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IN ARTIST'S NIGHTMARE SCENARIO, A SINISTER SAMENESS

It's morning in America.

Father takes his morning constitutional -- 10 laps around the trailer home -- then greets his waking wife in the bedroom.

Mother lies on an impossibly narrow, cross-shaped bed. She's encased in a vast cocoon of a dress; Father cuts her free and carries her into the recessed kitchen, where they share a meal of rocks and bubble gum while their young daughter looks on.

Over the course of the next hour the members of this post-nuclear family will lick the furniture, wash their feet, crochet rubber bands and pace a great deal, oblivious to the crowd of strangers who strain to make out what's going on. Everything moves with the pace and logic of a dream.

Just a typical day at the "Skin Inn," apparently, though the wordless ritual above was performed in public only once, during the opening of Liz Young's installation at Hallwalls on Saturday evening.

The dream home still stands (through Nov. 15, that is), but its inhabitants are long gone. People who come across it from this point on can only guess at the purpose behind the chocolate-covered walls, the nail-polish paint job in the bathroom and the handles on the ceiling.

Then there's the furniture: a trash-picked chair and love seat grafted together like a Martha Stewart project gone horribly wrong, the cruciform bed looking invitingly kinky except for the vaguely slimy texture of its fabric.

Without having seen them in action, there may be no way to fully grasp either the unsettling function or the ingenious design of some of these devices, such as the pair of bobbing seats in the dining room that seesaw up and down when both are occupied.

In the opening-night performance, the image of Mother and Father (my names for the characters) seated at the teeter-tottering kitchenette passing their bowl of rocks back and forth created a haunting metaphor for the checks and balances of domestic partnership.

It was one of a series of powerful moments, the best of which came when the young girl walked through and around the house bouncing an innocuous-looking ball. Each time the ball hit the wooden floor of the trailer, it made a thud that echoed off the metal-paneled walls and cut through the general din of the gallery, injecting a welcome note of chaos into an otherwise somber, primarily visual spectacle.

There's a lot going on here, in several directions at once. Young, a Los Angeles artist who created the project over the course of a monthlong residency, has packed at least a half-dozen meaty ideas -- formal investigations, social critique, personal experience, art historical in-jokes and the like -- into her structure. Some are more provocative than others, but the resulting clutter bears a fascination of its own.

For starters, there's the satirical subversion of the rituals of everyday existence, carried out in the live performance with zombielike joylessness. Nothing particularly fresh or revelatory here; indeed, the very act of parodying the lives of mobile-home dwellers at an art opening borders on condescension.

At the same time, however, Young clearly implicates her audience in her sobering story. Except for a few brave souls and commissioned photographers who wandered in and out of the trailer, the only way to watch the activities on Saturday evening was through the structure's windows and doors, effectively casting onlookers as nosy neighbors. Even without a performance in progress, it's impossible to enter the installation without feeling like an intruder.

A curatorial statement makes much of the artist's intent to challenge conventional connections between architecture and the human body, but aside from the unnecessarily literal device of inscribing the names of internal organs on the floor, the premise seems to have been largely abandoned.

It's just as well; what Young has done instead is probably more interesting anyway. "Skin Inn" works in part as a feminist response to Vito Acconci's earlier explorations of that building-as-body business. Here, the artist manipulates both a welding torch (in the construction of the trailer) and a crochet needle (transforming the girl's unraveling rubber-band ball into something altogether different).

And there's no way to resist reading an autobiographical dimension into the work. Young, partially paralyzed in a car accident two decades ago, gives a unique spin to the concept of "handicap accessibility" in her custom-designed trailer: The sink is near the floor, and the handles on the crossbeams overhead allow her to activate yet another item of modified furniture, this one a trunklike chair on wheels.

It's a mobile home in more ways than one. Though the performance and installation are devoid of cheap sentimentality, there's something genuinely moving about the image of Young imprisoned in fabric that is alternately sewn shut and cut open, as she is transported in the arms of her fellow performer from one absurd device to another.

There is horror within the walls of this "Inn" -- the threat of confinement through repetition and sinister design -- but that's only part of the picture. Liz Young's work here is sensuous, smart and open-ended, like the best of nightmares.

REVIEW
Skin Inn

Installation and performance by artist-in-residence Liz Young.

The installation is on view through Nov. 15 in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 2495 Main St. (835-7362).

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