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Wednesday, August 29,2012

Enlightened darkness

Lansing artist conjures up top-secret Haunted Art Exhibition inside an abandoned schoolhouse

by Holly Johnson

With shattered windows, boarded-up doors, and white paint plastered over graffiti, this massive brick building — once a Lansing schoolhouse — satisfies all the visual qualities of a haunted house. It appears as if some demonic force, filled with equal parts splendor and spook, shot the building onto the property with a lightning bolt. 

Geoph Aldora Espen, 20, greets me, clad in tight red pants and sporting an electrifying Edward Scissorhands-looking ‘do. He takes me around back, where he removes a large wooden board from a hole in the brick, climbs over heaped shards of broken glass and then disappears into the basement. I take one glance back. I feel as if I am leaving the natural world and pole-vaulting into an alternate reality. 

 On Wednesday, Sept. 5. at 9 p.m., the space I am being led through will be transformed into a combination urban art exhibition/free-roam haunted house. Epsen will unveil his unique vision in an utterly illegal, mostly underground performance that will throw safety and regard for no-trespassing laws to the wind. He has a Facebook page set up and flyers with the address on it, but asks me not to mention it in this story.  

“If they’re smart, they’ll know how to find it,” he says. Espen is largely self-trained, and quick to point out that he’s no art student. (“I dropped out of art school after three weeks.”) He says he was inspired to seek out this unconventional location after being rebuffed by several local galleries. He says his approach to art is more traditional, and believes he was turned away because gallery owners thought the juxtaposition of his abstract expressionistic style with their art would be “ridiculous.” 

“I feel very strongly that art is objective — that there are rules and principles that determine a successful piece,” he says. “A lot of people get caught up with what feels good, but true artistic merit comes from technical ability. These rules are as calculable as those that keep the earth in orbit. It’s about achieving truth through expression.”

Frustrated, he began experimenting with live art, bringing his easel and paints (he prefers acrylics) with him to local bars and creating pieces in public. He says he’s sold a few paintings that way and been commissioned to do some work, but a true exhibition always eluded him. 

“Then one day, one of my friends told me about ths place, how she started hearing voices from the attic," he says. "I asked her to take me, and as soon as I saw it, I just knew. The size, the grandeur, the brick fašade. It┤s completely cleared, like a big empty canvas. That’s when I got the idea for the Haunted Art Exhibition. I had an urge to create a different realm of horror.” 

We wander on as he explains what will happen in each room at the event. Espen’s personal work will be on display, along with works from other local artists, mixed with live horror performances involving staged violence, torture and murder. He walks from musty room to musty room with a slither in his step, revealing absolutely no fear as he opens each door. We continue further away from the light and as we do so, I start to hear the sound of glass clinking on metal. I give Espen a startled look, but he refuses to acknowledge my terror. “It’s an old building,” he says with a grin. Right. As steps follow steps, the noise gets louder and I can only hope for the pigeon lady from “Home Alone” and not some disgruntled, bloodthirsty squatter. 

As we turn into one of the larger rooms, a wolf-faced creature leaps around the corner, shining a light in my face and screaming at me. He is one of the performers in the show, doing a week-early dress rehearsal at Espen’s request to give me a preview. (Thanks a lot.) He joins our tour, an inclusion I am utterly pleased with because at least we now have a flashlight. 

We venture up the stairs to explore dozens of classrooms, each with its own unique fragments of decay. Instead of broken glass, I am now stepping across fallen bits of drywall and ceiling, old mattresses and mangled wires. He has a vision for every room on each of the four floors. Some will be filled with art, others with performers, many with nothing at all. 

“It’s the element of surprise that is the most exciting part,” Espen said. “You will never know what’s waiting for you.” 

When asked about potential law enforcement interference, Espen doesn’t appear concerned, saying he would greet them with a smile and obey their commands, if needed. 

“I’ve been trying to contact the city to see if I can do this legally, but no one seems to know anything,” he says. “Almost every day for the last month I’ve put in work trying to figure out who owns the building. Oh well.” 

As he wraps up the tour, Espen hints at a planned piece at the Capitol that could very well get him arrested for vandalism (albeit of the non-permanent variety, but you know cops). We step back outside into the light, and all apprehension leaves me. That really wasn’t so bad now, was it? But then Espen quickly ducks back inside for something, and I stay firmly planted. 

No more for me, thanks. I need to sleep tonight.  

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