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Take a mind excursion

No ingestion is required to partake of MOCA's 'Ecstasy: In and About Altered States.'

October 11, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

NEAR the entrance to "Ecstasy," the winning new thematic group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Little Tokyo warehouse space, Berlin artist Klaus Weber has installed a three-tiered fountain made from Victorian cut-glass. Water gaily burbles from the otherwise rather cheesy-looking fountain, splashing down the crystal tiers into a square concrete pool surrounded by tempered-glass walls.

According to a signed certificate hanging on a nearby wall, the fountain's water is laced with LSD. The most potent psychotropic substance known to science, it was produced for the artist in a British homeopathy lab. The fountain is a signature piece for a show that proposes art as a mind-altering substance. Think of it as the drug culture equivalent of a champagne fountain at a wedding celebration, or maybe a chocolate fountain at the party after a movie premiere.

Presumably, a visitor could reach over the fountain's surrounding glass walls, wet his finger and take a taste, launching into an altered state of consciousness for up to six hours. According to the homeopath's website, a mere 1/6 milligram of the drug is sufficient to induce and maintain the trip.

There's just one hitch. Is it true? Is the fountain really spurting LSD?

We trust what our museums tell us about the art they enshrine. And great art is itself commonly supposed to contain inherent transformational properties. Does this one? There's an obvious way to know for sure, but like Eve with the apple, getting that knowledge requires a long-term commitment after breaking a museum taboo: Do Not Touch. Reaching over the glass barrier is verboten.

What predominates here? Does the authority of the museum prevail -- or the authority of the artist, or the viewer? Does some negotiation take place among all three?

Over in the corner on a pedestal, Weber has installed a small wooden model for a pavilion he wants to build in Dresden, Germany, to permanently house the LSD fountain. His crystal palace is a sleek Modernist box, meant to be plunked down over an existing urban landscape. Instantly all the mundane things on the street -- trees, lampposts, fireplugs, park benches, sidewalks, trashcans -- would be transformed into artifacts in a virtual museum of modern life. The LSD fountain gurgles in the center.

Even without drinking from Weber's trippy fountain, the work manages to nicely alter your consciousness of being inside MOCA. In the 21st century, old distinctions made between the museum and the street, between "the art world" and "the real world," have collapsed. "Ecstasy," whose subtitle is "In and About Altered States," drives the point home.

The show is not, I should emphasize, a "glorification of drug use" -- as some are certain to complain. There's no reason to keep kids from seeing it, any more than there is to stop them from reading "Alice in Wonderland," with its hookah-smoking caterpillar and beguiling magic mushrooms. Honest conversation, not the hysteria or terrified silence typified by the costly war on drugs, is a more productive path. It's good for art too.

Drugs are a metaphor for altered perception in "Ecstasy," and the best works in the show will alter yours while also articulating the nature of the alteration. Take Tom Friedman's tiny little pill.

A seemingly ordinary medicinal capsule is enshrined under spotlights on a pedestal in a display case, like an exemplar of the secular Eucharist that has sanctified so much of modern pill-popping society. According to the label, the hundreds of multicolored little granules that fill the small gel cap are made from Play-Doh. That means Friedman engaged in the repetitive, acutely focused task of rolling each of these teeny-tiny clay spheres by hand -- perhaps the most primitive analogy imaginable to age-old practices of art-making. Suddenly the slow, thoughtful, transformative rituals basic to art become their own soulful brand of mind-expanding medication.

Up on the mezzanine, French-born New York artist Pierre Huyghe has installed "Light Show." A theatrical grid filled with scores of swiveling lights with colored gels surmounts a low rectangular stage. Pillows tossed around the floor invite the audience to linger for the performance -- a Minimalist theater of the absurd.

Music swells, the lights come up and fog rises from the floor of the small stage. Currents of air in the room gently swirl the fog as the shifting colored lights turn the vaporous mist into a spellbinding phantasmagoria.

There is, of course, nothing there but a variation on smoke and mirrors -- which, in today's spectacle-driven society, is also the sum total of so much that is abject and debasing. The difference here is that Huyghe's work pays close attention to revealing the precise manipulations of "the man behind the curtain." The sculpture is candid, not deceptive, and beautiful to boot.

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