Born Again (and Again)

5th Wall lets artists reimagine its dimensions with site-specific works

Upon entering a cool little gallery in Emergency Arts, I anticipate a range of sensations. One thing I do not expect, however, is to feel panic grip my spine when my entrance triggers a motion detector and a whirring, mechanical, three-headed hellhound suddenly springs to life.

Fashioned from Frankensteinian, bargain-bin fright masks and a reverse-engineered, wire-strewn, robotic frame, Shannon Eakins’ “Cerberus” combines nature with technology. If you’re not ready, you’ll flinch (or yelp) when the animatronic chimera activates.

Flinching in 5th Wall Gallery is a good response. But I also end up scratching my head. Last time I’d been in the room, it contained a blacklit globule comprised of hundreds of thrift-store shoes that hung from the ceiling of an otherwise void space. The transformation is startling.

Within its yearlong existence, 5th Wall has established itself as one of the top installation-centered venues in Las Vegas. As such, 5th Wall’s interior has been born anew many times—from bisected yarn barriers, to artist Daniel Oshima’s actual bedroom (complete with stereo, lamps), to December’s gateway to hell guarded by a demon dog.

The gallery’s founders (Yasmina Chavez, Eri King, Javier Sanchez and Marlene Siu, who met while pursuing their art degrees at UNLV) encourage their artists to think about the space and how to transform it. Indeed, at the end of each exhibit-install process, the gallery enjoys a whole new life, one often unrecognizable from its previous incarnation.

“We’re an artist-run space, so we know what questions to ask,” King says. “We understand what the artist is going through.”

“We challenge people,” Siu adds. “We’ll ask an invited artist, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I think it’s good, because there’s trust on both sides.”

The 5th Wall curators do what they do completely out of pocket. They’re striving to involve the larger art community in the experience of site-specific artworks. And they want people who might not know anything about art—or who might not be interested in an overly sophisticated discussion of art—to have their senses broadened, enlightened.

A big part of 5th Wall’s mission for 2013 is to bridge the arts community with other communities—music, literary, tech. According to Siu, this involves inviting more artists from these diverse realms to join visual artists in exhibiting at the gallery and Project Space (a 10-by-5 foot extension gallery that opened across the hall in June). For example, San Francisco composer/percussionist Daniel Steffey inaugurated 5th Wall with a commissioned noise installation, “Sonic Trichromacy.”

“The growth in Emergency Arts has been awesome,” King says. “We’re happy to be growing along with it.”

5th Wall debuted at Emergency Arts in December 2011. In terms of dimensions, the 10-by-10 foot space isn’t much to look at until an artist installs. Early on, the curators sought a community space in Las Vegas to display site-specific exhibits, i.e., art that is created to exist in a certain place for a limited time.

“We looked for artists who could transform it conceptually, physically,” King says.

When Chavez and Sanchez left the gallery at summer’s end, the remaining artists brought in co-curators (and UNLV art grads) Hillary Price and Spencer Haley. They begin by celebrating 5th Wall’s birthday with concurrent exhibitions: 5th Wall itself will display work by artists who’ve shown in the gallery during the last year. Project Space, meanwhile, will present the curators’ collective response to the theme of time. Additionally, the Emergency Arts common space will feature art by Las Vegas visualists Noelle Garcia, Jo Russ, Jevijoe Vitug and Heather Younger.

“People rarely see these kinds of installation exhibits, especially Downtown,” Siu says. “We want to open people’s eyes to what’s possible.”

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