I’ve gotten lost in EPOCH’s Labyrinth more than once so far, after making four separate visits to the exhibition for various lengths of time. The virtual experience does the title justice, labyrinthine and dystopian in a way that feels engulfing—more The Legend of Zelda than an Ann Hamilton installation. This is the first time in EPOCH’s short life—it debuted in April 2020 and features group shows in VR surroundings built specially for each exhibition—that an artist in the exhibition has designed the exhibition infrastructure. Previously, gallery founder and artist Peter Wu+, who conceived of EPOCH for our era of pandemic, designed the exhibition environments, which allow viewers to either navigate at their own pace or let the screen shift all on its own. For this exhibition, the artist Amir Nikravan, whose IRL sculptural paintings intentionally mimic and riff on the visual language and flatness of Photoshop, designed Course (Expanded) (2020), the off-white, open-air maze in which the group exhibition hangs. The maze itself is virtually located in a magical autumn forest awash in filtered sunlight—a prophetic mimicking of our current orange-hazed and smoky skies.
Given how many galleries quickly rebranded websites as “online viewing rooms” after coronavirus forced their closure, the initial appeal of EPOCH is that it is a fully-realized online experience. But the gallery, and Labyrinth in particular, also poses more interesting questions about what happens when the structural and curatorial envelope in which an exhibition hangs is an artwork in itself. Other artist-run spaces have experimented with this dynamic before (e.g., Public Fiction) but Labyrinth, assisted by the particularities of its platform, strikes a balance—the engulfing, eerie maze falls away when the largely dystopian commentaries proffered by the artists exhibited within it snap into focus.
Leaves audibly rustle and wind blows around Nikravan’s Course, which is informed by a 6th century B.C. architectural glyph but feels almost absurdly postmodern in this serene setting. Once inside, there are multiple ways to turn down the often empty paths and corridors—this show is far from overhung—and the lighting doesn’t always make sense. I’d traveled through six rounded archways by the time I arrived at Jibade Khalil-Huffman’s forebodingly sleepy video Third Person Plural (2018), playing in a confoundingly dark corner on a screen propped up on scaffolding, lit from below by glowing orange smoke. Viewers can click so the video switches to full screen, and Khalil-Huffman’s world, in which rainbows wrap around icebergs and rifles, becomes the sole focal point. Christian Ramirez’s oil painting Bounty (2019), of loosely rendered fleshy limbs piled in front of a fiery sunset, hangs nearby, offering an unsettling dystopian vision that Dorit Cypis’ Friendly Fire – Epoch Virtual (2020) simultaneously softens and sharpens. Side by side on flattened grass sit Cypis’ sculptures, two miniature halves of an ancient coliseum (in reality, these are made from cardboard and just big enough to wear around the neck—”coliseum collars,” Cypis calls them). A soothing woman’s voice speaks whenever a viewer gets close, and—since I kept running into Cypis’ work as I tried to navigate the maze—again and again, I heard her ask: “Are we who may be healthy ever free?”
It is odd and a little uncomfortable to keep losing your way on the screen of a laptop in your own bedroom-office. But the exhibition, so defined by its immersive moodiness, lets that discomfort fester and float before dealing with it head-on. This happens most effectively with Danielle Dean’s Their Bed (2020); I could rarely find Dean’s artwork when I tried, but then, once I was with it, it dominated. With increasing urgency, locusts swarm a 3D rendering of a half-made bed with an open, glowing laptop on it, until the bed itself is barely visible. This workplace—isolated and intimate, like so many works in this show—becomes an uninhabitable, oppressive kind of space, a nightmare that feels all too familiar in this moment.