A mythical character is blown into obliteration in the Charleston Harbor while visionaries hide out on the grounds of the Old City Jail in Eames Demetrios’ parallel world, Kcymaerxthaere. Meanwhile, across the Halsey gallery, circus performers breathe fire, walk the tightrope, and swallow swords in Paolo Ventura’s fantastical Winter Stories. The opposite of reality TV, these dual exhibits at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art blur the lines between fact and fiction, inviting the viewer to step outside their comfort zone.

Self-titled geographer-at-large Eames Demetrios has created an alternate world with its own characters, language, and complex plot lines. Described by Halsey Program Coordinator Rebecca Silberman as “public art,” Kcymaerxthaere is an ongoing project started by Demetrios in 2003, and includes bronze plaques, video, installations, and even a national anthem for this ancient, fictional world. Spanning 18 countries (“all continents except Antarctica”), from Joshua Tree, California to Kyoto, Japan, Kcymaerxthaere is an “illuminated manuscript” where pages have been placed in different locations. Think Lord of the Rings comes to life, a strange science-fiction story that leaves a trail of plaques connecting fantasy with the real world. 

This is the first time Demetrios has shown his project in a gallery space, and the exhibit, with photographs, maps, and a glossary of terms, feels like a visitor’s center in a foreign country. There are pieces made by African women who, after listening to the Kcymaerxthaere stories, created small embroidered squares. This is not an ordinary art show where standing and looking are all that’s required. This is a treasure hunt where the clues are on display to kick-start your adventure into a strange land. Working with local students from both the Academic Magnet and the School of the Building Arts, Demetrios created a stone carving that will be a permanent installation in the yard at the Old City Jail.    

With plans for 1,000 plaques, the Kcymaerxthaere project will leave Charleston and continue to grow. The elaborate story is occasionally hard to follow and demands the viewer’s full attention as an active participant, resulting in an upside-down sensation about the powers of imagination. Demetrios’ work asks the viewer to take off their blinders and see the world in a new way, a world full of possibilities. For local Charlestonians, the plaques around town are invitations to see the harbor as more than a body of water, and the jail as more than a historic sight.

The fantastical world of Winter Stories by Italian miniaturist and photographer Paolo Ventura speaks to the more recent past. Ventura’s large-scale photographs depict lonely, winter scenes of a 1930s or 1940s circus. But the photographs are the end product in a complex process that begins with a table and some wood. Watercolor sketches come next, and then Ventura builds miniature sets of wood, cardboard, miniature figurines, small chairs, and pieces of furniture. When the composition is arranged, Ventura, a former fashion photographer, snaps the pictures.

Growing up in Milan, Ventura frequently visited a small winter circus with his grandmother. These childhood experiences influenced his work, which is described as an old circus performer looking back on his life. Ventura seems to be experimenting with the traditional definition of a photograph as a documentary tool and many of the photographs have painted backdrops, or paintings inside the photographs, making the viewer aware of the artist’s hand. In “#6,” a somber man sits in a small prop airplane, the kind built so visitors could sit at the wheel and pose for the camera. The edges of the backdrop are visible in the photograph, reinforcing the playfulness of the artist. The images are somber and quiet but because of the dolls, they are playful too. The artist seems to be showing the viewer his tricks, letting us in on his secrets and the images become a blend of light and dark, reality and fantasy.

In “Before the Rain” #39, a lone chair sits in an empty room with a collection of scattered books and papers. A spiral staircase curves off to the left of the frame, and a large dirty window looks out on the rooftop of a dingy yellow building. This is a lived-in space and one of the more powerful images in the collection because of the detailed setting and the absence of a figure, eliminating that wink-wink quality. “Fire Eater” #63 and “The Sword Swallower” #55 depict traditional circus scenes, but the muted colors and angled composition evokes quiet, melancholy vibes.

A few of Ventura’s sets are included in the exhibition, heightening an appreciation of the artist’s complex process. A series of the preliminary drawings is also included, and are lighter and more engaging, as if they are not trying so hard to be clever. The inclusion of these works brings a greater appreciation of the artist’s concept, but reinforces the failings of the photographs to take the viewing experience to the next level. With all the work leading up to them, the photographs don’t quite measure up.

Winter Stories is a more accessible exhibit, but less compelling and thought-provoking than the alternate reality of Kcymaerxthaere. In both exhibits, the artists’ hands are evident and occasionally claustrophobic. Is it because some of us are unwilling to let go and climb down the rabbit hole, or because fiction is not as interesting as fact? In the push and pull between reality TV and alternate reality games where everyone’s or everything’s real and imagined lives seem more interesting than our own, the blurring of fact and fiction in Winter Stories and Kcymaerxthaere is timely. The exhibits push us to ask, what is art? Is it the artist’s complex process, or his ability of to make the viewer see things differently?

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