Feeling as though you are completely surrounded by a work of art is to appreciate, if only for a moment, its potential power over how we see the world.
One of the purposes of art is to transport you into another frame of reference, another place, into someone else’s experience and point of view. The more immersive the art experience, the more you are transported. I recently had experiences with visual art that were totally immersive and, because of that, totally transformative.
One was the work of an artist named Ed Kienholz. He was born in Fairfield, Washington in 1927 and moved to LA in the 1950s. Kienholz came to specialize in what are called “walk-through installations,” a form of found-object sculpture that creates either an environment one walks through or a setting which one observes from the outside. They let us see familiar or even overlooked occurrences with fresh eyes, and often his intention was for us to find these encounters unsettling.
I was at a modern art museum recently that I’d never been to and came across his installation called “The Beanery.” This was a work he’d initially assembled in 1965 and it replicates a small seedy bar in Los Angeles called “The Beanery” that was a favorite hangout for musicians and artists.
In 2012 the museum undertook a full restoration of the work and it now resides in something like a large shipping container. Only one person is allowed in at a time. You enter through one end and you feel instantly transported into, well, a seedy little bar crowded with patrons—17 human figures in all, on barstools, chairs, behind the bar, and standing in your way. The accuracy of the replication is disorienting: full ashtrays, a cash register, and an audio track playing ambient sounds like clinking glasses and indistinct conversation. The artist even developed a paste that is regularly applied to replicate the smell of the place.
With a jolt you realize that each of the people have various kinds of clocks instead of faces, clocks that are all stopped at 10:10. It’s an eerie effect that seems to bring time itself to a grinding halt as it sometimes does in a setting like a bar. The bartender is the only person with a human countenance—he is the one who understands, and reflects, that time moves onward. You walk all the way to the back and turn around and see the door through which you came at the far end. Claustrophobia bites at the edges of your experience. You pass back up the aisle having to turn your body sideways at times to get through, and would not be surprised to hear someone say goodby and use your name. Then with jarring abruptness, you’re standing in a gallery of an art museum again.
For a moment, all other art seems to fall short of what you just experienced, what you were just immersed in; and that, maybe more than anything else, is the mark of great art.