A sensory overload is in order for anyone visiting the new show at the McColl Center for Visual Art.
Thresholds, a series of experiential installations by Quynh Vantu that fills the entire first floor gallery space, is divided into two parts: one involving thresholds — resembling free-standing, three-sided door frames — and one involving light. Your senses will be toyed with, tricked and heightened throughout the experience.
The show demands viewer submission at the outset: A white sheet hangs from the threshold dividing the center's vestibule from the exhibition space, reaching down to chest level. Visitors must duck beneath it, bowing in a humble posture in order to experience the art the building houses. Wall text starts above and visually intrudes into a knee-level, projected video of a temple in Korea.
The exhibition continues with a stream of six thresholds, each one leading into the next and aligned in the three-story atrium. While normally, the purpose of a threshold is to transition a person from one space to another room, these lead to no such rooms, meaning the artist intends the most significant part of the experience to be the moment within the threshold itself. The decision to use repeated constructs, a series of thresholds in a straight line, is a thoughtful response to the McColl building's original neo-Gothic architecture.
The thresholds are about the size of connecting doorways in a house, and the first four are padded with acoustical foam. Because of transformations in air pressure, a visitor might experience a heightening of sinus pressure, muffled hearing or other strange but brief phenomena. In the last two thresholds, a balance of heat and light is achieved. First, visitors feel the uncomfortable blare of heat lamps, and next, a cool breeze from the small fans that line the threshold's interior.
The second portion of the exhibition is an investigation of light. The gallery is completely dark except for three white grids emerging from light projectors onto the walls. Disorienting at first, it begs for interaction. The smell of a fog machine permeates the room and, as visitors walk through, its purpose dawns: creating a haze to filter through these panes and define the light shooting across the room. The comprehension that the artwork is more about this light than any objects on which it projects emerges; traversing these beams makes visitors feel less solid and more transmutable.
There is a bigger question involved that Vantu doesn't effectively address. The exhibition functions more as a playful funhouse than a catalyst to make us question our physical relationship to architecture. The emotional impact is negligible. Despite this, the show is highly enjoyable.
A larger, more important aspect of this exhibition is that it defines the McColl Center artist residencies as "really being an incubation period of new works," according to curator Brad Thomas. In a tour of the exhibition, he explained that this show and last fall's Joseph Herscher show are both "a positive step forward" in terms of commissioning the artists-in-residence to produce work that can be shown at the McColl.
In addition to architecture degrees from Cranbrook Academy and Virginia Tech, Vantu has a long list of residencies and fellowships from around the globe. Here at the McColl Center, her sphere of impact was architecture, and she spent her three-month residency developing the work on view. Her relevancy at the Center lies in her refusal to differentiate between art and architecture, and a belief that they have equal power to communicate emotion and transform viewers.