Art

Inspired by Indian Ragas, an Installation of Sound and Light Heightens the Senses

At the MELA Foundation Dream House, Jung Hee Choi’s Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI seduces, disorients, and transforms.

Jung Hee Choi, “Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI” (2017), installation view; 23 ft x 10 ft 8 inches; mixed media: black wrap with pinholes, diffusion gel, fresnel lights, and video; MELA Foundation Dream House, New York (photo: Jung Hee Choi; copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2017)

Jung Hee Choi: Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI at the MELA Foundation’s Dream House envelops me, untethers my ego and anxiety from whatever other ballast is in me to keep me afloat. What makes this happen is really very quotidian: I arrive at the Dream House, speak to the front door attendant, negotiate the donation amount, take off my shoes, and push through the door. Once inside I feel the music already landing on me in percussive waves, as if in respiration. When I turn left and walk a few feet through the hallway to the large, carpeted, main room there are scattered bodies already there, mostly on the periphery. I am tugged by the sound and the glowing lights and lie down in the room’s center on two of the pillows that are littered throughout. The music is loud, almost overwhelming; the light patterns look like a god’s dream. To lie here is to dwell in the business happening inside my skull, to be sequestered in an enclosure of light and sound where my self rises to meet the challenge of being swamped by the pulsating music and the morphing light pattern in front of me. I feel I might end up in a white van filled with other catatonic people, driving to some remote location, before the day is done.

Jung Hee Choi, “RICE” (1999-2009) variable dimensions; multi-channel video installation; MELA Foundation Dream House, New York. (photo: Jung Hee Choi; copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2014)

I move my head. Doing so makes me realize there is an architecture to the soundscape. Something guttural appears when I turn right; something more lyrical in the middle, and then a droning, like a garden full of chanting monks, when I turn left. I try to comprehend the pattern in front of me. It seems like a series of lights emitted through a cut-out shape—neon pink and a center of crepuscular darkness inside which black and green combine in an organic melange that might suggest the eyes of a hawk gazing at you over two elephants meeting their trunks in the middle. Choi uses black wrap aluminum foil which she’s pierced with a needle to create intricate, amorphous patterns that might be ancient narratives, might be my fears reflected back to me. If it’s a Rorschach test, it’s demanding nothing of me but my presence. Moving my head from side to side, I realize there is a pair of glowing, spinning orbs on the right wall, purple and pulsing like another visual puzzle in which I could get lost (“RICE” (1999 – 2009)). This is most certainly not dreaming; it is traversing layers of sound and light like a climber in a cave.

There are many overlapping layers that form this cavernous experience. First, there’s the foundation formed in 1985 which, according to New Music USA, is designed to encourage creative work in the fields of music, the visual arts, and other media; to explore the applications of advanced technologies to artistic expression; and to present major contemporary works and extended duration art installations that eliminate the boundaries between artistic disciplines. The MELA organization may take its name from the acronym for Music Eternal Light Art. (It’s still not clear to me who named it so.) It created what the New Music organization describes as  the “Dream House continuous sound and light environment” in 1993 and since then has hosted many performances and exhibitions, among them the Just Alap Raga Ensemble, which Choi formed with the artists under who she had studied the Kirana vocal tradition: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.

Installation view of another room in the Dream House: Jung Hee Choi, “Color (CNN), live realization” (2013) variable dimensions; mixed media: Incense, video, wood; MELA Foundation Dream House, New York. (photo: Jung Hee Choi; copyright © Jung Hee Choi 2014)

Second there is the complexity of the Hindustani classical music, Raga, which is the basis of Choi’s sound (and light) installation. It derives from the Sanskrit word for “colour,” or “passion,” and is reportedly “the world’s most complex melodic system.” It involves a combination of scales and rules governing how to use pitches within the scale, plus prescribed home notes, dominant, subdominant, dissonant notes, landing/resting notes, and means of progression through the scales.

Third, there is the existence of a habitation specifically set aside for dreaming — imaginative excursions into the self where intuition is the more convincing wisdom. I am grateful for this space designed to compel that inward motion. This city takes so much out of me, and then there is a moment of recalibration, where I realize what I’ve lost.

Jung Hee Choi: Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest XI continues at the MELA Foundation’s Dream House (275 Church Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through October 14, with several performances by the Sundara All-Star Band.

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