If you visit "Infinitation," the art installation by Yumi Kori at the Center on Contemporary Art (and I suggest you do), be prepared to...

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If you visit “Infinitation,” the art installation by Yumi Kori at the Center on Contemporary Art (and I suggest you do), be prepared to be aware. Japanese-born, New York-based architect and artist Kori creates what she calls “nonfunctional architecture,” fantastic environments that draw visitors in, shake up their senses and leave them questioning the relationship of their bodies to the spaces around them.

Kori has created installations in Japan, Germany, Austria and the United States, and also has designed numerous residences and retail and public buildings. Her art installations reflect her interest in how we interact daily with the spaces around us, but her installations are deliberately unfamiliar and otherworldly. She uses limited, simple visual materials — electric and natural light, paper, glass and wood — in a repetitive way, so that the accumulation of these materials totally transforms our experience of a space. For “Defragmentation/red,” an installation in Berlin, Kori used a trail of red light bars that slowly and sequentially turned off and on to lure visitors through the tunnellike space of an underground water reservoir. “Infinitation” is her first installation on the West Coast.

Exhibit review


“Yumi Kori: Infinitation,” noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, through July 24, Center on Contemporary Art, 410 Dexter Ave N., Seattle, suggested donation $5 (206-728-1980 or www.cocaseattle.org).

Just getting into “Infinitation” is unsettling, and perhaps even a little dangerous. You push aside a black curtain, enter a very dark space and stumble up some steps to a creaky, elevated boardwalk that turns sharply into a mysterious, glowing room. You might stop, as I did, to assess the thousands of tiny, bright orange lights that spread out below and beyond the walkway. They seem like neon tadpoles, squiggly in form, arrested in midswim.

In fact they’re not lights at all, but thousands of tiny balloons, bouncing reflections from a row of orange lighted columns that extend down from the black ceiling. Visitors to this other world might now remember the installation’s title and notice that these cylinders appear to extend infinitely back into space.

The perceptual shifts are rapid and disorienting: Lights become balloons which become organic metaphors for egg sacs or foamy bubbles extending around a pier.

Kori invites us to physically engage with this transformed space and with our own transforming reactions; we are required to look and then look again, a process that unfolds over time. In fact, with several of her other architectural installations, she provides “instructions” for the viewer that end with the suggestion to “remain as long as you wish.”

With “Infinitation,” the viewer may not want to remain too long.

The original dizzying, wondering experiences might be eroded by the impulse to search for the mechanics behind the illusions. Or there is the simple danger of losing the awareness of our own reactions as the imperfect, mundane realities of the actual gallery space intrude, like the closet door that can be seen as our eyes adjust to the darkness.

And yet you may want to sit on the end of the pier, as the artist has suggested, and let the initial “wow” effect be replaced with a more meditative experience. During a prolonged visit, the space changes yet again, and seems to provide a calmer, more soothing effect. This now-familiar space encourages you to return to and expand the organic metaphors you may have formed earlier. And herein lies the difference between Kori’s work and that of other artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell who, decades earlier, transformed spaces using light and our own retinal experiences. Irwin and Turrell created beautiful, perceptually unsettling environments that were largely about the nature of seeing. Given time, an experience of Kori’s installation can generate countless symbolic associations based upon and yet beyond the visual.