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Lila Taff's Immersive Oases

The artist's immersive installation situates the viewer between a Midwestern blizzard and The Salton Sea.



Much is made of so-called immersive installations — works that consist as part of the manipulation of ambient factors like illumination and noise. But you can tweak the lights all you want and play whatever tunes you like; if the experience is boring, in what sense can we call it immersive?

Lila Taff, a graduate of UC Berkeley's architecture program, understands that immersion is not an attribute of a space itself but rather the way that people engage with it — and "engagement," she noted, "we can measure by how long people spend inside." Zephyr, her two-part immersive installation now at Hive Gallery, is testimony to her success in this regard: Once inside this enchanting space, you'll find it very hard to leave.

The first room gets its illumination from a series of light boxes — backlit photographs behind panes of honey-tinged surfboard resin, encased in steel boxes. The photos depict a blizzard that Taff viewed through the window of a train hurtling through Nebraska. The steel boxes do evoke train windows to an extent, but the progression of backlit images ultimately yields a more cinematic effect, like an old movie played at a crawling pace. The depicted storm gradually intensifies toward conditions of total whiteout, as the images themselves bathe the installation in a warm, nightlight-like glow.

In the next room, Taff has covered the floor in black-sheeted mattresses and illuminated the space with blue and purple fluorescent lights, effecting a cool coziness in contrast to the previous room's warm austerity. Two video projections play on opposite walls, each capturing a drive through the desert after a rain. Sometimes we see another car drive past, or the artist explore a dramatic landscape. Mostly, though, there is not a soul in sight — just road. In the way of soundtrack, Taff fills the space with William Basinski's Disintegration Loops — the eerily enchanting result of an attempt by the composer to digitize some magnetic tape recordings, during which the old magnet actually fell off, producing a sonic index of disintegration.

There is an analogy here. Taff's films take place in the environs of Southern California's Salton City, a remote spot that developers, marketing it as the next desert oasis in the 1950s, literally parceled into plots of land between paved streets, only to find themselves with a ghost town, for few came and most who did eventually left.

"It's the failed American dream," said Taff. But she quickly rephrased. "It is the American dream," she said. "This is one idea of freedom — to come, park where you want, and not be bothered by anybody." In the disintegration of the developers' cookie-cutter plans, a sort of unpredictable utopia emerged. And when Taff looks at her lightboxes, you can see she senses a similar beauty in the gusty, blinding buildup of snow. "I'm constantly reminded that everything changes; that nothing is permanent," she said. In Zephyr, she invites the viewer to enjoy a perhaps unexpected solace in this.

Zephyr runs through November 29 at Hive Gallery (301 Jefferson St., Oakland).

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