Dreamscapes, Salt Lake City’s walk-through art project, is back with COVID-19 safety in mind (bye-bye, ball pit)

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dreamscapes, the interactive walk-through art exhibition in The Gateway, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Dreamscapes is reopening June 4, with new exhibits and an added focus on safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Derek Dyer was all set in March to mark the first anniversary of the walk-through art installation Dreamscapes, a pop-up that became a permanent fixture in The Gateway outdoor mall.

Then the coronavirus pandemic, and the shutdown of businesses and art spaces, changed the plan.

“At that moment, we decided that we would use this time to our advantage, and go ahead and start redesigning, rebuilding and re-visioning” the space, said Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance, which oversees Dreamscapes.

Part of that redesign was aimed at making the spaces safer from the coronavirus. Exhibits with elements that involved too much touching — like the room with walls and props covered in stickers, or the room with the Chuck E. Cheese-like ball pit — were axed. Exhibits that encouraged social distancing were put in their place.

The reimagined Dreamscapes has undergone a soft reopening since the first week of June, and is now open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), at 110 S. Rio Grande St., in The Gateway in Salt Lake City.

People who visited Dreamscapes before — Dyer touted that the Instagram-friendly installation, the cooperative effort of more than 100 artists, had more than 50,000 visitors in its first year — will notice some changes.

To encourage social distancing, and keep the space from getting too crowded, Dreamscapes only allows 20 guests in at a time. Those guests are admitted in a staggered fashion, so they don’t all end up in the same room at the same time.

Bottles of hand sanitizer are stationed in each room. All guests are asked to wear face masks, and all staff are wearing them, as well — even the performers in the roles of “dream guides.”

“We’ve been busier than we anticipated” during the soft opening, said Kat Aleman, a marketing coordinator for the Utah Arts Alliance. “And we’ve gotten no flack for the new COVID-19 rules.”

Some rooms — like the Octopus’ Garden, with the giant sculpture of an octopus formed from discarded toys — remain largely intact. Other items, like the giant take on a Lite-Brite board that the Alliance has had since the “First Night” New Year’s Eve events of years ago, remain but in different locations.

It’s toward the end of the installation’s maze of rooms where the new exhibits are most evident. Two of the later rooms, where the ball pit and stickers once were, are given over to an exhibit called “Mycelium” — named for the root network of a fungus.

The artist who created “Mycelium,” Alice Bain Toler, was inspired by watching a documentary, “Fantastic Fungi,” which celebrated the way fungi — mushrooms, molds and the like — are interconnected with all life on Earth. She was particularly struck by a computer-animated representation of mycelium and how it interacts underground with the roots of trees, which “allows trees to talk to each other in the forest.”

Toler said she woke up one morning, at 4 a.m., with a thought: “I wish I could walk through that. Wait a minute — I can build that.” She dashed off an email to Dyer, and the project was on.

Like all of Dreamscapes’ exhibits, Toler’s “Mycelium” is made up of recycled and repurposed trash, much of it left behind by exhibitors at events at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Dyer estimates Dreamscapes has saved hundreds of thousands of pounds of material from going into a landfill.

“Mycelium” isn’t, and may never be, finished, Toler said. In the second phase of the exhibit, to be done over the summer, she and other artists will add more roots. In the third phase, this fall, the public will be invited to “think about your own roots,” and write their thoughts on tags that will become part of the exhibit.

“It’s going to be a massive, collaborative, 3D scrapbooking project,” Toler said.

Something similar is already happening in Dreamscapes’ last room, also designed by Toler: the Dragon Room.

At the center of the room is the head and body of a dragon, made from fabric, papier-maché and other materials. The legs and wings jut in from the walls. On the floor is a labyrinthine line that visitors can follow, while thinking about the question posed at the room’s entrance: “What do you wish you had the courage to do?”

When one reaches the dragon’s head, they can write their answer on a tag and hang the tag from lines leading to its mouth. (There’s a bottle of hand sanitizer at the writing station, and clean pencils are separated from used ones.)

Some of the responses have been thoughtful, and some have been funny, said Aleman, who helped install the Dragon Room. “Some of them have been really emotional,” she added, “like, ‘I wish I had the courage to leave my husband,’ or ‘I wish I could overcome my eating disorder — but I’m going to.’”

‘Dreamscapes’ reimagined

The “immersive art attraction” Dreamscapes is reopened, with some new exhibits and lots of attention to safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Where • 110 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City, in The Gateway outdoor mall.

Hours • Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 9 p.m. (open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).

Tickets • $15 for adults and teens, $12.50 for children (2 to 12), seniors (65 and up) and military. Season memberships are also available. Tickets must be purchased in advance, online at dreamscapesslc.org.

COVID-19 precautions • Guests and staff are all required to wear masks. Maximum 20 people admitted during each half-hour time slot; family groups will be separated within each time slot. Social distancing of 6 feet is strongly encouraged. Hand sanitizer stations are placed throughout the exhibit. Group areas are sanitized between each time slot, and germicide is sprayed daily throughout the space.

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