In the warehouse-sized lower level of their Melbourne studio-office, Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney show me the door. It's an old timber one that looks like it's been salvaged from a Victorian terrace house, full of character.
Enter, and there is a vestibule with more closed doors. Opening them, you enter other worlds – chambers, hallways, parlours and recesses, each one plucked from a different era, with a distinct atmosphere and architectural style, art deco or federation, perhaps. They link to each other via more doorways. No wonder they've called this thing 1000 Doors.
The first space I find is a shrill hospital corridor lit by a fierce strip of fluorescent lights, and with an electronic screech in the air. I get out fast, not sure if the disinfectant smell and sense of surgical threat are real or imagined. Soon, I enter what might have been a great-aunt's house, an antique musty whiff in the air. Another nook seems warm and comforting, a further suite poltergeist-infested. There are more spaces, some friendly, others not, but all of them have their own personality and power.
All of this is contained within a large temporary structure assembled inside the warehouse – a room within a room. It is, though, just a prototype: the labyrinth is but a fifth of the size of the final 1000 Doors project, which will be installed at the Victorian Arts Centre forecourt for this year's Melbourne Festival.
As visitors wander through 1000 Doors, they may find buried emotions and memories arising: as Wagstaff and Courtney say, this art work is not about the doors but the spaces between.
Many visitors will have experienced their previous big work at the Arts Centre forecourt last year – House of Mirrors. That work – a sort of funfair maze of mirrored walls and corridors – remains incredibly popular, with an extraordinary 300,000-plus visitors as it has gone from its debut at Hobart's Dark Mofo (2016) to the Brisbane Powerhouse, Sydney Festival, Adelaide Festival, Bendigo Art Gallery, Melbourne Festival, National Gallery of Singapore, Auckland Festival, Bathurst Winter Festival and the Brisbane Festival. It is off to North America next year, starting in Toronto, and the artists wonder if it will ever return. It seems to have its own life.
When Wagstaff and Courtney last year commissioned me to write catalogue essays about some of their art works, it included a piece exploring their ideas for 1000 Doors. That was before even the maquette had been built, so while there is a sense of familiarity as I wander around it, I am intrigued to see what the much bigger Arts Centre version will be like.
Wagstaff and Courtney may have launched their art-making with House of Mirrors, but Dark Mofo aficionados will remember the controversy in June over their provocative installation The Crosses on the Hobart waterfront. Inverted, illuminated crosses drew the ire of a few conservatives who saw them as sacrilegious.
The artists had expected this and ensured the crosses were installed at the last minute. "It was very covert," Courtney says. "And while they got some reaction, it didn't go over the top. In a way it was great to get a visceral response. But I think they looked too beautiful to be seen as overtly offensive." Little wonder so many people, having seen the crosses on opening night, went on to dance at the Night Mass event, which Courtney has heard eloquently described as a "liturgical rave".
In 2017, also for Dark Mofo, Wagstaff and Courtney teamed with British light artist Chris Levine to produce a vast laser-light installation at Dark Park near Hobart's wharf. Massive, coloured lasers penetrated the night sky in terrifying, intense beams, accompanied by deep vibrations scored by Levine. It was enthusiastically received. "But I think we got lasers out of our systems," Wagstaff says drily.
House of Mirrors and 1000 Doors form the first instalments of a triptych they hope might one day show together on a single site. The third component, still under wraps, continues the slightly warped-but-grand amusement park theme.
"What we really love is the large scale of things," Wagstaff says. "I think Keith, who has a stronger interest than me in the construction side, is really a frustrated engineer. He loves the challenge, and the old-school mechanics."
Courtney relishes the low-fi, analogue nature of their collaborations and thinks this is why people respond so strongly, seeing them as a pause in our tech-saturated world. "The scale might be big but there is an intimate connection," he says. "We want to create beautiful things that make you feel good."
Not always, though: they proffer a perfume bottle used to scent one section of 1000 Doors and out wafts a dead, dusty odour. "Under the house," Wagstaff says, and that's just what it smells like.
If they don't find themselves reminiscing or squirming, visitors will at least be intrigued by 1000 Doors, which might put some in mind of David Lynch's atmospheric interiors in works such as Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: The Return. Or they might think of Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves (2000), whose narrative concerns a mysterious doorway that appears in the living room wall of a family's new home.
Likewise, visitors might ponder Sigmund Freud's idea of the uncanny in his essay Das Unheimliche (1919). "Unheimlich" translates essentially as "unhomely" and has thus always made a connection between the uncanny or weird and the domestic space – and the domestic features heavily in 1000 Doors.
"Some parts of 1000 Doors really might disturb some people on that level," Wagstaff says. "Some people want to rush through and find all the doors, that's how their brain works. Others like to take their time and wander. And others might find they are very sensitive to some spaces, or objects, or smells. There's no telling what childhood memories might come up."
Whatever references we might make, it is interesting to know the Egyptians, who were the first people on record to start using doors at entrances, did so in order to more clearly define the space of tombs, presumably to stop spirits entering or leaving. Later, during the Viking Age, "doors to the dead" were more metaphorical.
Our most ancient ancestors from pre-history, though, knew no doors. They inhabited caves and clearings or nestled under trees. All the world was open to them, and there were only demarcations between land and sea, entrances to valleys, forests or caves, and frontiers between the earth and the stars above.
1000 Doors is at the Arts Centre forecourt, September 28-October 21. festival.melbourne