The Rice Gallery on the Rice University campus always has interesting installations. Artists are invited to create installations specifically for the space. These installations often have a light-hearted, even humorous feel to them, like Wayne White's Big Lectric Fan, which I wrote about in this blog last fall.
Andrea Dezso's wonderful installation, "Sometimes In My Dreams I Fly," is not as laugh-out-loud funny as White's big puppet head of George Jones, with its mouth opening and closing as he snores, but it is still delightful. Dezso's sensibility is that of the rare adult who has preserved a child-like faith in the importance of imaginary worlds. Her installation takes the space program as its starting point--appropriate for Houston on the fortieth (!) anniversary of Apollo XIII. But Dezso grew up in Communist Romania. The space program that fired her imagination was the Soviet space program. She collected stamps with images of astronauts and space travel and followed the news of their flights.
In a video on a screen in the foyer, Dezso explains that she thinks the ill-fated Apollo XIII flight ("Houston, we have a problem") was actually interesting mostly because it didn't get to the moon. She says that even if we don't actually get to go to the moon or into space in our real physical bodies, we can go in our imaginations.
When I was a child, I had a book called You Will Go To the Moon. It was written in 1959.
It's amazing that in 1959, people really believed that children born in the fifties would someday vacation on the moon, sort of like people in the fifties drove to the Grand Canyon. Like Apollo XIII, though, I have not gone to the moon and never will.
Dezso's installation is based on her previous series of tunnel books. A tunnel book is a three-dimensional book that you look into as if looking into a tunnel. Pages are partially cut away in front to reveal other scenes behind them.
These books are small, perhaps 6"x 8" and about six inches deep. For the Rice Gallery installation, she imagined tunnel books big enough to walk into! And then she built them in the gallery space. You can't actually walk into them: you look into them through the big glass windows in front of the gallery.
The effect is mysterious and tantalizing: you can see deep into this "scene," but you can't exactly crawl in there and explore it. Careful lighting makes the back of the "tunnel book" brighter than the foreground, creating the "repousse" effect of 19th century romantic landscape painting. Silhouettes of strange creatures are seen prancing and flying against the background colors.
The invented creatures are probably the most interesting part of the show. Part insect, part animated plants, part astronaut, they fly and swim and crawl, reminding me of Arthur Rackham's silhouette illustrations:
Like Rackham's fairies, Dezso's space plants, insects, and people seem not entirely benign, although they are not exactly monsters. Carrot Man, for example, has a kind of manic grin. The average child would not be entirely pleased to meet him.
(Dezso has cut out huge life-size versions of some of her creatures and attached them to the exterior doors of the gallery. Carrot Man is one of them.)
But who wouldn't want to be a Female Astronaut with a Leaf-Powered Propeller? As a child, I, like most children, sometimes did dream I could fly, and the cartoon images of the Jetsons flying around with jetpacks on their backs made it seem that maybe I would Go To The Moon, or at least fly around Nashville with my jetpack on. Apparently Romanian children were having the same dreams and fantasies, as we all cowered under our mutually assured mushroom clouds. For the space program was the flip side of MAD: technology's benign side, like Our Friend the Atom. We all loved Tang and Space Food Sticks, the only discernible benefits of the space program.
And so there are both utopian and dystopian elements in these scenes: the leaf-powered propeller hints at a time when plants might provide people with some new kind of alternative "green" transport; but at the same time the landscapes are replete with machines and power lines. However, the machines look more like carnival rides than like gritty industrial rust-belt relics.
The power lines just look like power lines. That in itself is a little jarring: in this fantastic world where people have propellers on their heads, they also have these banal power lines or drilling rigs. It looks like Texas.
Dezso has impressive paper-cutting skills. I'm impressed because I think she must have done most of the cutting with an Exacto knife, and I am trying to get better at using one of those tools. Paper cutting is hot right now in the world of contemporary art: there's a show at the Museum of Arts and Design called Slash: Paper Under the Knife.
Dezso has a tunnel book in that show, and another long-time cutter of paper is also in the show: Kara Walker, whom I immediately thought of when I first looked at Dezso's show. Walker's cut paper figures are, of course, much more disturbing, even nightmarish:
Dezso seems to draw on this work, and perhaps that of Arthur Rackham, to evoke a not-quite-benign, but nonetheless tantalizing dream world, in which one might experience flying, if not to the moon, then at least with a leaf propeller on your head.