If “Carne y Arena” was a film, it would be a short, harrowing one.
The touring virtual-reality exhibition, which debuts at Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace Oct. 23-Jan. 30, 2021, is a 20-minute work of art-meets-technology that deliberately bleeds comfort for the sake of empathy.
But, of course, it’s not a film, nor is it a gallery exhibit or immersive, Meow Wolf-style experience — though it shares elements with all of those.
If you go
“Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible).” Virtual-reality art exhibition running daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Oct. 23-Jan. 30, 2021, at The Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas St. in Aurora. $35-$55. stanleymarketplace.com
Directed by Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“The Revenant,” “Birdman”), “Carne y Arena” — translated as “meat and sand” — drops visitors into a hermetically sealed and often breathtaking world that’s built squarely on our own. After signing a waiver and passing a temperature check, masked visitors are routed one-by-one past an actual section of the Naco, Ariz., border wall and into a darkened room, where Iñárritu’s artist statement sets the tone.
The tale, such as it is, involves a fraught border crossing by Mexican and Central American immigrants into the U.S. It’s not all virtual. After entering a cold, white-walled room, visitors are asked to remove their socks and shoes and place them in a metal box in the wall. They’re told to wait for a red light and alarm signaling the next stage.
Other than metal benches and a bit of intentionally imposing signage (in Spanish and English, like every aspect of the exhibition), the only things in the room with you are a few dozen battered shoes and personal items. They’re supposed to be remnants of the people who came before. As it turns out, they’re real shoes collected at the U.S.-Mexico border, where an estimated 10,000 immigrants have died in recent years, according to signage. (U.S. Border Patrol estimates are significantly lower than that.)
The floor is cold, you quickly realize, and it feels as if you’ve become a piece of meat in a walk-in freezer. This will be an unfamiliar but valuable experience for anyone who manages to avoid discomfort most of the time. A high-pitched buzzing sound compels you into the next, dimly lit room, where fine gravel and sand greets your toes. A quiet attendant fits you with a VR headset, headphones and a backpack. (They’re also there to pull you back from a wall if you blindly wander too close, as I often did.)
Your first images are of a Southwestern desert at sunrise, and as a lifelong gamer, I was stunned by the immediate sense of audio-visual immersion. I walked around, examining the details and marveling at the design. At the risk of spoiling any of the experience, I’m loathe to describe much after that. But the seamless, 3-D digital environment you’re dropped into works hard to take your breath away, and almost always succeeds.
Visitors can experience “Carne y Arena” any way they want, but no two visits will be the same. My first instinct was to stand back from the people I encountered, at least until I felt compelled to comfort a 4-year-old who had an automatic weapon pointed at his face. I didn’t walk “through” any of the people — all of whom are performed digitally by actual immigrants (you can read their stories at the end) — but I was told afterward that it would have triggered an entirely different sort of experience.
In previous years, the 10,000-square-foot Hangar at the Stanley has hosted quirky, elaborate Instagram backdrops (“Camp Christmas”) and mainstream, art-lite exhibitions, such as a virtual re-creation of the Sistine Chapel. But due to the pandemic, “Camp Christmas” is online-only, and not much else is visiting Denver this year.
Fortunately, the Stanley was in talks to bring “Carne y Arena” to Aurora more than a year ago. We may not get to see the world premiere of David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar’s “Theater of the Mind” this year, but thanks to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off-Center, as well as Biennial of the Americas and other local sponsors, we are getting this U.S. touring premiere of “Carne y Arena.”
This is another major artistic win for Colorado. According to producers with the exhibit, the metro area was a specific market that Iñárritu and company very much wanted to visit after recent stints in Washington, D.C., and Amsterdam. The project debuted in 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival, and has won nearly every relevant award since then, including a special Academy Award — Iñárritu’s fifth overall.
Virtual-reality experiences at film festivals are common these days, and VR gaming hardware gets cheaper by the minute. But I couldn’t help thinking during “Carne y Arena” that entertainment and escapism is the least of VR’s burgeoning, ideal uses.
It’s apples-to-oranges to compare it to something like Broadway’s “Hamilton.” But like “Hamilton,” the way “Carne y Arena” reorients perspectives and shreds barriers is nothing short of brilliant. Driving home, I felt a whole new world of artistic possibilities and storytelling had opened up, with this exhibition as the bellwether.
“Carne y Arena” often brought me close to tears. Difficult to describe, brilliant in execution, and hyper-relevant to contemporary American life, it’s easily one of the most intense artistic experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not even sure how to classify it, other than “genius.”
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