“Hello Meth Lab in the Sun”

Is it better to have seen—experienced might be more appropriate—the work of Mike Nelson, Christoph Büchel, or Gregor Schneider prior to encountering Hello Meth Lab in the Sun? In one way, yes, since those artists provide a context for this (relatively) new breed of installation art in which galleries and other spaces are transformed into labyrinthine, hyperrealist fun houses. As with Büchel’s and Nelson’s works, Meth Lab looked like an assortment of abandoned spaces, but the chambers were actually constructed from scratch by Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh (and a bevy of assistants), albeit with found objects and fixtures. Similarly, they draw on the vocabulary of Kurt Schwitters, Surrealist exhibition design, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Ed and Nancy Kienholz. (Marfa itself feels like an appropriate location for Meth Lab, as the west Texas outpost for Donald Judd’s own form of the site-specific mega-installation has spiraled into a kind of art theme park.)

To experience Meth Lab, you moved past an unmanned motel-type check-in counter (behind which was a bulletin board papered with zodiac charts), through a hallway and then a room decorated with cheap wallpaper and stained carpeting, and into a fire-blackened kitchen. After that, you came upon another dingy passageway and two windows, one looking into a dim terrarium with cacti and artificial flora, the other into a fluorescent-lit, white-paneled chamber—reminiscent of a cheap retail store—populated with mannequin-like heads wearing wigs slathered with plaster and sprinkled with cat litter, a material used to absorb gas by-products in actual meth labs.

From there you entered the meth lab proper: a table with tubing and glass spheres eerily lit from below and piles of cold-medicine boxes (pseudoephedrine being a primary ingredient of methamphetamine) fabricated by the artists, giant stacks of magazines, a lofted area displaying a collage of Fangoria magazine tear sheets, and other visuals that gave the look of chaos and clutter. You subsequently entered a sleek space with red carpeting and white walls, a gallery hung with black-and-white photographs of anonymous people holding crystals before their faces. Then into the “hippie kitchen” and “hippie pantry,” a homespun, woodsy environment with a geodesic ceiling, and finally, you stepped through a backless refrigerator into a “normal” white-walled, concrete-floored gallery space, where, if all was functioning (it wasn’t when I was there), you could have heard anything you’d said during your visit, recorded with a time-delay, played back over speakers.

The work was grand and ambitious. In many ways, installations like this are a new generation’s version of Earthworks, in that they circumvent the stultifying properties of the white cube and invoke aspects of the sublime, with its overtones of vastness, terror, and awe. (Similarly, they cost a lot to produce.)

The downside of being familiar with the work of Nelson, Büchel, et al., however, is that Meth Lab registered as a textbook rendition of the genre, complete with torched-flophouse elements and old-school countercultural references (illicit drugs, astrology, the occult) presented in a fairly unexamined way. The work functioned as a kind of deadpan, walk-in realism. Virtuosity and gigantism were its primary attributes. In contrast to a haunted house (the form from which these installations liberally borrow), Meth Lab suggested fear, anxiety, paranoia, and intoxication from a comfortable, almost academic remove. These artists, unlike Nelson and Büchel, don’t attempt to get “political”—although you could get Marxist about the practice of fabricating an expensive facsimile of down-rent environs for “aesthetic” consumption. Instead, Meth Lab collapsed the old triad of transgressivity—sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—into a cliché fit for family viewing and made you ponder the future prospects for this spectacle-heavy format, which, even in its infancy, feels plagued with stylistic tics and repetitions.

Martha Schwendener