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Tommy looks to be about six or seven years old. He's running, jumping, crawling, his red baseball cap turned backwards, his sisters bouncing around nearby. He's caught up in the moment -- just like a kid should be -- exploring mine shafts, scaling canyon walls, sliding down gullies. The moment is pure, visceral, but he's having a little too much fun.
"No running!" the docent snaps, once again reminding Tommy he's inside an art installation.
Rip Curl Canyon, on view at Rice Gallery, is the product of Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, two Los Angeles-based architects who focus their energies on events and installations rather than houses and buildings. With Rip Curl Canyon, they've transformed the gallery space into a playful landscape consisting of five twisting ridges made of 4,000 pieces of cardboard pressed together between pieces of wood. The ridges are laid out in vertical rows, like canyon walls, at the front of the room, and as they run toward the back, they twist off the ground, bringing the cardboard pieces from horizontal to vertical placement and creating a hikeable space.
All art requires input from the viewer -- it's a two-way street -- but this particular project practically begs for interaction. As you walk up and down the ridges, the structures creaking below, you can't help but wonder if the cardboard is going to give. You're actually walking on the edges of the cardboard sheets, which, tan on one side and white on the other, create a slight ebb and flow of color. Climbing up is easy, but the only way to get down is to slide on your butt, gently ruffling the edges as you do. Small flags -- diamond-shaped and adorned with clip-art depictions of a hammer, a saw, a computer and a surfer -- tell you where you can and can't go, although their placement is a tad confusing at points.
Rip Curl Canyon is reminiscent of True, False and Slightly Better, an installation created at Rice Gallery over three years ago by a New York-based artist, Phoebe Washburn. (See "Spontaneous Architecture," by John Devine, February 20, 2003.) Washburn also used sheets of cardboard to create a wave-like environment, but hers was intentionally haphazard, buttressed here and there by scaffolds, bags of concrete and stacks of tape. What Ball and Nogues have made is far sturdier, the product of computer models and precision cuts. As you sit atop the structure, surrounded by walls painted deep blue with an ever so subtle hint of green, you feel like you're somewhere in the American West, gazing down on the vanquished obstacles of a hearty climb.
But that's just the half of it. Underneath the cardboard ribbons is a mine-like environment, a subterranean world of two-by-four beams and small fluorescent lights. Four benches have been set up between the beams, providing structural support as well as opportunity for contemplation. As with any installation as seemingly gravity-defying as this, it's nice to sit and stare at the underbelly, slowly coming to an understanding of how the heck it works. You see the two-by-fours -- nude, knotted and occasionally marked with lumber-yard stencils -- the curved plywood and the large nuts and bolts connecting it all together. Even though Rice Gallery allows six hikers on top at a time, the whole thing still seems pretty precarious.
Maybe it's the seemingly impossible nature of the structure that makes Rip Curl Canyon so fascinating. Or maybe it's the usage of simple materials to evoke complex images of nature, or the complete transformation of the gallery space. But it's probably the way a little boy like Tommy has to be reminded to stop having so much fun.