Entering the “Hello Meth Lab in the Sun” exhibit at Ballroom Marfa is like entering a bad movie set. It is pure fakery down to the plastic chicken hanging from the burned out kitchen oven—and that is why this show works. The exhibit is a labyrinth of assembled rooms, hallways, closets and observation platforms created by young New York and London based artists Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe and Alexandre Singh.
The installation transforms Ballroom’s gallery spaces into a psychedelic fun house of delirium presenting counterculture and addiction as if they were some diorama at a Natural History Museum. Astrological charts hanging in the entry provide a clue to the alchemical transformation suggested in the rest of the exhibit. Each room suggests a state of transformation—beginning with the not so subtle burned out kitchen all charred with the odorous smell of death. It’s shock value at it finest.
The next room features red carpet, white walls, crown molding and gilded frames with hermetic photos of the rich and glamorous involved in esoteric rituals. It vaguely echoes the Upper East Side apartment of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse from Roman Polanski’s film “Rosemary’s Baby.” But it also says clearly that drugs can be cool or drugs can be deadly.
From the gilded room one wanders into the seedy and hidden meth lab bubbling with concoctions of Sudafed, matches and kitty litter. The alchemy is clear, the transformation of these everyday items into the drug of choice sweeping across America and being mass produced in hotel rooms, apartments and houses in every neighborhood.
The exhibit attempts to channel the zeitgeist of the 1960s counterculture. Maybe it is the youth of the artists who were born in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s, but this is not peace, free love and mind-altering drugs—and possibly that is the point. What has been idealized is as worn as the shag carpeting and as stained as the furniture. Everything is dank and dirty.
The hippie kitchen with its jars filled with unfamiliar things, overturned and spilling across a table, a refrigerator opening to an empty room where ambient sounds echo is a strange place. Above is a geodesic dome, the ideal design for making more from less. Very Buckminster Fuller. And then beyond the kitchen is a ladder leading to a cramped loft filled with a jumbled collection of toys, clothing and a taxidermy fox. The exhibit made its point and this seems superfluous. This is just more material for the sake of the material and not for the sake of the art.
And then there is the repetition of the fox seen throughout the exhibit—a fox collar on the rich woman in the photograph, a fox tail hat. According to coat of arms research, the fox was a common symbol for the devil during the middle ages. Is it strewn throughout the exhibit to keep visitors on their toes? To remind them to stay alert and resist the temptation of alchemical transformation? It is a subtler reminder than the surveillance cameras and microphones that record and play back into that empty room beyond the refrigerator.
Hello Meth Lab in the Sun is alchemy. It transforms unlikely ingredients into a somewhat mystical experience.
Hello Meth Lab in the Sun: Freeman, Lowe, and Singh
Ballroom, 108 E. San Antonio St., Marfa, Texas
April 5 – August 3, 2008