Fire and ice at Elsewhere on Elm

by Amy Kingsley

The sun had already disappeared behind the brick three-story building that houses Elsewhere Artist Collaborative when Christina LaSala, an installation artist from San Francisco, appeared in a rear doorway carrying a cooler.

She joined a group of about 10 people lounging in an alleyway. Some of them sat on unsteady benches, and others stood on the broken stone paving. LaSala set down the cooler and fumbled with a frame of off-white wire hangers fashioned into a circle, its architecture of intertwining lines reminiscent of a crown of thorns. Six tapered candles emerged from her supplies, and the artist pushed them into place inside the makeshift chandelier, which now hung at eye level from three wires that disappeared in the direction of an overhead fire escape.

From the cooler, she selected ice molds, hung like bent barbells from lengths of hanger, and positioned them between the candles. Soon after she lit the candles – an exercise that benefited from the apathy of the evening’s warm, humid air – and raised the light piece. The flame burned the frost off the ice, and beads of wax and water fell to the ground: Drip. Splat. Drip.

“Is this the grand moment when you are supposed to give your speech?” asked Pritika Lal, another visiting artist from New Zealand.

The event was billed as the “Grand Opening of the Zoology Wing of the Natural History Museum,” but was actually the culmination of LaSala’s three-week residency at Elsewhere, an old boarding house and thrift store turned interactive found object gallery. Residents like LaSala are invited to make an art installation out of the piles of material that accumulated inside the space during decades of ownership by eccentric shopkeeper Sylvia Gray. Her grandson, George Scheer, and his partner, Stephanie Sherman, operate Elsewhere as a nonprofit.

Inside one of the front rooms, LaSala had turned reference books open to pages of wildlife illustrations. One featured rodents native to the greater United States, like wharf rats and opossums. A window display showed world maps dotted with animal figurines.

But tonight’s show was taking place in the alley, a slip of open air hemmed in by low-slung industrial buildings and a chain-link fence. LaSala explained the difficulty of working with the wire hangers found in Elsewhere’s stock – artists are encouraged not to bring in any supplies and are forbidden to remove anything.

“Did you use pliers?” someone asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t have the dental plan to do otherwise.”

Time moves differently at Elsewhere, she explained. That was what motivated her to undertake this installation.

“I wanted to create Elsewhere time,” LaSala said. “That’s how I came up with using ice as another way of measuring time.”

The chandelier threw shimmering shadows into the side of the building as LaSala spoke. For the past week, LaSala had been hiding plastic molds for her ice cubes inside the downstairs freezer. Although the final product was intended to be a surprise, other regulars had noticed something afoot.

“We ran out of ice one day,” Scheer said. “And someone took an ostrich and dropped it into their drink. I said I think that’s Christina [LaSala]’s. She said ‘I know, but we’re out of ice.'”

LaSala, an instructor at California College of the Arts, had heard about the residency at Elsewhere online and through a student who had interned there.

“The opportunity to come and work with this kind of collection is very unusual,” she said.

Even though the objects at Elsewhere represent the life’s work of a single woman, LaSala said they are also an accretion of artifacts from the larger culture. Spend some time in the collection, she added, and you’ll find remnants of your own personal history. The same even holds true for some of the messages filtering in from the outside world, it seems.

“I was working upstairs and listening to this little radio we had,” she said. “It didn’t pick up very many stations, but one of them was a rock ‘n’ roll station that didn’t seem to have any records from after 1982. For an afternoon, I got to relive those lost summers of being a teenager all over again.”

LaSala, dressed in a floor-length black dress made from light material, wore her hair pinned into a neat bun. Before the month ended, she would be back in San Francisco, where the winds are too strong for an outdoor chandelier. Meanwhile in North Carolina, her ice crystals diminished and the candles burned down, and LaSala weighed a parting shot.

“Americans really connect with the ephemeral,” she said.

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