"WISE BLOOD" Explores the Art of the Set

"WISE BLOOD" set by Chris Larson

"WISE BLOOD" set by Chris Larson

Is it a set, or is it a sculpture? When you go to see a performance -- whether it's a theater piece, a dance work, or an opera -- the set design tends to take a lower precedence over what the actors are doing. Sure, a set might gain attention in a glitzy touring musical or a splashy production at the Guthrie, but it's always there to serve the play itself. Sets generally aren't considered an independent work of art. 

However, a few Twin Cities projects over the last year have challenged the hierarchical prominence of bodies in performance over objects. In Christopher Schlichting's Stripe Tease at the Walker, for example, Jennifer Davis's enormous tigers placed around the theater often drew attention away from the dancers. Performers moved in and out of Liz Miller's elaborate installation, "In Which _______ and Others Discover the End," at Public Functionary earlier this spring.  Earlier this week we also talked to Pramila Vasudevan, whose collaborative piece "Every Other" deliberately tries to break down hierarchical functions of live performance. 

This weekend, visual artist Chris Larson debuts his own installation that is part of the immersive opera experience "WISE BLOOD," based on the novel by Flannery O'Connor. While the opera, composed by Anthony Gatto and directed by Michael Sommers, doesn't begin until June, the Soap Factory is hosting an opening reception for the visual part of the collaboration.

"Last week I saw it as a sculpture, this week I saw it as a set," says Larson, as he adds the finishing touches at the Soap Factory. Over the years, his work has been integrated with sculpture, creating building-sized objects like the one he burned down at Northern Spark Festival. Some of the pieces that make up his "WISE BLOOD" installation are things that could be part of his own practice, others not so much. "I've never done things like potatoes," he says. "I've never done anything that poetic."

When the opera opens in June, audiences will follow the story through the galleries as the performers animate Larson's created spaces. This weekend is your chance to check out the work sans opera music. 

"WISE BLOOD" set by Chris Larson

"WISE BLOOD" set by Chris Larson

To create the set, Larson uses a lot of forced perspective, inspired by how unhinged the characters are in the opera. He also employs live cameras, which have the effect of making the forced perspective look "normal" when you see the screen. In fact, Larson often used the image taken from the camera to adjust the objects. "I would build a scene, and then I would turn the camera on and film whatever I saw through the camera. Now I've been building spaces based on what I see through the camera," he says. 

"[Ultimately], I don't care if it's a sculpture or a set," Larson says. "It's just this world that I've created along with my friend Anthony." 

Gatto and Larson met in graduate school at Yale University, where they were roommates as they studied music and sculpture, respectively. "WISE BLOOD" is their second large collaborative project. The first was in 2008, when they developed a piece on Gertrude Stein's "Making of Americans" at the Walker.


"WISE BLOOD" the exhibition runs May 9 through June 14

The Soap Factory

Gallery hours are 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays