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

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

 

The reason for this transformation, however, lies less in the intention of the artist than in subsequent interpretation. During the 1960s artists and theorists began to realise that Fountain was something of a founding gesture that pointed to the fact that just about anything could be defined as a work of art so long as it was framed by the institutional apparatus of an art gallery.[1] It is also possible, however, to cite Kurt Schwitters’ groundbreaking Merzbau, 1933, in which the artist transformed his Hanover house into a sculptural installation. Schwitters’ Merzbau is, indeed, in some ways more revolutionary than Fountain because it was able to attain the status of work of art without an initial association with a gallery, which gives some hope for the future of deconstructive art. Evidently, the influence of the fine art system does not end at the walls of the gallery/museum but extends further into the more abstract, discursive and democratic sphere represented by the ‘museum without walls’ that includes art history and theory.

One of the main outcomes of Duchamp’s provocative Fountain was that it foregrounded the notion that it was not so much the artist as the art institution that ultimately framed a particular object as a ‘work of art’. By the 1960s the ramifications of the Readymade were better understood and deconstructive artists were not involved in simply regurgitating Readymades they were, instead, interrogating the network of power that is the gallery system.

During the 1960s and 1970s we find artists  attempting to defy the power of the art museum by making art that could function outside its framework. Salient instances include happenings, land art, body art, performance art, mail art and out-of-gallery situational art such as the work of Alan Kaprow, which Bishop points to as one of the precursors of contemporary installation art. The pioneering work of Kaprow, Dan Graham and Hélio Oiticica in the 1960s and 1970s represent installation art before it became congealed into an institutional form. From the 1990s onwards installation art became fine art, ensconced and applauded in an established gallery environment—literally, and willingly, institutionalised.

The beginnings of the institutionalisation of installation art can be traced back to the strategy of taking over or gaining ‘ownership’ of gallery spaces evident in the 1960s. Take the example of Donald Judd’s box sculptures, such as Untitled, 1966, which literally capture the gallery environment. By bolting his boxes onto the gallery wall Judd forces the exhibition space to become part of his work and thereby takes possession of that space, perhaps without realising that the thing being sequestered (the art institution) is more powerful than the individual artist. Carl Andre’s rug-like floor sculptures, in contrast, create a much more intimate relationship between the sculptural object and the gallery environment.

Judd’s aggressive invasion of the art gallery is echoed in works by other artists of the time. One can point, for example, to Jannis Kounellis exhibiting twelve live horses in the Galleria L'Attico, Rome in 1969; and Walter de Maria's Earth Room, first executed in the Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, 1968. For Earth Room De Maria filled the gallery with soil to a depth of 56 cm (22 inches). The collusion of the Galerie Heiner Friedrich with de Maria’s action effectively broadcast the fact that this art gallery was working at the cutting edge of art practice. All that was required was that the new generation of curators and critics could grasp the concept that transgressive deconstruction was a fully-fledged aesthetic discourse with roots in earlier movements, most notably: Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism.

By the 1990s the dominance of deconstructive art was thoroughly accepted across the world of art, enabling artists to do pretty much what they liked with most art galleries. Thus in 1994 Matt’s Gallery, London, were quite happy for Richard Wilson to jackhammer a large hole through the foundations into the clay water table on which London is built, in order to insert a full-sized billiard table flush with the gallery floor. Or, in 1999 the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt were comfortable with the fact that Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset wanted to remove large sections of the gallery’s walls. Since the 1990s such radical interventions into the fabric of the art gallery are no longer shocking, or transgressive, they are what is expected.

This state of affairs may appear to be a victory for the radical avant-garde; or, be understood in terms of a comfortable complicity between the artist and the site of power that is the art gallery/museum. Certainly, this new-found partnership between the deconstructive artist and the art institution is marred by one important fact: the central principle of bringing art into life has been compromised within the sphere of installation art due to its capitulation with the traditional values of artistic genius and the preciousness of the work of art, whatever its materiality (or nonmateriality).

More specifically, in the context of installation art what has been compromised is the project of breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art. This is a serious problem because if we take a closer look at Bishop’s historical analysis we can see that she claims that enhancing the role of the viewer is a central feature of installation art. And we can note that it is also the central premise in the most significant theoretical text to emerge out of art of the 1990s: Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002). Bishop asserts that installation art ‘addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space’ (Bishop 2005: 6); and, later, she adds:

Many artists and critics have argued that this need to move around and through the work in order to experience it activates the viewer, in contrast to art that simply requires optical contemplation (which is considered to be passive and detached). (Bishop 2005: 11) [emphasis added]

According to this analysis the act of entering the work of art, which is the most pertinent feature of installation art, is sufficient to transcend ‘optical contemplation’ (which can be read as a nod towards Duchamp’s criticism of ‘retinal’ art). The fact of the matter is, however, that even when we walk into an installation looking remains the principal mode of reception, unless we are dealing with interactive digital media installation, which Bishop ignores (understandably, considering that her study is principally historical). Moreover, it becomes apparent that, for Bishop, this allegedly new ‘activated’ role of the viewer will have an impact on everyday life:

This activation is, moreover, regarded as emancipatory, since it is analogous to the viewer’s engagement in the world. A transitive relationship comes to be implied between ‘activated spectatorship’ and active engagement in the social-political arena. (Bishop 2005: 11)

This is a crucial passage because it reinforces the point being made here that contemporary installation art is motivated by an enduring deconstructive project that Bürger describes in terms of the ‘reintegration of art with life-praxis [Lebenspraxis]’ (Bürger 1984 orig. 1974). Bürger, however, subjects deconstructive art to a withering critique on the basis of its lack of success in achieving this central goal due to the institutionalisation of transgression.

Bürger’s critique was aimed at progressive art of the 1960s and in retrospect his analysis seems prescient but unfair given the idealism and experimentation of that period. Now that deconstructive art is the dominant discourse, however, idealism has been replaced in many quarters with complacency, complicity and even cynicism (Santiago Sierra). There is a strong element of black humour surrounding art at the turn of the millennium which can be read, in part, as deconstructive art reflecting on its own deconstruction. We can see this in the work of leading artists whose work will be examined in the course of this study: Maurizio Cattelan, Santiago Sierra, Jason Rhoades, Paul McCarthy, John Bock, and Andreas Slominski.

The fundamental problem facing sculptural installation lies in its proximity to the traditional concept of the work of art as a precious object. From Dada and Surrealism onward artists have striven to deconstruct the concept of the work of art as a precious object. Duchamp’s urinal has already been cited; and there are more instances in the history of postmodern sculpture: Arman’s Poubelle (trash can) series of assemblages; Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, 1961; Robert Rauschenberg’s found object sculptures; and the use of ‘poor’ materials by the Italian Arte Povera movement. Yet despite every attempt to deconstruct the work of art as a precious object the fine art system has managed to magically transform these insults into precious objects. This has happened with such force and regularity that many artists have capitulated with traditional values thereby contributing to a neo-conservative turn in postmodern art (Jeff Koons was a pioneer in this respect).

During the 1990s the use of poor materials in sculptural installation became almost de rigueur radical chic, and the fact that anything would be turned into a precious object by the fine art system was not only accepted, it was celebrated. The most advanced demonstration of this phenomenon is Maurizio Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999.

The high profile installation artist Maurizio Cattelan and the curator Jens Hoffmann sought sponsorship for what they referred to as ‘The 6th Caribbean Biennial’ to be held on St. Kitts in the West Indies. Potential sponsors were told that this event would consist of ‘site specific’ works (a concept related to installation art) by leading members of the contemporary canon: Olafur Eliasson, Douglas Gordon, Mariko Mori, Chris Ofili, Gabriel Orozco, Elizabeth Peyton, Tobias Rehberger, Pipilotti Rist, Wolfgang Tillmans and Rirkrit Tiravanija. This list of luminaries helped Cattelan and Hoffmann obtain the sponsorship, added to which is the fact that there are so many biennial’s springing up all over the world  (Sao Paulo, Gwangju, New York, Liverpool) that a Caribbean biennial must have seemed quite plausible. It was, however, a spoof, and the ‘site specific’ work of art consisted of using the money to give the lucky artists a holiday on St Kitts. Cattelan eloquently explains:

It’s like spitting in the hand of someone who pays your salary. I’m not trying to be against museums or institutions. Maybe I’m just saying that we are all corrupted in a way; life itself is corrupted, and that’s the way we like it. I’m just trying to get a slice of the pie, like everyone else. (in Siegel 2004)

One can appreciate Cattelan’s frankness, and The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999, could very well be the masterpiece of art at the turn of the millennium. I say that because it pushes the absurdity of the application of traditional values to deconstructive art that little bit further than its many transgressive predecessors. Cattelan is richly rewarded by the art market on the basis of the principles of artistic genius and the preciousness of his works of art (www.artprice.com). Yet he is, as he puts it, ‘spitting in the hand’ of this system, pouring scorn on the very values that keep him and his colleagues in business. But however brilliant The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999, is as a post-postmodern work of art, the aesthetics of cynicism it embodies also shows very clearly how the values of deconstructive art can become compromised and that a reassessment of the aesthetics of transgression is in order.

The cynicism and self-satisfied self-absorption evident in Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, is totally at odds with the picture Nicolas Bourriaud paints of art of the 1990s in Relational Aesthetics (2002). In this widely discussed (but seldom critically interrogated) text Bourriaud stresses precisely the basic premises of deconstructive art that I am pursuing in this book: breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and bringing art into everyday life. The aspirations of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics are laudable and they are in tune with the historical premises of deconstructive art that can be traced beyond radical art of the 1960s and 1970s to Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism. But there is a very fundamental problem in Relational Aesthetics which is that the instances he cites do not live up to the aesthetic aspirations he espouses.

Whereas this text will be critical concerning contemporary fine art, Bourriaud is uncritical: Relational Aesthetics is a paean to fine art and an effusive proclamation of how artists of the 1990s broke down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art, and brought art into life. What a triumph! Except in my travels to exhibitions in America and Europe I have not seen this great revolution. Maybe it all happened in the Palais de Tokyo of which Bourriaud was founding co-director. It is certainly the case that the Palais de Tokyo is an outstandingly progressive art gallery which should act as a paradigm for all art galleries and art museums. And if one was focused—as Bourriaud would have been—on what happened in that liberated art space then one might have a rather different spin on contemporary fine art.

But in the rest of the Euro-American art world we see a different picture, one in which market forces dominate and artists have learnt to accept, and enjoy the fact that they can be as critical of the system as they like and still be rewarded—mainly because their criticisms are hermetically sealed from society in the vitrine of the museum. In a sense I am simply vocalising the message that a number of contemporary artists are conveying via ‘works of art’ such as The 6th Caribbean Biennial.

The fundamental argument that will be pursued in this book is that the success of the art market in transforming anything the avant-garde could throw at it into precious objects finally won the admiration of artists who have become, understandably, seduced by the rewards that the capitalist machine can offer them. That is why the ‘fine’ has been put back into art, even if the artist works with junk or dung. One of Duchamp’s Fountains (the canny Duchamp turned this work into an edition of seven) recently sold for over a million dollars (www.artprice.com) and its value can only increase. With this kind of magic working in the background one can understand why artists don’t have to worry about the general public.

All of which makes Nicolas Bourriaud’s aspirational thesis in Relational Aesthetics seem rather sad. It is actually a very interesting book which contains an excellent account of the aesthetics of Félix Guattari and insightful accounts of major practitioners, not to mention the discovery of the exceptional nature of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work. Tiravanija is Bourriaud’s outstanding example of relational aesthetics; but it will be argued in chapter three that although Tiravanija’s work appears to be relational, like most fine artists, he is actually playing his own game, a fine art game that has led him into art stardom. This is not his fault, he is probably not even conscious of it, because what he does is informed to a large extent by the regime he is working within. He may think he is breaking rules but he is actually following them, following in the footsteps of the Duchampian Readymade which has been thoroughly absorbed into the fine art system. By bringing everyday life into the sanctum of the art gallery, and thereby declaring it to be a work of art, Tiravanija is being very clever, but only in the sense of inventing a new move in an art game already sanctioned by the deconstructive art academy.

Another major example Bourriaud cites is the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres who was a remarkably poetic artist whose work often allowed the visitor to take a little piece of an installation away as a memento. But however delicate and moving such gestures were they did not constitute a radical involvement of the viewer and interaction with everyday life. Gonzalez-Torres gives fine art a good name, but his work remains fine art, a delicate poetry that we admire as distinctly of that individual in the same way that we might admire the work of Gabriel Orozco. There is no question that fine art created by sensitive and dedicated individuals remains a source of great interest and pleasure; it is just that deconstructive art and deconstructive aesthetics has shown us the possibility for something else, a mode of art that Bourriaud calls relational and I am calling interactive.

 

 

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau project began in 1923 and lasted until his death in 1948. He constructed it three times as he was forced to change his geographical location due to the vicissitudes of the Second World War. (see merzbau.org)

Richard Wilson, Water Table, 1994

Richard Wilson, Water Table, 1994. Matt's Gallery, London

Elmgreen and Dragset, exhibition at the Portikus Gallery, Frankfurt, 2003. The exhibition consisted of having the back walls of the gallery removed. In fine art at the turn of the millennium such 'transgressive' gestures 'against' the institutions of art have become an art game akin to the endless variations on the Readymade theme.

 

Piero Manzoni, Artist's Shit, 1961

Maurizio Cattelan and Jens Hoffmann, The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999. Photo: Vanessa Beecroft

Maurizio Cattelan and Jens Hoffmann, The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999. The artists relax on a veranda in the tropical paradise of the island of St. Kitts. Photo: Vanessa Beecroft