiple realities. It's about Briggs' own fascination with systems, from scientific perspective to Braille to chemistry, and it's equally about the rapture of color and light and shadow. And just as much, or even most of all, it's about a young man's foray into cool.
Alice Briggs' installation piece Industry of Memory continues through Sunday, March 18 in the New Directions Gallery of the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $5 general, $4 for seniors, $3 for students 13 and up, and free for children. Free for all on Sundays. For more information call 624-2333.
The artist will participate in a discussion of installation art with three other local artists, Joyan Saunders, Barbara Penn and Patricia Carr Morgan, at the museum at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18. The discussion is open only to members of the Contemporary Art Society, who in turn must be members of the Tucson Museum of Art. TMA memberships cost $40; Contemporary Art Society memberships are $50 for artists and those under 35, $100 for ages 35 and up. For information about CSA membership call Elaine Litvack at 749-1922.