When you arrive at Hap Gallery this month, the space will be completely empty save for a pair of enormous black goggles hanging on the wall, trailed by a long cord. Donning them transports you into an immersive virtual reality installation, designed by artist Damien Gilley, that resembles the digital future promised to us by sci-fi films of the '80s (think Tron).
Neon green and fuchsia lines, like laser beams, define the planes of the room, giving you the impression of being inside a three-dimensional blueprint drawn by an architect on hallucinogens. The virtual space extends 40 feet below the floor you are walking on, so you may have the sensation at certain points that your next step will plummet you into the abyss. Look up to find that the room continues upward for many stories. The 2-D screen grab you can see on this page will give you a hint of what the installation looks like but, not unlike a photograph of a sunset, it fails to capture the sensory marvel of the experience.
When you have reached the boundary of the virtual environment, a gridded wall materializes in front of you, commanded by tiny black sensors around the gallery, signaling you to turn.
Gilley developed the installation, titled Specular, during a residency with the interactive software company Dotdotdash, which coded the program so that Gilley could draw and edit the environment himself, in three dimensions, using wireless remotes in both hands.
Gilley, whose work is devoted to "investigating perception of space," designed what he calls five "events" throughout Specular, which include tunnels, clouds of cosmic star dust, and a wall that disappears after you screw up the courage to walk through it: Look back at it and it doesn't exist anymore.
Gilley's aesthetic sophistication and his understanding of dimensionality is apparent in his level of restraint. Given access to this level of technology, most artists would be tempted to create an over-the-top environment, filling out every corner with objects or creatures or ornament. Gilley employs such economy of gesture, giving us so much to navigate with so little.
If there is a line of people in front of you at the gallery, consider it part of the show. Almost as staggering as the experience of being inside the goggles is watching other people wander around an open space bumping into walls that don't exist.
SEE IT: Specular is at Hap Gallery, 916 NW Flanders St., 503-444-7101, hapgallery.com. Through July 9.