Mankind has always built physical structures that engage with symbolism; abstracting our experiences through built environments is intrinsic to human expression. Beyond sheltering our body from the elements, societies have historically used spatial design to illuminate spiritual concepts, connect us to the cycles of nature, and help us grapple with the journey of being alive.
The Great Pyramids of Egypt are thought to be a tribute to the “primordial mound” that their creation myth ascribes as the creator of our entire planet, while the triangular shape is said to represent the descending rays of the sun. There are theories pointing to the pyramids being viewed as a sort of “resurrection machine,” with the various tunnels and chambers inside them designed to amplify spiritual energies in such a way that they bring the entombed royalty back from the dead.
Now in modern times, the architecture of Christian churches are all imbued with a larger, more nuanced myth. The shape of the “baptismal font” has different meanings based on its shape. When the font is circular, it represents eternity, but when it’s hexagonal, it represents creation and the six days God took to make the heavens and the earth.
The domes (qubbas) found in every Islamic mosque all symbolize the vault of heaven. Many synagogues are designed to have 12 windows in the main hall, signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. Houses of worship for every faith in the world are deeply steeped in structural symbolism that’s informed by their creation myths and the traditions passed down in their particular holy books.
I n today’s world, especially in urban environments, buildings and structures are so ubiquitous that it’s impossible for all of them to engage us with that level of pageantry and storytelling. Most of our dwellings aren’t built with any sort of higher purpose in mind—simple utilitarianism and economy are their guiding architectural principles. In ancient Israel, there was a directive that their holy temples, the synagogues, be the tallest buildings in the city. Now, our tallest buildings are Babel-esque skyscrapers that house our financial institutions.
This man-made landscape shapes the way we think and feel in our bodies to a greater degree than any of us realize. By design, it cuts us off from nature, spiritual holism, and even our innate sense of goodness and worth. The combination of our utilitarian dwellings, the messages broadcast by the advertisements that adorn them, and even the commodification of aesthetically pleasing spaces, all indoctrinate us in a delineated value system of worthiness, desirability, success, and beauty—much of it related to money.
And in response to this, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in transcendent spaces.
Over the past few years, pop ups like The Museum of Ice Cream, Happy Place, and Candytopia have taken the world by storm. Not focused on telling any specific narrative, highlighting social issues, or illuminating the human condition, these vibrantly colorful spaces instead center around an aesthetic theme and use them to immerse attendees in multi-sensory experiences.
For all intents and purposes, they’re considered part of the art world. But where the crisp white walls that define traditional art galleries help highlight the artworks they’re trying to sell, the visual overload of art pop-ups are designed to steep attendees in the kind of artificial beauty our society has trained us to value. And of course, there’s the appeal in how being seen in this space might make you more desirable — consumable — in the public sphere as well. Instagram’s entire business model is predicated on this alchemy.
Enter the new Cakeland LA: The Beauty War pop up, by Scott Hove. Slated to open March 20 (but by order of the City of Los Angeles, most venues, including Cakeland, are closed until March 31 due to the quarantine), the immersive art installation transports attendees into a veritable maze of cake, infinity rooms, and mirror chambers.
Photo ops abound, but unlike a traditional art pop up, Hove has designed The Beauty War to be a place for solace and reflection about life in these incredibly turbulent times. For him, all the decadent cake aesthetics are a means of societal commentary.
“The Beauty War has a lot of different meanings, but in the immediate artistic sense, this project is almost like a personal artistic jihad against a lot of other immersive experiences that are really falling flat culturally — they’re sort of what I would consider a blight on the LA cultural landscape.”
Hove’s been doing fully immersive, cake-themed installations since 2005, long before anything like Museum of Ice Cream came along. The first Cakeland was created in an Oakland storefront in 2009, and the spectacle of the installation is what really put him on the map in the artworld. But this whole time, he’s been making sculptural pieces as well, anthropomorphizing these sugary confections with fangs, or decidedly deadly accouterments like knives and spikes. His style has found a natural affinity with fashion as well, and there are real-life versions of the fanged platform heels that are used for the Cakeland logo.
More recently, he’s even had a partnership with Comme des Garcons.
Ever since his first cake fang sculpture, Hove has been drawing attention to the artificiality of our culture’s views on beauty and desire. Cakes aren’t found in nature—they’re made according to a recipe, labored over, and topped with a confectionary indulgence that can be poisonous if you eat too much. In the case of those heels, they literally prop the wearer up on a platform of decadence, but there’s a danger—a bite—in this to watch out for.
In The Beauty War, Hove is no longer just dressing the body, however— his goal is to physically move us on a journey through the dark and into catharsis.
“It’s almost like a house of mirrors, but about exploring some very specific psychological themes,” he explains, while putting some finishing touches on one of the pieces in the installation ahead of the opening.
“Each room is designed to have contrasting emotional states. After your initial entry through the traditional Chinese moon gate, you go through a dark ice cave. This room has these two portals, and one of them looks like the swirling snow going through the stalagmites and stalactites, going off into infinity. This is to prepare your mind and also your eyes for what’s to come.”
“This almost sounds like a temple, or a kind of ritual,” I reply.
“Absolutely,” Hove responds. “I’m very much a spiritualist and this is a highly metaphorical space. Passing through the moon gate is a representation of birth. Passing through that ice cave is a representation of being thrust into the cold wilderness of life, where spirits are broken, where you learn about yourself, so that you’re able to re-emerge as a stronger person.”
The Beauty War is Hove’s most narrative project to date, with each intricately detailed space serving as a chapter in his own version of the hero’s journey. The sculptures, the lighting and the shape of the rooms all combine to convey archetypes of the trials and tribulations we encounter on our trek through life.
“The Beauty War is going beyond super imposing dark themes on top of something pretty,” he says.
“It is more about the actual process of how the light and the dark forces work against each other while being in concert together. That leads me back to your earlier question about what The Beauty War is, and there is more than just the artistic jihad I described. This space is for encouraging the darkness and embracing mortality as a way to be able to really truly embrace life.”
In some ways, this is in stark contrast to the themes of some of his earlier works. Previous incarnations of Cakeland and his cake fang sculptures were explorations of decadence and moral decay at the center of our consumer culture. The darkness seemed more heavily emphasized than anything.
“The older ways of expressing myself are no longer sufficient,” Hove says. “But the older pieces, like some of the cake fang sculptures, still fit very comfortably in the context of this new space. The Beauty War has given them a new life almost, re-contextualized them so they have a deeper purpose.”
Anytime something is designed to be symbolic or representative of life or the cycles of nature, it has the ability to become a catalyst for gaining clarity on the past, finding confidence in the future, and even healing old wounds.
All that’s required is to personally reflect on your life. Fortunately, The Beauty War is full of mirrors.
Cakeland LA: The Beauty War is on view until May 31.
936 Mei Ling Way, Los Angeles, CA 90012.
Visit cakeland.la to learn more.