Mona Kuhn: Experimental, opening Wednesday, Oct. 3, 8 p.m. at The Fruit, Durham,

Photographer Mona Kuhn is globally acclaimed for her cinematic chromogenic and silver gelatin prints, most notably of female figures and minimalist architecture. But after more than twenty years of exhibiting in contemporary galleries and art fairs, she wanted to try a site-specific installation at an experimental venue.

The Click! Photography Festival, which fills Triangle galleries and venues with exhibits and presentations throughout October, and the unique qualities of The Fruit were a perfect fit, as Durham’s favorite produce warehouse turned postindustrial event space was already amenable to innovative concepts not contingent on the buyers’ market.

Kuhn’s installation, Experimental, opens at the Fruit at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 3, followed by an October 6 keynote talk on her creative process at the Rubenstein Art Center. The exhibit is inspired by Kuhn’s photographic series She Disappeared into Complete Silence, which conveys a nude female figure’s tranquil respite in a desert. While such topographies typically connote extreme climates, isolation, and even danger, Kuhn’s images, shot near Joshua Tree, envision an Edenic oasis. Her illustrative use of light is the primary means of spiritual renewal, inducing a meditative state.

In Experimental, Kuhn employs video projections, vinyl installation, and other mixed media to build her photos into an environment in which spectators can contemplate and deconstruct notions of the self. In this sense, the audience is the exhibit’s subject, performing the work as a participant.

Taking viewers on a journey through a velvet tunnel into The Fruit, the exhibit invites them to detach from the familiar world outside and be reconfigured, as if they were entering a cloistered monastery. Requiring viewers to enter the exhibit one by one, Kuhn’s structure urges them to slow down and become more mindful of their existence, suspending notions of time in order to engage the subconscious.

One must pass through a large vinyl photograph to enter the first chamber, breaking the photo’s surface with the body and shattering the notion of art as a touch-free space. The image is of a triangle, which Kuhn says “symbolizes the ongoing metaphorical connections between heaven and earth,” a kind of sacramental threshold between the known and unknown that the viewer metaphysically crosses.

Subsequent rooms transition from questions of space to questions of self, particularly of identity. Metallic materials adorning the walls not only reflect light, but act as a mirror, refracting fragmented images of the audience. Kuhn is echoing Jacques Lacan’s psychological theory of the mirror stage, in which people recognize their likeness in a mirror. But the image they see is a copy—it is not, in fact, a real person. Thus, the mirror falsely projects an idealized version. Kuhn plays with this concept by crinkling the foil-lined walls, distorting the medium’s capacity to mirror a likeness. Underscoring that we are all prone to misperception, the mirage-like foil adds a sculptural dynamic to the room, a tangible iteration of Kuhn’s photographs shot in the Mojave Desert, offering yet a further layer of illusion and appearance.

Performance and installation art have long challenged the gallery’s institutional limitations by reimagining the very environments art should inhabit. In his 1976 book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Brian O’Doherty argued that the gallery is a controlled context for the art object. Its white-washed walls housing artistic relics are indebted to earlier forms of religious space used for rituals and liturgical performances: Romanesque cathedrals, Egyptian tombs, even Paleolithic caves. Immersive installations like Experimental work along similar lines, reclaiming the gallery’s pre-commercial origins in ritual, transforming art-as-merchandise into participatory, tactile universes.

This feeling of the monastery is clearly evident in the second room of Experimental, where the flattened, gold-hued silhouettes of six totemic female figures allude to Byzantine icons. But a sonic landscape of mysterious, suspenseful recorded sounds is dissonant with the visual projections. Kuhn is questioning human perception and institutions, subverting religious constructs that seem to offer stability through familiarity.

Before creating this installation, Kuhn was the curator for The Billboard Creative in Los Angeles, where she acquired a taste for bringing art into spaces outside of museums and galleries. Angelenos spend significant time in their vehicles, so the collective placed art billboards along the circuitous freeways. Like Jenny Holzer’s 1982 “Truisms” marquee in Times Square and Felix-Gonzalez Torres’s “Untitled (Billboard of an Empty Bed)” during the HIV/AIDS crisis, The Billboard Collective hoped to “stop traffic with art” by bringing beauty to the banal. Kuhn’s evolving passion for engaging a broad range of spectators in novel ways made Click!’s invitation an ideal chance for her to explore ontological questions of belief and doubt, complicating photography’s capacity for innovation and engagement in the Triangle.