Parts Seen Within the Background of the Whole" plays off every inch of ceiling, floor, and walls of the University of Memphis Art Museum's main gallery. It's a bravura exploration of space, light, and perception, where the ceiling has turned into a sky filled with the cosmos and the floor has opened up and plunges our point of view down 24 feet.
Architect Coleman Coker and his associates at buildingstudio draw us into a worldview informed by Eastern mysticism, quantum-field theory, and early Greek philosophy, including Parmenides' assertion that "Undifferentiated being is the ultimate reality" and Aristotle's belief that "Nature is active with a life of its own -- as things in our world spring forth constant and unending."
Coker and his team, in collaboration with U of M art and architecture students, built their ideas with the simplest of materials. Forty black rectangular columns are each topped by a five-gallon glass container half-filled with water. A lamp, placed underneath, shines through the water, through the beveled glass, and through the narrow throats of the bottles. The lamps cast images across the ceiling of the gallery, transforming it into radiating circles of light and dark that read as candlelight, coronas, and partially eclipsed solar bodies.
Depending on the vantage point, the five rows of eight lighted columns take on different forms. From the museum's entranceway, they look like golden-domed mosques and minarets. Glimpsed from the walkway on the second floor, they appear as black-robed novices involved in a rite of passage. Walk through them and they become a black-columned temple. Or they could be a golden-helmeted regiment, which is lined up in front of a long, slender reflecting pool parallel to the right gallery wall. In the pool's fathomless black waters are clues regarding the power that the regiment protects and the temple honors.
If you stand in the front line with these nearly six-foot-tall monoliths, straight ahead you'll see pitch-blackness. Reflected to the right is a blank slate, but to the left, the pool's surface reflects the two ancient statues that guard the entrance to the museum's Egyptian collection. These Sakhmets also once stood in regimented lines guarding the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BC). According to Egyptian mythology, Sakhmet destroyed humans for their disobedience.
Break rank with the sentinels and walk around to the far side of the reflecting pool (thereby, challenging protocol) and the universe of "Parts Seen" is again transformed. The blank tablet and ancient disciplinarians disappear. On this side, the pool's surface inverts the 24-foot-ceiling/cosmos and appears to plunge it into the gallery floor. In one of the exhibit's most moving touches, the ceiling's radiating rings of light and dark read as orbits of electrons spinning deep in the earth.
Shadowy and amorphous shapes are projected across the entire length and width of the far-right wall next to the reflecting pool. The seamlessly flowing forms shift your perception from macrocosm to microcosm, and you may find yourself experiencing what Coker has described in interviews and essays as "universe and mind in one ever-flowing movement -- part of an overarching enormous field of energy."
Behind the main gallery in a separate room, the students put together a second installation consisting of three large plastic sheets. They positioned lights at different levels and angles to shine through the plastic and demonstrate light's permeability. This part of the exhibit serves as a contrast to the installation in the main gallery. Taken together, the two pieces confirm that this is both a quantum-physical and a material world. As much as the glass and water of Coker's work manipulates light for a number of mind-bending effects, the students' wrinkled, almost-opaque sheets stifle it to the same degree.
As you leave, one last glance at the installation reveals that the lights have now become lanterns that softly illuminate the reflecting pool, with a backdrop of clouds flowing across a night sky. Here is a Japanese Serenity Garden at midnight and more proof of an unbounded creativity in one of the most compelling works of art seen in Memphis in a very long time. n
"Parts Seen Within the Background of the Whole: buildingstudio + Coleman Coker" at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis through April 16th