Visual Arts

Repurposed Rice Silos Play Host to Mysterious, Surreal World

A woman on a swing, laughing, as balloons rise and fall in synchronicity. The drip, drip, drip of water on a cool, gray slab. The cacophony of cans banging together in an echo-filled chamber. A darkened room with strange life forms growing in glass dishes. These are just a few of the multi-sensory experiences found at the almost-renovated rice silos in the site-specific temporary installation called “SITE Houston.”

The Deal Company, the developers of Winter Street, Spring Street and Silver Street Studios, are in the process of repurposing The Silos on Sawyer, a project that encompasses 70,000 square feet and 34 rice silos from the Riviana rice processing plant. When it’s completed in 2016, the project will house almost 90 creative studios.

It’s easy to imagine the sinister whispers and eerie theme song from American Horror Story while walking through this honeycomb of circular rooms, with water on the ground, dank and musty odors and intermittent lighting. The exhibit was organized by the Washington Avenue Arts District and features work by 30 local artists; it was juried by Bill Arning, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and Jillian Conrad, associate professor of sculpture at the University of Houston.

Visitors are handed a map in the control room, and from there the surreal adventure begins as viewers walk in and through these 80-foot tall cylinders, each with a conical pour spout about 13 feet above the floor, with connecting pathways sometimes open to the elements.

Trey Duvall, who developed SITE along with arts district director Susannah Mitchell, has been named program manager of the district. His entry, titled “Passage,” features a 4,000-pound block of clay that, over time, will succumb to the dripping water until it spreads and morphs into its surroundings.

Several of the artists used the tip of the pour spout as a springboard for hanging their installations. Bennie Flores Ansell’s “1 dpi Lens” uses small disks of 35mm slide film strung together as a mobile; Claire Cusack laboriously bleached and dried (in rice) an unbraided marine rope before embellishing with fiber optic cables in “The Visitor;” and the team of Shane Allbritton and Peter Bernick-Allbritton created a light-filled piece called “Coasting” which involves vertical strips of printed paper drawing blue water from a shallow, rectangular basin in a statement about environmental decline.

Details from the silo reconstruction process are documented in Gary Watson’s black and white photography in a shared space with 360-degree videographer Syd Moen; her images greatly add to the futuristic look and feel of the installation.

Visitors are encouraged to walk through the cans and plastic buckets in James Eric Thayer, Jr.’s “Les Carillons,” transforming the space into a noise-factory, while Lina Dib’s “Pool of Sound” converts movements into watery sounds.

While many of the walls remain unfinished, a few of the artists have embraced the circular walls with paint, including Meredith Cawley’s urban decay and graffiti in “Travel Lightly” and Hedwige Jacobs’s “Woven Living Room,” which looks ready to move in.

And the swing? That’s Isaac Reyes’s “Melancolia,” an interactive swing with Rube Goldberg-style pulleys that move balloons up and down under a cloud-filled sky.

The artists spent months on the installations, and it shows. There’s a lot to absorb and experience in this multi-sensory overload of creativity. It shows best at night, with colorful lighting by Inventure enhancing this dark and mysterious venue.

“SITE Houston” continues through January 30, at The Silos on Sawyer, 1520 Sawyer, open Saturdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., 703-568-8380,

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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney