DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

 

1. INTRODUCTION the museum problem

Installation art came to the fore in the 1990s as a major movement in postmodern art. It took over the lead from the previously dominant style of postmodern appropriation (e.g. Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Victor Burgin, Imants Tillers, Jeff Koons). Video art also experienced a similar shift to the forefront; but if we examine the major commentaries on contemporary installation art (Bishop 2005; Rosenthal 2003; De Oliveira et al. 2003; De Oliveira et al. 1991), it becomes apparent that what is being referred to as installation art is primarily ‘expanded sculpture’ in the vein described by Rosalind Krauss in her essay ‘Sculpture in an Expanded Field’ (1979). More specifically it is, in most instances, gallery-bound expanded sculpture. Video installation is mentioned in the current commentaries on installation art but never in great depth. This is understandable because the main breakthrough developed in video art in the 1990s was multi-screen editing; mainly articulated via flat, rather than sculptural, screen configurations. If the most fundamental definition of installation is the creation of a work of art that one can walk into, then two-dimensional video art should not be referred to as installation. On the other hand immersion is also a key feature of installation art and during the course of this book numerous references will be made to the ways in which flat screen art can captivate the viewer by means of narrative immersion. Furthermore, interactive video art intensifies the immersive effect even when presented on a flat screen due to the involvement of the body as well as vision. This effect is exemplified by Jeffrey Shaw’s pioneering digital interactive art work Legible City, 1989, (with Dirk Groeneveld).

Another salient feature of installation art is that it is not new. The historical predecessors of contemporary installation are numerous, but not so concentrated as to constitute a ‘movement’—as became the case in installationism of the 1990s. In her excellent critical history of installation art Claire Bishop suggests that contemporary installationism can be traced back to radical art of the 1960s (Bishop 2005: 10) and even further if one includes preliminary gestures in the domain of Dada and Surrealism.

Whereas Bishop’s history of installation art traces what she frames as the evolution of a new form of art, akin to performance art or land art (another mode of expanded sculpture), the approach taken here will be different. This analysis will propose a complementary historical contextualisation that will interrogate contemporary installation art in the context of the evolution of an aesthetic discourse that can be traced back, not simply to isolated instances of Dada and Surrealist art, but to the very heart of the aesthetic philosophy motivating these movements. Which is to say, we will examine not only the physical characteristics of installation art but also the ideas and values motivating this mode of expression. In so doing we will be able to move beyond the current focus on sculptural installation art and confront this, now canonical, form with its competition in the shape of digital interactive installation art—which is sadly neglected in the current body of literature on installation art. In addition, the concluding chapter will examine alternatives to gallery-bound installation art offered by modes of artistic practice that take place in the context of everyday life. The relevance of such incursions into the everyday will become apparent in the course of this introductory chapter.

Three fundamental features can be extrapolated from Bishop’s comprehensive historical analysis of installation art: first, the aspiration to create a more direct involvement between the viewer and the work of art; second, the observation that installation art presents the viewer with fragments that must be explored and assembled in a manner that ‘activates’ the viewer; and, third, the expanded sculptural (Krauss 1979) tactic of deconstructing the traditional concept of the precious work of art via the use of found objects and materials. What is significant is that if we put these three key facets together we have a set of features that parallel aspects of the landmark Frankfurt School-inspired analysis of radical avant-gardist art provided by Peter Bürger in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984 orig. 1974).

The first half of the twentieth century is marked by three major artistic discourses: expressionism, abstraction and a third discourse, that currently has no umbrella term but was initiated by Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. It is the third discourse that Bürger treats in Theory of the Avant-Garde. Moreover, he makes the highly productive observation that radical avant-gardist art of the 1960s—which Bishop, convincingly, points to as the foundation for contemporary installation art—was inspired primarily by the transgressive aesthetics pioneered by Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism.

Bürger’s analysis identifies various pertinent features of this unnamed third discourse. These can be condensed into three features: Firstly, the deconstruction of the traditional concept of the precious work of art via the use of poor materials and found objects. Secondly, a desire to integrate art with everyday life that entails a critical stance towards the elitism of institutionalised art. Thirdly, the creation of fragmented (‘nonorganic’) texts via strategies such as montage and chance that encourage the reader to engage in the creative process.  Essentially, Bürger’s analysis suggests that significant aspects evident in Bishop’s detailed history of installation art can be traced back beyond the 1960s into the early twentieth century.

Parallels between Bishop’s comprehensive critical history of installation art and Bürger’s landmark analysis of deconstructive art lead to the contention that installation art should be considered in a broader aesthetic-historical framework than that put forward in Bishop’s analysis. Doing so, however, will require some adjustment of the current art historical nomenclature. Bürger refers to the aesthetic discourse he identified as ‘avant-gardism’ but that is much too vague a term because virtually all major forms of fine art produced since 1900 can be encompassed by it. Currently there is no accepted terminology akin to that of ‘abstraction’ or ‘expressionism’ that can label the third discourse delineated in Bürger’s analysis.

In the 1980s art theorists experimented with terms such as the ‘antiaesthetic’ (Foster 1983) and ‘transgressive art’, but these labels never attained the generic scope of the terms ‘abstraction’ and ‘expressionism’.  Similarly even the promising term ‘postmodern art’ that dominated discussions of art during the 1980s gave way at the turn of the millennium to a somewhat feeble recourse to the now historical term ‘conceptual art’.

For the purposes of this book the term ‘deconstructive art’ will be adopted to label the aesthetic discourse so succinctly delineated by Bürger. Once we locate contemporary installation art within this discourse we can trace its genealogy. Deconstructive art began with the ‘transgressive’ aesthetics of Duchamp, Dada and Surrrealism; this was its first generation. It evolved further in the second half of the twentieth century via the mosaic of elaborations evident in art of the 1960s, such as: Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Arte Povera, Land Art, Performance Art, and Conceptual Art. The third generation of deconstructive art emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s with the postmodern appropriation movement (e.g. Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, David Salle, Hans Haacke, Victor Burgin, and Imants Tillers). Elements of all three generations of deconstructive art are evident in its most recent manifestation in the form of contemporary installation art—which in view of its movement status might also be termed ‘installationism’.

According to this historical analysis the installation art movement that arose in the 1990s, and continues into the first decade of the new millennium, is the most recent manifestation of a nonagenarian (ninety year-old) aesthetic. We are no longer speaking here of the shock of the new, but of an ‘eternal return’ of certain aesthetic obsessions that have been adumbrated above.

A crucial distinction between deconstructive art in the first half and the second half of the twentieth century concerns the fact that in the first half of the century deconstructive art was a force, but not a pre-eminent force. At that time the prevailing discourse was the classical modernism of De Stijl, Constructivism and the Bauhaus and their powerful, and socially-relevant, interconnectedness with architecture and design.

In contrast, following the onslaught of transgressive art practices during the 1960s, deconstructive art became the dominant artistic discourse, toppling abstraction from its half century of aesthetic hegemony; and with it the productive liaison with architecture and design. This is a very significant development because it leads to Peter Bürger’s proposition that deconstructive art becomes in turn deconstructed. His argument is that deconstructive art begins as a transgressive force (‘anti-art’), pulling apart the traditional concept of the work of art as precious and eternal; subverting the falseness of harmonious composition; critiquing the bourgeois institution of art at all levels; and, crucially, attempting to ‘reintegrate art with life-praxis [Lebenspraxis]’ (Bürger 1984 orig. 1974). This notion of transgressive, anti-art can be sustained for Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism and for art of the 1960s and early 1970s but it cannot be sustained once transgression becomes accepted as the dominant institutional discourse.

The position here is that, given the contemporary dominance of deconstructive art as an international style, one has to alter one’s definition of deconstruction, shifting away from transgression towards the notion of ‘play’: a term deployed by Jacques Derrida (1981), who also introduced the term ‘deconstruction’ into cultural theory. The notion of ‘deconstructive play’ seems to be a productive idea that works well with most of the products of contemporary installation art dealt with in this book.

The notion of play takes into consideration the fact that contemporary installation art is intimately interwoven into the institutional fabric of the art gallery/museum. Most installation artists play with that fabric rather than trying to genuinely critique it. Even when they apparently ‘damage’ or ‘subvert’ the fabric of the gallery they do so with the respectful compliance of the art institution. In other words transgression has become a civilised activity to be protected and preserved by the art museum and framed as the product of extremely remarkable individuals.

One can ask what is wrong with this state of affairs, after all such traditional values define the Western art tradition? The answer to that question would be that the values informing traditional art belong to a pre-industrial era, to another age. Walter Benjamin pointed this out in his landmark Work of Art essay (1973 orig. 1936). When art was in the service of the church it was a narrative medium that integrated with everyday life. The church was a species of art gallery. Today the art gallery is somewhere between a church and a bank vault.

The diminution of the church as a patron of the arts in post-Renaissance Europe begins the process of the separation of painting and sculpture from a social function in everyday life. Artists became increasingly employed by the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie who aspired to aristocracy. By the late eighteenth century fine art was consigned to the museum which became its principal institutional frame. When photography became a viable technology in 1839 we have the beginning of the process of the mechanisation of the visual arts that Benjamin celebrated in his Work of Art essay (1973 orig. 1936). Mass media, such as photomechanical reproduction and cinema took over the social role that painting and sculpture had once possessed.

The reason why I am focusing on installation art in this book is because installation art graphically illustrates the gallery-bound and socially segregated character of fine art at the turn of the millennium. After Bürger (1984) I believe that this separation from life is a fundamental problem and that the crucial mission of deconstructive art is to overcome this problem.

What is remarkable is that an intelligent account of contemporary art such as Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) can seriously argue that art of the 1990s represents a revolutionary involvement of the viewer and integration with everyday life. My position can, at one level, be understood as a deconstruction not only of installation art but also of Bourriaud’s thesis. All of the artists who Bourriaud uses as instances are primarily gallery-bound and located within the discipline or discursive regime of fine art. Bourriaud’s aesthetic focus on breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and making art more socially oriented is to be applauded, but his claim that this goal has been achieved under the regime of fine art at the turn of the millennium is ludicrous.

The good news is that there are instances of art that can achieve these goals, the bad news is that they are currently excluded from the sphere of fine art to the extent that one begins to wonder whether fine art can escape the burden of its history and traditional values. And I should point out here that when I use the term ‘fine art’ I am stressing the fact that this mode of art is saturated in tradition. The notion of fine art is synonymous with high culture, whereas the concept of art is much more fluid and flexible. Fine art is an exclusive club that reveals itself within the segregated domain of the art gallery/museum. Art on the other hand is a much more heterogeneous form that is mutating beyond its more traditional and careerist cousin.

In the era of Dada and Surrealism and radical art of the 1960s and 1970s deconstructive art appeared to be a pathfinder for new definitions of art, an instance of accelerated evolution, but it has become the victim of its success, because that led to its institutionalisation: a condition graphically portrayed in the intimate relationship between installation art and the gallery/museum.

One source for understanding this new found institutional intimacy lies in the implicit individualism of the image of the transgressive ‘outsider’ artist, which is typically a product of a masculine discourse. The anarcho-individualism of the deconstructive artist can be traced back to Dada. David Weir notes, for example, that Hugo Ball's invention of dada  … [depended] a great deal on his involvement with individualist anarchism’  (Weir 1997: 177); and one can make a similar observation with regard to Marcel Duchamp. At the turn of the millennium the legacy of anarcho-individualism is beginning to exhibit its shared values with the elitism that fuels the interrelated concepts of artistic genius and the preciousness of the work of art so important to the maintenance of the art market.

An examination of the evolution of aesthetic anarchism into institutionalised transgression begins with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. This work is critical because it has become an icon of deconstructive art—and, more particularly, deconstructive sculpture. It is also particularly relevant to installation art because its incipience was intimately connected with the role of the gallery/museum as an aesthetic regime that determines what is and what is not art via processes of inclusion and exclusion. For Bürger Fountain becomes an anti-institutional gesture, this is evident when he proposes:

Dadaism, the most radical movement within the European avant-garde, no longer criticizes schools that preceded it, but criticizes art as an institution, and the course its development took in bourgeois society. (Bürger 1984: 22)

Under the guise of an assumed name Duchamp submitted a male public convenience-type urinal as an entry for a putatively open exhibition in New York in 1917. With this work Duchamp metaphorically urinated on the bourgeois art institution and its adoration of what he referred to disparagingly as ‘retinal art’. Duchamp deliberately picked the most antiaesthetic object he could find in order to attack traditional concepts of beauty. A newspaper article—probably authored, or informed by, Duchamp—argued that Fountain was art because its maker, the fictitious R. Mutt, had declared that it was art (Camfield 1989). What is remarkable about Fountain is that what appears to have started out as a provocation became transformed into one of the most significant works of art of the twentieth century.

1 INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

Carsten Holler, Test Site, 2006. Photo: Jonny Baker

Carsten Höller, Test Site, 2006. Tate Modern, turbine hall. Photo: Jonny Baker. Höller's slides are not just fun, they are also making a serious point about the need for art museums to loosen their regime of 'look, but don't touch' and assist the long-standing avant-gardist project to reconcile art with everyday life.

Jannis Kounellis, Exhibition of twelve horses in the Galleria L'Attico, Rome in 1969

Jannis Kounellis, exhibition of twelve horses in the Galleria L'Attico, Rome in 1969. The seemingly endless variations on the Readymade theme indicate that Duchamp invented an 'art game' which has the potential for innumerable moves. The key question is whether this game assists in attaining the key avant-gardist goals of breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and bringing art closer to everyday life.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Duchamp believed that the urinal became a work of art because it was presented as such by the artist. It is more accurate to suggest, however, that the urinal becomes a work of art when it is successfully exhibited in an art gallery/museum. Fountain points as much to the power of the museum as it does to creative freedom. FIND IN TEXT

Walter de Maria, Earth Room, first executed in the Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, 1968.

Walter de Maria, Earth Room, first executed in the Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, 1968. De Maria filled the gallery with soil to a depth of 56cm (22 inches)

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966. Stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas. Six 34 inch cubes.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966. Stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas. Six 34 inch cubes. In works such as this Judd takes over the gallery by knitting the gallery wall into the fabric of the work. Such works play with the intimate interrelationship between the work of art and its institutional frame. FIND IN TEXT