You can hear the music before you enter the gallery — an unsettling wail falling in pitch layered over another rising wail. The sound reverberates through the basement, provoking confused stares and curious glances from passers-by. They look at the black curtain and green sign, which innocently reads “Enter.” Some ignore it. Others accept the invitation.
Past that curtain, two hundred hand-drawn figures cover the gallery walls, floating in the dim, oval space. The figures are nude, humanoid creatures, and their cartoonish silhouettes are bright against the dark tarp walls, creating a stark contrast between the drawings and their surroundings. Each creature is unique, with extended limbs and outlandish features that counter formal anatomical depictions.
The installation, called “Thirst,” has been in the works since early August, when artist Vance Dekker-Vargas ’17 began drawing the first figures. Upon their completion, he traced these figures using Photoshop, then vinyl cut them and attached them to the green tarp. Finally, he used RGB lights to illuminate the space.
At first, the figures are bathed in blue LED lights and a blacklight — the floating creatures glow in the dark against the walls. But as that dissonant wailing builds, the lights flicker and eventually turn a striking bright green. Suddenly viewers find a completely different scene before them. Not only are the cartoon figures actually green, but the walls are green as well. The new lighting reveals this, and the figures dissipate into the tarp walls. Then, just as viewers grow accustomed to this new atmosphere, the lights go out completely. The gallery is now transformed from a space of movement and light into a void.
Dekker-Vargas was inspired by one of University President Peter Salovey’s emails to the Yale community, in which he called Yale a place of “creative construction,” where students should not only build but dig into and complicate the very spaces in which they create. Dekker-Vargas took this advice to heart, using the Stiles Gallery as both a means and an end, creation and vacancy.
Indeed, in “Thirst,” the beauty of the individual artwork is insufficient — the space the work inhabits is also “art.” The two cannot be separated. Even hanging on a white wall, Dekker-Vargas’ impressive drawings would still attract visitors, but his complex installation transforms what could have been a mere display into an immersive show. Viewers feel that they have dissipated into the gallery just as the creatures have dissipated into the tarp — the result is an engaging and interactive experience.
And it’s not an experience that’s only accessible to art lovers — it’s visually stimulating to anyone who enters the ever-changing space. In pushing back that black curtain, viewers inevitably become a part of the artwork itself, proving that today’s art is more than paintings of gardens or drawings of men. Today’s art is not only viewed, but experienced. And that experience can be had by all, and it cannot be defined.