MINNEAPOLIS — The Soap Factory is a gem of an art space for emerging artists, one of the largest (48,000 square feet) such exhibition venues in the country. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, with a forest of condos rising around it, this 130-year-old former soap factory was donated to a local gallery in 1995 and has remained virtually untouched, retaining mismatched floor boards, exposed brick, lead windows, and massive industrial doors — an awesome playground for any artist (they just installed heating last year). Into this already layered atmosphere, Chris Larson has introduced more architectural layers: house, chapel, boarding house, cinema marquee, all life-size. At the beginning of next month, Larson’s installation will serve as a set for an original opera composed by Anthony Gatto, based on Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (the production is a collaboration between the Soap Factory and the Walker Art Center). Larson has collaborated on music-based works before: for The Raft, he and former Yale classmate Rico Gaston cruised on a plywood square rigged to float back and forth across a studio, while they spun records from their formative years. This Wise Blood collaboration with Gatto, Larson’s former Yale roommate, began three years ago and was born out of their mutual admiration for O’Connor’s dark and ominous writing. While Gatto’s composition will focus on Wise Blood’s insidious characters, Larson’s installation brings to life O’Connor’s fictional spaces, enveloping the viewer like a journey through the book’s pages.
Larson’s ambitious and unusual opera set also functions as an independent exhibition of new work, consistent with his established aesthetic of timber constructions, moving parts, and mind-bending dimensional play. Certainly the full-bodied force of his objects will manifest when enlivened by the opera; however, it’s equally critical to experience this work as a reflection upon and an extension of his oeuvre. As I walked through the chronological sequence of events of Wise Blood — from protagonist Hazel Motes’s childhood home to the town of Taulkinham to the porch of landlady Mrs. Flood — I similarly walked through the chronological developments of Larson’s work over the past 20 years. Unlike the typical retrospective, which brings together past work, the building-addicted Larson creates all new pieces that signal various phases of his career.
You should read Wise Blood before you go; then you can enjoy recognizing O’Connor’s detailed spaces. But even without that knowledge, the overall theme of the book, the possibilities and limits of vision and perception, is central to Larson’s installation. Motes is on a quest to believe in only what is tangible — only what can be held in the hand and seen with the eye as truth, and beyond that, nothing else (his quest eventually is thwarted). Larson plays with vision in his installation, altering how we see by confounding perspectives and turning the human eye into the machine eye of the camera. Hidden in a corner of the gallery, past two walls hanging from the ceiling, just around the back of a sideways chapel, is a long display case. It signifies the Natural History Museum in Wise Blood, where the “new Jesus” is displayed alongside tortuous-looking wooden machines that seem to hark back to pioneer days but in fact are spare parts from some of Larson’s early body machines. These constructions of unwieldy mechanical extensions of the body have now become the sleek computer extensions of the smartphone, which both affect how Larson made the work and how we view it. Motes’s house, for instance, lays on its side; take a photo, turn it, and the house is upright — now we can mentally walk upstairs. The character Enoch Emory’s room is a large white box that frames what at first looks like a black-and-white photograph; only we come to see that it is in fact a box receding into another, tiny box, with wooden, similarly receding table, chairs, and bed, all white. A scrim covers this box, a faintly lined piece of muslin that causes the objects inside to look like they’ve been captured in a faded, slightly blurry, worn photograph. Enoch will spend most of the performance inside his box, painting the latrine gold.
What’s most compelling about Chris Larson’s work is that it is never static. As an artist, Larson is always in motion, incessantly building massive constructions with wood and nails, a little sheetrock, turning materials into objects that cannot remain as they are. Shifting, tilting, defying gravity, altering the tangible world we’re given, making the familiar unfamiliar, Larson is forever playing with perspective, both physical and metaphorical, building and/or transforming structures that cause us to feel uncertain about the stability of our own presence in the space. I found myself seasick while watching The Raft, felt like the earth was shifting underneath me during his Heavy Rotation, and watched a Marcel Breuer house, reconstructed out of cardboard in Celebration/Love/Loss, be reduced to ash by a fiery blaze. Change requires movement, and in Larson’s Wise Blood installation, without the performers, objects may appear still, but they have already started shifting; rooms tilt and lay on their sides, others seem to disintegrate and fade away. If there is a ghost, the viewer plays it, floating from structure to structure, taking in the world we have left, waiting to see how life is lived out.
Chris Larson’s Wise Blood installation is on view at the Soap Factory (514 Second Street SE, Minneapolis, Minnesota) through June 14. Larson’s collaboration with Anthony Gatto, the Wise Blood opera, will be performed at the Soap Factory June 4–14. Tickets are available online.