Go into the woods. Go alone.
I always loved sneaking into the wings and onto the set after the high school play. There’s something about the other-worldliness of DIY theater sets. I’d breath in the smell of cheap acrylic paint and plywood. I’d feel a thrill as the dry ice vapor settled and dissipated around my ankles; I would try not to lean against anything made of pink insulation foam carved with a hot knife by an obsessive sophomore.
Sprayed expansion foam mimics many-tentacled vines on faux tree trunks. Usually cobbled together with whatever the shop teacher could find at Home Depot within the tiny theater budget, these city streets, small apartments, or forests always had a surreal hyperrealism I adored jumping into. I still love this kind of make-believe. I guess that’s why making and experiencing immersive art is one of my favorite things.
When I saw a preview for Natura Obscura on a VR headset at the recent Denver Immersive Summit, where I was a panelist and enthusiastic attendee, I knew this would be worth seeing for myself. These sorts of spaces are not realistic – How could you construct a realistic field or stream onstage with a tiny budget and a hot glue gun? – but I also don’t care that it’s not realistic because it evokes feelings and ideas instead looking like a photograph.
The theater designer and theorist Robert Edmond Jones wrote that if visual art and theatrical experiences hope to survive the advent of film and television, breaking from the chains of realism and naturalism was our only hope. Also, the nearest national forest boundary line is less than 15 miles away. Immersive fun houses like this are all the rage in our burgeoning experience economy for a variety of reasons. (See my pieces in (Salt) Arrest the Senses: A Guide to Immersive Theatre or Meow Wolf: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better if you want to learn more about the medium.) Call them Instagram Palaces, art installations, or Chuck E. Cheese for adults, immersive spaces are hot right now.
Natura Obscura, which means “hidden nature,” is an interactive art exhibit currently open at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood, CO. Automata birds creakily flap their fiberglass wings on the ceiling, simulacra trees covered in globular vines are reminiscent of haunted houses or church Christmas pageants, and the sound design is full of the eerie hoots and howls of flora and fauna with the occasional peal of bells or thunder.
It’s Pan’s Labyrinth in line and texture, Tim Burton in color scheme and tone. Here, scale works in funny ways: one moment I’m as big as a tree and the next I’m cowering under microbes.
Like a spiritual journey through the Stations of the Cross, a walking meditation, or a medicine walk, the piece asks me to reflect on the elements of nature, my own and the wild’s, as I arrive at different locations. The geography sparks the thought.
An anthology of quasi-spiritual BrainyQuotes litter the floor and walls and jump out at me when I shine my blacklight on them. The exhibit features several rooms of stand-alone pieces loosely tied to the theme of nature, both kinds, but the titular exhibit constitutes the main three rooms and was created by a team of artists under the direction of
The Museum of Outdoor Arts approached
If you look at the floorplan of the installation, it’s as if the surrealist forest called Natura Obscura is the trunk of the whole show and other independent rooms split off from it like branches. Henceforth when I write about Natura Obscura I’m referring to this main section. Each separate installation will be called by its respective name.
When I entered the first dark room of Natura Obscura, sweeping my blacklight flashlight back and forth seeking hidden messages, I was overwhelmed by the Maximalism of the place. Bursting with color, sound, and light, I almost didn’t know where to start, but the piece took me by the hand and lead my on a visual guided meditation deep into the my own subconscious woods.
This installation feels more like something that belongs in the natural history museum than fine art. While the installation certainly doesn’t make it through the uncanny valley, the way it subverts realism is fun. As Joanne Ostrow noted in The Colorado Sun, this is fun art, not fine art, per se.
It’s a bit like Meow Wolf, sure, but with a hint more restraint and coherence. The plastic arts feel connected despite the range of multimedia materials. It’s clear everything was made just for this time and place. The creators want each viewer to reflect on their own nature, if only for an hour or
I like that it is directly asking me to better myself and deepen my thinking. It shows that they care about me, albeit in a kind of New Agey way. I know it’s cheesy but I feel like I’m on a quest.
Symbolic images are packed into the floor-to-ceiling art work: clocks, stars, birds, trees, and alarmingly, babydoll heads. These images hold a double edge of meaning for me. Though exhausted cliches, they also send visual metaphors we already know and live by. An owl is symbolic shorthand for wisdom. A tree representative of the Tree of Knowledge. A stone well, covered in sparkling mosaics, reflects the words “How deep will you go…” up at me when I peer into its depths. Ok…
A tiny door from a dollhouse hides in the baseboard. A projected short film of Bunraku-style shadow puppets telling a creation myth of the world is beautifully animated and projected on multiple walls. As I sway on a cushioned swing inside a cloud castle, surround sound designed by Grammy award-winning recording engineer Mickey Houlihan engulfs me.
The multi-room display employs cutting edge sensor technology and augmented reality features. I was encouraged to download the app designed to accompany the piece. By hovering my phone’s camera lens over cartoonish spirits with whimsical names I could see them briefly animated on my screen and click through a first-person introduction from the Spirit of Fire or Spirit of the Trees, which culminated in a rhetorical question for my reflection.
While I liked having these words as guidance through the forest and a series of thoughtful questions to contemplate, I resented having to leave the “lovely, dark, and deep” world of Natura Obscura by looking at my bright, flat, and sterile phone screen.
If the piece asked me to escape my pedestrian life for a few hours to turn inward and reflect on my own nature, then looking at my phone for an AR gimmick was counterproductive. It’s hard to get lost when you’re staring at your smartphone. The talent required to make the AR components of the exhibit is substantial, but perhaps just because you can doesn’t mean you
I recently attended a house show performance where phones were banned and I can say I have never seen a group of people in their twenties and thirties so engaged with a work of art and their fellows. At Natura
The kind of art that really moves me has always been abstract; less representational work challenges me to think and feel it more. I loved the shrinking feeling I found in Simulacra Vision (pictured) and The Archive. Nicole Banowetz’ inflatable cave, Simulacra Vision, surrounds the viewer with black on white tendrils of inflated material resembling tissue or globs of cells. If I felt small and elfin in the adjacent forest wonderland, I felt microscopic inside this stark installation.
Through the thick curtain of bobbing pillows, monochrome projections by Chris Bagley cast energetic shadows on the floor and dashed jagged light across viewers’ faces. One stalactite-like inflatable piece has a window through which I saw a video of Nicole Banowetz performing in a neutral mask and one of her signature inflatable costumes. A spinning inflatable sculpture behind reflective glass adds to the feeling of floating, formless and slimy, through cellular matter.
As if I didn’t already feel small, Chris Bagley’s piece The Archive shrunk me from the cellular to the molecular. I don’t want to give anything away but it suffices to say that his work with light, motion, and lightning is riveting. A meditation on compressed carbon and light, the experience of standing inside this moving piece will stick with me forever.
I stayed in that installation alone for a very long time. A few other rooms feature light and sound installations with film, responsive elements, and a cabinet of curiosities sure to please the antiques enthusiast, but my favorites were these two installations.
So go into Natura Obscura. Go alone, or at least separate from your companions for a while. It’s your journey. See what you can find out about yourself and your hidden nature.
WHEN: January 11 through April 28. Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets will be honored until one hour before the closing time to provide enough time to experience the installation.
WHERE: Museum of Outdoor Art, 1000 Englewood Pkwy., Ste. 2-230, Englewood, CO 80110 COST: Tickets range in price from $10 to $20 based on day of the week and time of purchase. There
All images used courtesy of Natura Obscura and the Museum of Outdoor Art. A version of this article originally appeared in Issue 7 of (SALT) Magazine.