Nima Abkenar’s ‘869’ pop-up installation channels water into art

Nima Abkena’s 869 disorients the senses.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

869 Through November 22, by appointment. Reception November 17, 5-8 p.m., free. 1319 S. Main St., 702-960-3952.

Water is a notorious artistic medium: It leaks, jiggles, smells, turns colors and disappears. Artists avoid it, because engineering know-how only goes so far. Successful water artworks rely more on an intuitive understanding of water’s elusive properties than on rigorous concept.

Enter Nima Abkenar. The Las Vegas artist’s site-specific 869, a pop-up installation at 1319 South Main Street, stars a placid 16-by-22-foot pool at one end of the 1,600-square-foot exhibition space and two yellow neon lights at the other. In between are tagged walls, industrial flooring and a 20-by-11-foot plastic scrim. Painted plywood encloses one side, while an in situ concrete wall, scuffed and marred by the passage of time, runs down the other. Above the pool, two opulent green lights drench the space in a syrupy, chlorophyll glow.

869—named for the number of gallons required to fill the pool—doesn’t lend itself to a breezy look-see. For starters, 869 can only be viewed at night from the rear of the building. Once you find your way through the parking lot around to the back, you encounter a small, weirdly green proscenium at poolside. Disorientation is part of the experience—you can’t step into the pool, you can’t go past the rope, you’re not quite sure what to think about the darkened installation without a docent by your side. The docent would probably mention California Light and Space Art and Minimal Art of the last century before saying 896 is neither.

The longer you stand there, the more visual patterns and themes emerge. The pale-yellow wall, which doesn’t cast a shadow, is nonetheless the exact size and shape as a shadow cast upon the scrim. One neon light symmetrically slits the scrim’s center, while the second neon calls from offstage, emitting an edgy glow. Meanwhile the traffic on Main, visible through the front window, streams past in an impromptu video of headlights and brake lights. The pool’s reflecting surface mirrors layers of color and shape as transparency and opacity vie for the senses. Geometric forms throughout the space echo the geometric forms painted on the bottom of the pool. And that odd green light reminds that water is part of the natural world without affirming it.

The simplicity of 869 belies the highly controlled series of formal decisions that went into its making. By framing and reframing the viewer’s perception, Abkenar manages to reflect the entire installation in the pool, including the viewer’s own image. In doing so, he revives interest in water as a focal material and raises questions that potentially belong as much to physics as to art. But mostly, Abkenar creates an exhibition that lingers in the mind during the walk back down the alley and into the world.

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