Sunday Herald: In the cube

Sunday Herald: In the cube

This Rubik-cube inspired gallery offers fancy immersive experiences

The facade of The Cube

Never before has my head swirled so much in a cellar door. Tipsy. Muddled. Unaware of the real world. Jammed with alternate reality ­— without a drop of alcohol. In the middle of the winsome McLaren Vale (45 minutes from Adelaide, Australia), I tipped my head to find a  five-storied, semi-spun glass Rubik’s Cube rising out of earth in the middle of a vineyard. A slightly skewed cube. Arty with a dash of daydream. By tidy vines were sculptures - a clay dwarf with magenta John Lennon round sunglasses. A red sculpture called Suresun. A woman in silver bikini and silver stilettos careened on the floor. 

As I walked past dazed with that overdose of quirkiness, the origami door opened. Suddenly, alternate reality mocked truths in my face.

Picture this

On the wall is a model of the d’Arenberg winery’s production area. Oak casks jutting out of the wall. Get a little closer and the reverse perspective strains the eyes — the images actually slope inwards. One sidestep and the imagery gets tossed to another tangent. It is not fright, but my feet got a little chary. On my right was a mottled cow sitting on its rump. On the left, a rusted refrigerator with falling wires and a peephole. A lady in black with her hair shaved on one side, goads me to peep through. “There’s a party going on. Everyone is in the 1920s garb.” Reluctantly, I squint through the hole in a refrigerator. There’s a man in a colourful shirt (with long curly hair) animated, guffawing amidst a raucous party. 

That loud-shirt man is Chester Osborn, the chief winemaker and fourth-generation vintner of d’Arenberg, one of Australia’s oldest/classiest winemaking family. Osborn, often described as the Willy Wonka of wine and habitual wearer of colourful shirts and brassy shoes, conceived the idea of the 15-million Australian dollar cellar/restaurant/museum/art space in 2003.

The unusual dream materialised into a half-metre-high model and recently opened its origami doors to the public. Those who knew Osborn looked at The Cube as a natural crotchet; others just dropped their jaws to the wooden floor.

That rusted refrigerator with a party-video playing inside its shelves was the first step into the Alternate Realities Museum. I gingerly pushed open another door to a wall full of apples, bananas and oranges; another wall pasted with pink and white roses. I could not see the walls or door knobs, only plastic flowers and plastic fruit-walls. In the middle were flagons with bicycle horns. ‘Squeeze and smell’, that lady with half-shaved head suggested. In transparent jars, strawberry, apricot, cherry were stuffed in. Squeeze the horn, put your nose and inhale the aroma. Smell the wine blend. One long breath and my nose was awash with punchy red strawberry combined with a whiff of fig and leather. One hint of wine in my nose got the teetotaller in me sottish. I dared not snort another banana aroma out of a flagon. 

I pushed a rose (there were no doorknobs/handles) and got lost in a tangle of VHS film strips falling from ceiling to floor. The VHS strip circle is so dense and dark that getting out is a struggle. Thousands of black strips nearly strangled my breath away. I wanted to run out, but could not. And when I did, a skeleton and a tiger head holding two wine bottles in his mouth accosted. I pushed another door and stumbled upon a 360-degree video screen with quick-changing art — morbid, playful, frightening, whimsical. With lights falling on my skin and the video rolling by, I wasn’t sure whether I was stranded in a paradise or the closest approximation of purgatory.

In Osborn’s wonderland, definitions were getting blurred. And I was still on the ground floor. More waited when the elevator dinged at the third floor. A motorcycle hung precariously from the roof and wooden masks occupied a white wall. Bright patchwork print sofa upholstery distracted the view of the rolling hills. On walls and tables were artefacts from Aboriginals, India, Africa and Asia. There’s no method to their nails or arrangement — they add to the hysteria inside The Cube.

A floor above, art is lit at the bar counter where wine with names as strange as Anthropocene Epoch, Stephanie the Gnome, Vociferate Dipsomaniac, and Cenosilicaphobic Cat get poured out of decanters. On the top of the twisted Cube, I picked a new word — Cenosilicaphobic (the fear of the empty glass). On the d’Arenberg website, an all-cap message on the home page proclaims that the Cenosilicaphobic Club was formed to support those who fear the empty glass. 

Where’s the door?

At The Cube, art stalked me to the washroom. I walked in and found a garden growing on walls. It is surreal. The doors are not visible. Small dolls are stuck amidst plastic flowers and leaves. I tried pushing a doll head. A flower petal. I never found that elusive loo door.

Inside the cellar of the 100-year-old d’Arenberg, I did not join the Cenosilicaphobic Club. I have no fear of the empty glass. My glass is always empty. I have never tasted alcohol. But the art, the quirks and oddities had me trippy. The Cube and the colourful Chester Osborn typify the d’Arenberg motto — the art of being different. Yes, The Cube is different. It can even get a teetotaller drunk. With its offbeat art. And alternate reality. Take a bow, Chester Osborn, the Willy Wonka of wine.