Grotto: An Alternative Reality, 2003. Installation view.

Bill Klaila


The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Gallery

For those inclined to dicker about whether or not a gallery installation is sculpture, Bill Klaila’s Grotto: An Alternative Reality would be a source for energetic discussion. This digital, interactive installation impressively constructs the psychological reality of a cave—or at least our notion of a cave. It has the entrance and the sound of a cave, the darkness and the feeling of a passage to subterranean territory. But, other than the space itself, and the projected images of geological formations, there is no three-dimensional object identifiable as sculpture. That it is found in a traditional, comprehensive museum may amplify the is-it-sculpture-or-not debate.

Grotto is accessed by a curving, dark gray entranceway. The inner chamber, largely created by technology, is activated and altered as the viewer crosses the cave’s floor, a pressure-sensitive grid of projected images of rocks and sediment, enhanced by the sound of rippling water and the movement of dim flickering light. Projected images on the walls of stalactites and stalagmites flesh out the virtual reality experience. It is simple but seductive: one stands, moves, and reconsiders the impact of one’s own movement, often in concert with others. Our physicality is traced in the dark to the sound of water. Our entrance and our exit shadow us.
Grotto is the product of three computers, the aforementioned pressure-sensitive floor, and modified video game software that synchronizes layered scenes and projected graphic displays. In the floor, these displays include the rippling retreat of water across rocks. The viewer’s movement also prompts light to shimmer and reflect off the projected images of the stalactites and stalagmites. Overall, the atmosphere is dark but gilded in a glow of topaz light, and the soft sound of splashing water deepens the experience.

Klaila has constructed an intellectually simple, but provocative environment that prompts viewers, even those with technological genes, to assess how this virtual cave exists in a fine arts museum. And, Grotto does so with great confidence. Its electronic underpinnings, recognizable to those who have grown up with technology, also compel the viewer to think about the conceptual make-up of a cave. What does a cave look like, feel like, smell like, and sound like?

While Grotto may be a one-liner in one sense, it is also complex. It does not seriously tempt us to believe it is a cave. Rather, Grotto allows us to physically and intellectually explore the idea of a cave. Certainly viewers understand that they not in a dank underground space, yet Grotto is associative and suggestive, extending reality in a way that causes us to explore the psychological construction of “cave.” An unmistakable sense of subterranean space exists—passage, descent, darkness, and humidity—the essence of a cave. Plato and his cave filter into our consciousness. Unexpectedly, this electronically generated environment pushes us a step beyond ourselves, a pace beyond our routine patterns.

Grotto is an operatic experience in its synthesis of visual, audio, and physical provocation. However, its pursuit of an environmental experience also ties it to Minimalism. The coordinates of time, light, form, and space are all critical in Klaila’s work. Although the environment is decidedly non-Minimalist, Klaila’s underlying strategy to create a sensory experience is not so many steps removed from Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-lit environments or Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. Ultimately, we are the protagonists in Grotto‘s sensory narrative.