The King’s Mouth exhibit at ahha Tulsa offers an adventure in sight and sound, with the same surreal, psychedelic sensibility you’d expect at a Flaming Lips concert.
Imagine walking into an art gallery where people are waiting just as eagerly in line to participate in an exhibit as they do when they are seeing a concert or playing virtual reality games at Cinergy or Incredible Pizza. Imagine that the experience is creative, musical, bright, luxurious, and communal — something you can enjoy with friends, family, young and old, even strangers if you so choose.
That’s the charm and appeal of the King’s Mouth exhibit, an immersive, hypnotic sculpture and story told in art, music, and lights by The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, currently on display at ahha Tulsa through May.
If you’re a fan of The Flaming Lips, you may already know what to expect. King’s Mouth started as an interactive party piece that was on display at The Womb in Oklahoma City, where Coyne and some friends have been showing off creative works privately since 2011.
“It was like a party,” says Coyne of The Womb’s early days. “We would throw a party every three or four months.” There would be music and art on display, as well as people gathering for food, drinks, dancing, and hanging out, an experience Coyne likens to The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio. The King’s Mouth itself was essentially a cylinder at the time, where people could climb in and watch movies and listen to music mashups featuring other artists.
Eventually, the partying grew somewhat passé, but the creativity didn’t. Coyne wanted to keep his art experience going. And he credits a friend, John Lewis, a curator at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, for giving him the impetus to push the piece at The Womb into a higher artistic stratosphere.
“He [Lewis] came to Oklahoma City, saw it, and encouraged us to make it more original,” says Coyne. “Do original music. Everything in it is just original art, which for me upped the ante. Once he said that, he made it sound like maybe this could be something. He encouraged me to do the paintings. He said, ‘Maybe there’s a story that goes with this.’ I just started to make up a story. All these things, it does just sometimes take someone nudging you along, and saying, ‘Come on, it’s great, but go a little further.’”
The current traveling King’s Mouth exhibit expands upon that party piece. It offers a distinctly trippy adventure in sight and sound, with the same surreal, psychedelic sensibility you’d expect at a Flaming Lips concert. Standing tall and silver, a stylized face topped with a crown of shimmering mylar balloons and featuring a pink tongue made of foam beckons you to enter, either before or after you have viewed Coyne’s accompanying 14 paintings hanging on a wall nearby.
After you climb inside the King’s Mouth sculpture, you’ll don a set of prismatic 3D-style glasses, lay back on the cushions, look above you, and enjoy a vibrant display of music by The Flaming Lips, accompanied by flashing LED lights that are nearly blinding at times. The experience is something that doesn’t quite fit neatly into words and must be lived to be fully appreciated.
Every detail has been crafted, experimented with, and shaped for maximum effect, says Coyne, from the choice of glasses to wear (they tried 12-13 types before settling on the ones you’ll get as a souvenir) to the length of the experience (around six minutes; long enough to immerse you, not long enough to create long line delays). The music, visuals, lights, even the cushions inside the sculpture are carefully chosen and add to the overall delight of the experience.
“It’s an extension of things that I like,” says Coyne. “I think that’s what all art is, essentially.”
Like immersive activities, what King’s Mouth does best is allow you to focus entirely on the experience, sans smartphone, sans distractions, so you can indeed be in the moment. At a certain point, the lights and music surround you, and you feel like you’re floating, almost weightless. “It becomes this flow all around you. It’s magic,” he says.
Some people love it so much, say the ahha curators, that they’ll get back in line to do it again. “I think people like the idea that you get to go in there and do something with your friends. It’s an experience,” says Coyne. “When you’re in there with your friends, and they’re excited, and they’re laughing, that’s pretty priceless. That’s what you want.”
King’s Mouth has been on display around the country, to long lines of enthusiastic crowds. Beyond the actual time inside the sculpture for the music and LED lights display, the exhibit is accompanied by the paintings display, a book by Coyne, various merchandise such as T-shirts and toys, and the Grammy-winning band’s latest album, King’s Mouth, released in 2019.
The secret, though, is that the exhibit is, in a lot of ways, an example of the kind of experience Coyne himself wants when he visits an art gallery. And it’s something he senses modern-day audiences want too. “I wanted to make an experience for people to climb inside, but I’m one of those people,” he says. “I like the idea of going in there, laying down and seeing this.”
Visiting the exhibit is included in the cost of admission to ahha Tulsa.
101 E. Archer St. | Tulsa
Wednesday-Saturday: Noon–9 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-7 p.m.
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