New way to see new art: Wonderspaces opens in Fashion District

Philadelphia’s Fashion District hosts the third location of the national chain, which sells the experience of contemporary installation art.

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Eight thousand LED lights hang on strings, dripping from the ceiling of Wonderspaces, in the Fashion District downtown. On a 12-minute loop, they flicker, pulse, swell, and change color in concert with one another, accompanied by a droning soundtrack.

It’s one thing to observe the dynamic installation “Submergence” by the U.K. artist collective SquidSoup. It’s an entirely different experience to move through it as if it were a kind of electric Spanish moss, or a field of swamp reeds, or an underwater kelp bed.

“It’s called ‘Submergence’ because they wanted to create this feeling of being immersed in light,” said Wonderspaces president Jason Shin. “Being underwater, overwhelmed by an ocean of light.”

Wonderspaces is in the business of selling awe. The 24,000-square-foot, two-story retail space in the newly renovated Fashion District (the Gallery at Market East until recently), contains 14 galleries outfitted with art installations. The interactive, kinetic, and time-based works are designed to surprise and delight.

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Shin and company curated works that normally have a life on the festival circuit, at international art events like the Sundance Film Festival, Burning Man in Nevada, the Southbank Centre in London, and the lantern festivals of China.

Shin wanted to bring them all into a space on a more permanent rotation, so people who can’t travel the world can have an opportunity to see these dazzling installations at their leisure.

This is the third Wonderspaces space. The first opened in 2017 as a pop-up gallery in San Diego, inside a massive 20,000-square-foot tent. That Wonderspace was a trial to see if the concept would work.

“It was an open question,” said Shin. “Really smart people were saying, ‘That’s not how art gets to the public. It’s gotta be a gallery, or sponsored by a brand.’”

“We can change that relationship,” he said. “Can there be a new way to deliver art to the public?”

Wonderspaces owner Jason Shin explains “The Last Word” by Illegal Art, where visitors can write down the last words or sentiment they wished they’d been able to express during an ending they experienced. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Shin’s model is to present installation art as a social outing, like going to the movies or playing miniature golf. For a $24 ticket, visitors can hang out as long as they like. There’s a bar on site. Shin says people tend to spend about 80 minutes moving through the space.

About once a month, one installation is swapped out for another, so that approximately every year the space is entirely different.

Wonderspaces continues to open temporarily every year as a pop-up in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Last year, it opened a permanent space in a mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Philadelphia location in the Fashion District is the largest.

“Sweet Spot” by Indiana bases artists Shawn Causey and Mark Daniell at Wonderspaces in Philadelphia’s Fashion District. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Since its inception, Wonderspaces has shown “Sweet Spot” by the Indianapolis-based artistic duo Shawn Causey and Mark Daniell. It’s a hypnotic work with a deceptively simple construction: thousands of millimeter-thick nylon strings of different colors stretched from floor to ceiling.

The depth of the strings creates an optical illusion: You don’t know which string is in the foreground and which in background. The colors blend together. If you sway from side to side, it shimmers.

“Move slowly, soften your focus, and let your eyes and brains adjust to the effect,” said Causey. “You become lost in that moment of looking. That’s what we’re after. That’s the state of mind we enjoy remaining in.”

“Sweet Spot” has been shown at places like the ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at the “Art from the Heartland” festival in Indianapolis. It’s now touring through Wonderspaces locations, giving “Sweet Spot” an extended life it might not have enjoyed otherwise.

“Something at this scale, it’s hard to show it. We’ve only shown it six times,” said Daniell. “You can’t just pop it up in your studio when you want to look at it.”

Another piece in the space is “Dinner Party,” a virtual reality narrative film based on the real-life story of Betty and Barney Hill, a couple living in New Hampshire in 1961, when they claimed to have been abducted by aliens while driving on a rural road. Theirs was the first widely publicized account of an extraterrestrial encounter.

“Dinner Party” a virtual reality film about an alien abduction experience by Laura Wexler, Charlotte Stoudt and Angel Soto at Wonderspaces in Philadelphia’s Fashion District. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The film is about a dinner party the couple throws to share their story with friends. The room at Wonderspaces is a long table with 27 chairs and formal dinner settings. On each dinner plate is an Oculus VR headset, through which visitors can watch the 360-degree movie individually — together in real space but alone in VR space.

The filmmaker, Laura Wexler, said VR technology lends the story an appropriately eerie quality.

“I have not myself been abducted by aliens, that I know of,” said Wexler. “But I imagine and what I’ve read about it, it’s an inherently isolating, immersive, ineffable experience. That’s that VR is good at.”

Wexler has shown “Dinner Party” at the Sundance, South By Southwest, and Tribeca Festivals, but because of technology limitations — each audience member must be given a pair of VR goggles — the dinner party is usually set for only a half-dozen audience members.

At festivals, there is always a long line to see the 12-minute film, she said. Being able to set the table for 27 people, for an installation that will last several months, will make the film accessible to a much wider audience.

“This is a viable model — and there hasn’t been a viable model outside the festival system for a lot of this stuff,” said Wexler. “It’s huge. I think it’s so terrific.”

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