L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Pierre Restany, the critic who co-coined the term Nouveau Réalisme, was supposed to be there for Yves Klein’s first Leap into the Void. Weeks earlier, Klein had told Restany “he was going to do something very ‘important.’” He was “going to give a practical demonstration of levitation,” and he wanted Restany to be the official witness. It’s just that, on the scheduled day, Restany was late in getting to gallerist Colette Allendy’s house, which was the designated site of the leap. When he arrived, he found Klein limping around “in a kind of mystical ecstasy” as if he’d just accomplished something otherworldly.
No one seems quite sure why Klein went ahead with the leap before his witness arrived. But without someone with Restany’s art world clout to vouch for him, few believed he’d actually leapt upward and outward with only pavement below. People called it impossible. But it wasn’t impossible at all, said Klein’s fellow Judo expert Bernadette Allain years later: “It would be expected of someone at his level of training to know how to recover and fall.” Allain never spoke up during Klein’s lifetime, and, to the artists and gallerists in Klein’s circle, the leap seemed absurd.
“Yves was one who did not feel at home in the world of facts,” wrote critic Thomas McEvilley in 2003. Or maybe he just didn’t understand fact in the way other people did. In the essay Truth Becomes Reality, his own loose musing on what makes something convincing, Klein said, “Great beauty is only a reality when it contains intelligently mixed into it, ‘genuine bad taste,’ ‘irritating and intentional artificiality,’ with just a dash of dishonesty.”
Julian Hoeber’s Demon Hill, a large-scale installation on the Hammer Museum’s second floor balcony, has a dash of dishonesty and a bit of artifice. But, as with Klein’s Leap, its not meant to deceive; it’s just meant to offer an experience that seems fleetingly supernatural even though it doesn’t actually defy the laws of nature.
Demon Hill was inspired by a “mystery spot” Hoeber visited on his cross-country move to L.A. (an experience he describes in a video on the Hammer’s site). He entered a tilted shack called the “Cosmos,” and gravity seemed to stop working. After visiting a few more mystery spots, Hoeber determined that the Cosmos and shacks like it are standard boxes that have been tipped at a compound bevel; when inside, your brain gets the wrong cues about what’s horizontal and what’s vertical, making it difficult, if not impossible, to keep your grip on gravity.
Hoeber has left the structural skeleton of his own mystery spot exposed in a way that recalls a Michael Asher installation (if Asher dabbled in the psychedelic). The wood is raw and almost golden given the effect of the fluorescent lights inside. It has a minimal, gorgeous austerity, except that it also feels haphazard in a roadside attraction sort of way–it seems like a risky thing for a museum to let its visitors into.
A sign outside the entrance warns of possible nausea and, once I’d climbed in, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get out. I was with a friend, and an older, professorial couple wandered around with us. We kept shooting each other commiserating looks, and encouraging each other to take the next step. The attendant outside called in once or twice to make sure we were okay. As with Klein’s Leap, having witnesses with you for Demon Hill may be necessary; otherwise, later on, you might not believe your own memory. Risky or not, the whole experience felt great: trippy, smart, otherworldly, and also totally unpretentious–the antidote of a Turrell skyspace.
What made Leap into the Void so good was that it was dangerous in a way that wasn’t pristine at all, but unpredictable and not-quite rational. It also veered toward carny-style theatrics. Nonetheless, it made you think about transcendence and beauty and what’s real. Hoeber’s sculpture does that too, and those who can should pay it a visit. Demon Hill remains on view through January 23.
Note: the Klein story told above comes, in large part, from McEvilley’s lengthy essay, Yves Klein: Conquistador of the Void, from Yves Klein: A Retrospective, 1928-1962, published by the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, in association with The Arts Publisher, Inc., New York.