"You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences" started out with a wish list.
There's a long list of contemporary artists the NC Museum of Art has been chasing over the past decade — names like Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff and the Japanese-born conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama. A show by one of them would have been a pretty big deal for the museum.
Finally, museum director Larry Wheeler gave chief curator Linda Dougherty a directive: "Let's just do them all together."
Dougherty took a deep breath and got to work.
"You know, Larry, bigger is always better, and we need to stop thinking small," Dougherty said. "So yeah, this has been a big undertaking. It's by far the biggest contemporary show we've ever done."
"A transformative moment"
Billed as "more than an exhibition, an experience," the show stretches throughout the museum's East Building and even the outdoor park. It consists of immersive and interactive installations by 14 contemporary artists, including Kusama and Cardiff.
Not surprisingly, the show has had a much more involved setup than the typical exhibition of pictures hung on walls or sculptures set on pedestals. The museum has been a hive of activity since mid-February, with teams of artists and assistants coming in to get their works into place.
One of them is Durham artist Heather Gordon's "Cinnabar," which took 13 full days to install with up to five people working per day. "Cinnabar" uses the museum's East Building entrance as a canvas for patterns made of painstakingly measured, cut and attached vinyl car-detailing tape. The patterns represent the elements mercury and sulfur, which combine to make mercury sulfide (or the cinnabar of the title).
"We started talking about the space I'd be given, which typically drives what I'll put there," Gordon said. "In this case, it's the building entry, where the outside world meets the stuff inside. It's a transformative moment, a nod to the museum and engagement with it in a moment of opportunity. It's an immersive show, so I'm sure it will get people to feel things."
"Imagine the selfies"
Gordon's "Cinnabar" isn't the only piece to employ fairly low-tech materials. Korean-born artist Soo Sunny Park used a cyclone fence as canvas with plexiglass woven in for "Photo-Kinetic Grid." It hangs from the ceiling like a cloud, lit by eight video projectors attached to eight cameras.
But a lot of other "You Are Here" works involve intricate sounds, lights and electronic configurations. Cardiff's "Forty-Part Motet" arrays 40 speakers in a gallery, each broadcasting one recorded voice from England's fabled Choir of Salisbury Cathedral. It's a different sonic experience depending on where in the room you listen.
"That one is an amazing experience, so unexpected," Dougherty said. "It tends to make people slow down. They walk into that room, see a ring of 40 speakers and wonder, 'Where's the art?' Then the music starts and it's often a very emotional response. It's hard to describe without hearing, but it's mesmerizing."
Other works are interactive or hands-on, and some put the viewer into the art itself. That's definitely the case for Kusama's "Light of Life," which "You Are Here" unveils as the newest addition to the museum's permanent collection.
The work — one of three in the world — is a mirrored hexagonal box, about 7 feet tall. Stick your head inside one of its three portholes, and you'll see yourself transported into an enclosed "infinity room" of changing colors and patterns. After the show closes in July, the piece will take up permanent residence in the museum's modern and contemporary galleries in the West Building.
"It's another way to think about works of art and understand our responses to them," said Emily Kotecki, the NCMA's manager of interpretation. "We assume emotional responses — 'I like that' or 'I don't get that' or 'I was so moved I cried.' Those are emotional responses, even if we don't identify them as such. So it's a way to stop and think, whether we're providing an experience or opportunity for a meta-moment at the museum."
Speaking of meta-moments, there's no denying that "You Are Here" is a show that's just fun.
Or as the museum's public relations manager Kat Harding puts it: "You can just imagine the selfies."
What: "You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences"
Where: NC Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
When: April 7-July 22 (closed Mondays)
Opening weekend: The exhibition will be open all night Saturday, April 7 with opening party and silent disco from 8 p.m. to midnight. Night owl programming is planned from midnight to 10 a.m. Sunday, April 8. Tickets are $30, or $27 for members.
Tickets: $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military, college students and groups; $9 for youth 7 to 18; free for 6 and younger. Free Friday nights for college students with IDs.
Other events: There is art-immersive yoga, an avant brunch, sensory art feast and strolling supper, artist talks and workshops. The Night Bright Community Festivals are May 17-18 and 24-25 from 6:30 to 11 p.m. with large-scale animated projections and food trucks. Check the museum's website for details.