Neon Abundance Highlights Our Lack of Substance: Energy Drink at Museum of Museums

Purple and pink light fills a a room with white walls, ceiling, and floor. Two translucent walls have large plants pressed against them, backlit by green, purple, and pink lights. There is a large, white, inflated oval in the center of the room, anchored to the floor by ropes.
Energy Drink, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy of Museum of Museums. Photo: Rafael Soldi.

All energy can be traced back to the sun. Attempts to undermine this fact generate imbalances large and small, enabling some of our greatest crises today. Still, humans mine and synthesize energy to power everything from our industries to our bodies, sometimes with absurd outcomes. For example, the human body is incapable of absorbing the lab-made vitamins in energy drinks promising to defeat circadian rhythms.1 These artificial sugar highs, both literal and figurative, are shortcuts that trade future resilience for immediate gratification.

Energy Drink, an immersive installation consuming the entire third floor at Museum of Museums (MoM) in Seattle is likewise an artificial sugar high of sorts: both a Day-Glo rave and industrial caution signage, or tropical sunset and nuclear blast. Artist collaborators Abby Dougherty (a.k.a. Neon Saltwater) and Brian Sanchez have manifested a space that transcends time and place in divine and unholy ways, with fabrication support from design, build, and fabrication firm 24HR MART. At the top of the stairs, viewers step into the 1,900 square foot space diligently rendered in a palette of white, violet, pink, black-light blue, lime green, neon orange, and cautionary yellow. It feels a bit like entering the open floor plan of an ad hoc home basement—there’s a place to sleep, to lift weights, to store things.

Neon Saltwater, The Bench Press, 2020. 52 x 50 x 48 inches. Wood, metal, vinyl, acrylic, and plastic. Courtesy of Museum of Museums. Photo: Rafael Soldi.

Within minutes, Energy Drink’s disparate objects blend to the eye, crafting a language of form and fluorescence, of light absorption and reflection. Like in a dream, I felt suspended in a scene both beautiful and incongruous, wanting to interpret its symbols. Highlights include: an extinct payphone labeled “exit;” a big, lonely bed; white plaster sculptures reminiscent of casted broken limbs; a bench press bearing clear acrylic weightless weights; paintings that would be at home in a powerful executive’s office; some triangular forms jutting from a wall like ship hulls; gym lockers emanating red light; stacks of pristine, folded hand towels; a large oblong marine flotation device tied down to the floor as if to satisfy some perfunctory code on the deck of a cruise liner; and ADA handlebars attached to the wall, generously dispersed throughout—something to hold onto. A looping electronic soundtrack created by the Amsterdam-based musician Palmbomen II binds these random elements with synth reverberations—the stuff of thrilling scenes that portend a plot breakthrough in films made in the 1980s.

However, no plot breakthroughs occur. Patterns of color and form ricochet throughout the space with choreographed abundance, hinting that it all might mean something. But from this abundant display of potentiality, no deeper substance emerges—a metaphor for twenty-first century dilemmas. This is the stirring genius of Energy Drink.

Brian Sanchez, Bent Out, 2020. 64 x 48 inches. Wood bench, rippled glass, fiberglass resin, enamel, dowels, and acrylic latex. Courtesy of Museum of Museums. Photo: Rafael Soldi.

Dougherty’s practice of rendering dreamy interiors from her imagination in 3D, then physically manifesting them achieves new levels in Energy Drink. Her misty tableaus converse with Sanchez’s sobering tonic of strong form and pure color, most recognizable in his paintings and now in a new sculptural practice. From different angles, each of their styles present a back-to-the-basics reminder of our primal relationship to light, darkness, and shape, and their hidden force in our lives. In Energy Drink, these styles blend into a third element that is both heavy and buoyant, depressing and euphoric—energy that takes as much as it gives. The pastel lighting scheme suggests the heavenly above while the vaguely nautical references signal a depth below. Time passes, the sugar high fades. Gradually, I understood I was in a limbo of lifeless material mimicking life: lab-made energy masquerading as the real deal. 

Energy Drink, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy of Museum of Museums. Photo: Rafael Soldi.

It’s difficult to imagine how I might have responded to Energy Drink differently had I first experienced it in any other time, not during the pandemic, just hours after the Associated Press called the presidential race for Biden and Harris—a victory as sweet as the reprieve offered in the eye of the storm. It’s also difficult to envision how the artists might have created it in any other situation. Their process was, of course, prolonged and complicated by the pandemic, allowing for multiple revisions and improvisations, like the barred false window added to the eastern wall. The bars are pried open as if by an escapee, questioning life as we once understood it and the weight of how we understand it now—a situation we couldn’t help but daydream fleeing for over a year.

For me, the best art experiences are those the brain struggles to categorize, as it does with Energy Drink. It feels like a hallucination, like the absurd, delusional, seductive echo chamber we call reality. Over the last fourteen months, when lesser impulses got the better of me, I found myself searching the “real” world for patterns and signs to interpret, a floatation device, something to hold onto, or a way to get the fuck out. But there are no short-cuts for this moment, no glowing potions to guzzle. There is only the will to create, rethink, revise, and improvise, as Dougherty and Sanchez did, in reverence for the basics, that fiery mass we orbit around, and all her progeny. 

1 Woolston, Chris. “B Vitamins Don’t Boost Energy Drinks’ Power.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2008,

Brian Sanchez & Neon Saltwater: Energy Drink
Museum of Museums, Seattle, WA
March 11–August 29


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