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PASADENA, Calif. — Imagine being in a soft bed, eyes fluttering to brush away sleep, and slowly noticing that you’ve been transported to a garden. The world has turned black and white, your room has no floor or ceiling, and the cosmic textures of the universe swirl before your eyes. You might feel this way in Oscar Oiwa’s immersive, 360º installation, a new world created inside a large nylon dome. It’s part of Dreams of a Sleeping World, his first solo exhibition in the United States, on view at the USC Pacific Asia Museum.
Before stepping into the showpiece, viewers get to see Oiwa through his paintings, which take on different degrees of fantasy. In “Light Shop,” a Japanese convenience store is partially hidden behind a burst of bright globules, a sight that is magical, but grounded. “Hotel Office 6” taps more into a dreamscape. It depicts a room in a traditional ryōkan, or Japanese inn, transformed into a zen garden. Tatami mats become makeshift bridges across koi ponds, but the fish swim above the futon and the low work table. Oiwa is not present, but an open laptop, a camera, and a bottle of sake suggest that he’s only stepped away for a moment.
There’s also a short documentary documenting Oiwa’s process for the immersive installation — another tease before stepping into the space. We see Oiwa speedily working through timelapse, hand-drawing the “Dreams” landscape on a nylon, inflatable dome with black Sharpie. It took Oiwa two weeks to complete the drawing.
The gallery director describes Oiwa’s dome as “Yayoi Kusama meets Keith Haring meets Salvador Dali,” but none of these comparisons feel quite right. “Dreams of a Sleeping World” doesn’t use optical illusions to create an infinite space, and his surreal landscapes painted in black ink are simultaneously too detailed to echo Haring and too minimal to match Dali.
If any comparisons make sense, Oiwa’s style immediately brought to mind Google’s DeepDream, a program powered by a neural network that picks up patterns in images — pixels that might resemble a human face or a dog’s tail, for example — and repeatedly processes them until they have been distorted and amplified in surreal, sometimes nightmarish, ways. Oiwa’s landscape is far too tranquil to be mistaken for the software’s creation, but his line work warps into natural elements quite often. A recurring pattern of rippling, oblique circles resemble hundreds of eyeballs that follow you through the dream space; rabbits emerge from black voids, plant life springs out of stippled marks, and reptilian creatures emerge from hatched lines. The ornate, decorative patterns conjure Art Nouveau illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke, but “Dreams” distinctly belongs to Oiwa.
The biggest pitfall of “Dreams,” however, is how easy it is to be pulled out of the experience. It’s easy to spot the stitching that runs through the inflatable dome, and the air machine that keeps it afloat roars loudly. Another issue is the lighting, much of which comes from natural light, that shifts and casts shadows, distinguishing the floor from the walls and breaking up any illusion of being in a void. I was constantly aware that I was inside a manufactured experience.
Part of what has made experiential art so successful is that it hides its scaffolding. The dark “Infinity Room” makes the mirrors less obvious, and the Museum of Illusions rents out an entire warehouse, hires interior designers, and makes you believe that the pop-up has always been a permanent fixture. Some will find Oiwa’s scrappiness part of the charm, even refreshing from such overproduced spaces; I thought I would favor it, instead, I was too anchored in reality.
Oscar Oiwa: Dreams of a Sleeping World continues at the USC Pacific Asia Museum (46 N Los Robles Ave, Pasadena) through April 26.