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

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

 

In August 2006 I walked into the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz and had the typical art museum experience. Well-dressed upper middle class visitors pondering beautiful and/or interesting objects, pristine white walls, a discrete silence, guards everywhere, photography banned (we do not want to steal the precious soul of art). Then I walked over the Nibelungenbrücke to the Ars Electronica Center. They don’t even call it a gallery let alone a museum. It is an extraordinary art gallery not only because it is devoted to interactive art, but because it is noisy. The highly visible orange-coated personnel are not there to stop you touching the exhibits they are there to help you touch them. It is the exact opposite of the art museum. The inveterate art lover will experience something akin to culture shock, or a panic attack. He or she will probably want to run out the door. Then there are the children. Of course we let children into art galleries and museums too but, as in Victorian times, they have to be seen and not heard. In the Ars Electronica Center they have free rein. They take over most of the exhibits and one spends quite a bit of time standing around waiting for them to get off so one can have go oneself. From the heights of one’s highly developed aesthetic intellect one might suggest that if children like this kind of work then it is obviously not very good. Well, that is not really the case because although some of the pieces are obviously designed for children—as in a science museum—there are enough pieces that possess sufficient aesthetic sophistication to make the even the aesthete’s visit worthwhile.

One can also note that children are often naturally relational, open and disinhibited. They fit the Bourriaudian bill perfectly. They show the older, and possibly not that much wiser, visitors the way. But the Ars Electronica Center is probably too extreme for aesthetes. The Palais de Tokyo offers a balance, in between the maximum security of, say, Tate Modern, London, or The Whitney, New York, and the total liberation of desire evident in the Ars Electronica Center. If more art galleries and art museums followed in the footsteps of the Palais de Tokyo, that alone would be an extremely positive development. 

Art into Life?

Both Bourriaud and Bishop claim that art of the 1990s goes beyond previous art in breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and bringing art into life. Bishop argues, for example, that installation art is something quite unique in the history of art. Indeed, she claims that installation is a revolutionary new form of art that transcends just about every other mode of fine art production one might think of. Her tack is evident when she asserts that:

Installation art … differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. … installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision.(Bishop 2005: 6) [emphasis added]

A few pages later she reinforces the point that installation art is: ‘markedly different from that of traditional painting and sculpture’ (Bishop 2005: 11). However, most of the works that fit into the category of installation art are actually quite readily described in terms of Rosalind Krauss’ concept of ‘expanded sculpture’. Even when we encouter radical works such as Ann Veroncia Janssens’ mist installations (which will be treated in chapter two) we discover that Janssens is primarily a sculptor. We can understand why Bishop strives to distance installation art from sculpture; it is because of the traditional values associated with sculpture that continue to adhere and inhere, with remarkable resilience, onto and into ‘expanded sculpture’. In particular, we can point to the values of artistic genius and the preciousness of the work of art that entail that art objects, whatever they are made out of, must be segregated from the viewer and submitted the rule of ‘look, but don’t touch’: the regime of the gaze that is the typical art gallery/museum experience. Yet Bishop’s analysis is useful because she reminds us why it is so important to involve the viewer—it is because a ‘transitive relationship comes to be implied between “activated spectatorship” and active engagement in the social-political arena’ (Bishop 2005: 11). But it will be argued here that the institutionalisation of transgressive art and the dominance of sculptural installation—with its ineluctable links to the precious work of art—have led directly to a situation in which the viewer is not integrated with, but segregated from works of sculptural installation.

One can cite for instance Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy’s Sheep Plug, 2004, an installation art work at the Dionysiac exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2005 in which a great deal of junk-like material was spread out across a gallery floor. But as both artists now possess superstar status their post-Duchampian, ‘transgressive’, ‘anti-art’ detritus has been transmuted by the fine fine art system into precious objects. Accordingly, visitors had to be carefully channelled through the now precious stuff by a linear path marked out by tape stuck onto the gallery floor. This created an experience not unlike that of looking at a sculpture on a pedestal, or perhaps filing past the open coffin of a dead political leader.

Such lack of immersion and segregation of the viewer from the work is the norm due to the fact that apart from some rare exceptions (such as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz) the art museum experience is akin to visiting a bank vault. One is invariably watched by guards and CCTV cameras and one’s interaction with works of art is further demarked by devices such as daises, tape, beams, ropes, wires etc. And what is especially paradoxical about claims for the break from other media supposedly introduced by installation art is the fact that the gallery-bound character of installation art announces a new complicity between the ‘transgressive’ artist and the institution of art represented by the gallery/museum.

The reason why I am focusing on the concept of ‘installation art’ is not only because it emerged as a major movement in fine art in the 1990s but also because its gallery/museum-bound character highlights the institutionalisation of transgression. And this is why I am suspicious of attempts by Bourriaud and Bishop to convince us that here is an art form that is revolutionary, that involves the viewer and enters into everyday life. What is even more astounding is that there actually is an art form that achieves these goals but it lies outside the fine art domain that is the exclusive object of Bourriaud and Bishop’s enquiries. It is a form marginalized by the fine art system because it is too new, too different, and I will touch upon this new development during the course of the book and focus on it in the final chapter. In that concluding chapter we will find that what is excluded by Bourriaud and Bishop becomes more significant than what is included.

In fairness to Bishop, I must stress that her excellent study of installation art is primarily a history—although she does treat a significant number of contemporary works. And being a history her principal instances are from the 1960s and 1970s, from a period when installation art was a radical form. And it is also the case that the transformation of the radical installationism of the 1960s into the institutionalised ‘transgression’ of art at the turn of the millennium does not mean that some contemporary artists are not critical of this situation. Take, for example, Julia Scher’s Security by Julia II, a critique of the bureaucratic regime of the art gallery installed in an alternative space, Artists Space, New York in 1989. This work consisted of hiring personnel to act as guards plus setting up a system of CCTV cameras and a bank of monitors. Security by Julia II is part of a larger project in the course of which Scher created her own parodic security company. She designed the uniform, which is pink perhaps because the boss is a woman, in what was not long ago the male dominated field of fine art. The other connotation is that pink cosmeticises the more oppressive aspects of security as an apparatus of power, a particular strong point of late capitalism. One can cite, for example, the rather bizarre fact that there is a company that produces pink guns so that security officers can appear more friendly.

In the context of the art gallery the metaphor evoked by Security by Julia II is that of Foucault’s panopticon which is based on Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth century design for a liberal democratic prison in which all the prisoners were visible at all times via a central watchtower.[3] Security by Julia II reinforces the argument posed here that although the art gallery/museum may be open to the public, it is a panoptic regime. It allows all and sundry to enter into its sanctum while remaining extremely careful to keep an intensely watchful eye on this potentially threatening throng of people.

The fact that Scher’s CCTV monitors are on display serves to focus our attention on this usually more discrete aspect of our visit to the ‘public’ gallery. Finally, Security by Julia II indicates that the maximum security of the art museum is a microcosm of the bureaucratisation of everyday life that the Frankfurt School theorists referred to as the ‘administered world’ (Adorno 1990: 6). But perhaps what is most important about Security by Julia II, is that it indicates a critical dimension in contemporary deconstructive art that ought to be protected from becoming totally institutionalised. And in the course of the following chapters we will encounter positive instances where varieties of installation art have been able to overcome the segregation of the viewer from the work of art and attain a significant degree of social relevance.

Framework

Returning to Bishop’s statement that installation art ‘presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, small and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision’ (Bishop 2005: 6) it is evident that her concept of the ‘embodied viewer’ can be understood in terms of immersion, a term used by Bishop and other writers on installation art. And a consideration of this principle can serve as an introduction to the structure of this book which is based on a framework of interrelated themes: immersion, interaction, recombination, and dissociation; which also serve as chapter titles. In remainder of this introductory chapter I will adumbrate the significance of these interrelated perspectives onto the topic of installation art.

With regard to the question of immersion, Bishop argues that the experience of installation art is markedly different from that of ‘traditional’ media such as painting and sculpture on the basis that: ‘instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy’ (Bishop 2005: 11) [emphasis added]. What Bishop appears to be pointing to here is an artistic aspiration towards attaining something akin to the total immersion we experience in everyday life.

From an empirical and pragmatic point of view, however, art cannot achieve this goal except by entering into everyday life, and we will examine radical excursions into the everyday in the final chapter which will step beyond installation art. Most gallery-bound installation art, in contrast, offers us simulacra and theatricality, not reality but fictions and art language games. One of the few instances where an installation artist achieves the task of bringing everyday life into the simulacral halls of the gallery/museum can be found in the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which Bishop dismisses, somewhat unfairly in my opinion.[4]

Varieties of immersion will be examined, from the artificial nature of Olafur Eliasson to the computer generated virtual reality of Char Davies or the infrasonic immersion of Kaffe Matthews’ Sonic Bed, 2002–2005. Immersion certainly involves the viewer; but it can also lead to a condition akin to the ‘retinal’ art criticised by Duchamp, which is to say it can diminish critical distance. On the other hand the deeply sensuous immersion of Matthews’ Sonic Bed offers a trance-like corporeal, audio experience that transcends current visual-aesthetic frameworks. It points the discussion towards the inherently immersive quality of music in contrast to the enforced distance that is a key characteristic of museum-bound visual art.

Immersive installation can be judged on the basis of the extent to which the work deconstructs the panoptic regime of the gallery, because such deconstructions extend the aesthetic into the ethical dimension. For example, Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003 was both powerfully immersive and a significant incursion into the panoptic regime of the museum. This work gave the spectators an increased level of control over the museum space which is usually strictly administered and controlled. People spontaneously lay on the floor, in an artificial haze under an artificial sun, watching their reflection on the giant mirror on the roof, and groups of people would play with creating patterned reflections by arranging their bodies on the floor. This was people power, a giant chill out zone never seen before in the sanctum of that art museum. Here was a rare instance in which immersion morphed into interaction.

Similarly, Carsten Höller’s slide installation Test Site also in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, in 2006, has a similar effect with an added comment regarding value of children’s games in the context of the workaholism associated with late capitalism. Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan reports that ‘Höller firmly believes that slides should be far more widely used in public life. The idea is that if we all went down a slide on a daily basis it might profoundly change our lives’ (in Lovell 2006). The reference to ‘profoundly change our lives’ is typical of the hyperbole associated with commentary on fine art. It is a convention fuelled by the lingering influence of romantic aesthetics and its apotheosis of the artist and the work of art. From a more considered point of view one can note that in both cases—i.e. Eliasson and Höller’s Tate Modern installations—one is reminded of Henri Matisse’s desire that his art would have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman.[4] On the other hand, Höller’s insertion of children’s games into the sanctum of the art gallery might also alert the more attentive to the fact that capitalist workaholism, what Max Weber called the ‘Protestant work ethic’ may have gone a few steps too far.

 

Interaction

 ‘Interaction’ is a term that defines one of the most crucial differences between fine art and new media art. But it becomes an even more important concept due to the fact that it describes ways in which the longstanding goal of breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and bringing art into life can be attained. Using the media art term ‘interaction’ in the context of fine art also opens up the discussion of fine art to include media art. This is a significant step because digital interactive installation is not included in the current body of literature on installation art. But interaction is not an end in itself, it is necessary to stipulate that the quality of the interactivity depends upon the extent to which the work of art can encourage both critical reflection and creative engagement. The concept of creative involvement stretches back into the early twentieth century. For example, in Theory of the Avant-Garde Peter Bürger notes:

Given the avant-gardiste [sic] intention to do away with art as a sphere that is separate from the praxis of life, it is logical to eliminate the antithesis between producer and recipient. It is no accident that both [Tristan] Tzara's instructions for the making of a Dadaist poem and [André] Breton's for the writing of automatic texts have the character of recipes. This represents not only a polemical attack on the individual creativity of the artist; the recipe is to be taken quite literally as suggesting a possible activity on the part of the recipient. The automatic texts also should be read as guides to individual production. But such production is not to be understood as artistic production, but as part of a liberating life praxis. This is what is meant by Breton's demand that poetry be practiced (pratiquer la poesie). (Bürger 1984: 53)

Elaborating upon Bürger’s analysis it is possible to understand the Readymade, automatism and montage as creative technologies or as creative games, that could be playable by anyone. But the weight of tradition has ensured that artists kept such creative games to themselves. We are not speaking here in terms of games with winners and losers but rather of creative games where there is a framework of rules that can be bent and broken introducing new moves into the game. Ideally one would arrive at a position in which the viewer-participant was able to manipulate not only the game but also the rules.[6]

 

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

Ars Electronica Center, Linz, September 2006. A child plays with an iinteractive art game designed by Andrew Hieronymi.

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Julia Scher, Security by Julia II, Artists Space, New York, 1989.

Julia Scher, Security by Julia II, Artists Space, New York, 1989.

Gallery visitors are allowed greater access to works of art in the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Photo: Fred.b

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003. People dancing in the orange haze of Eliasson's artificial sun. Still from a video taken by Mariana Xavier

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003. Embodied engagement: people dancing in the orange haze of Eliasson's artificial sun in Tate Modern's turbine hall. This installation was a powerful force designating the turbine hall as a space of freedom from the maximum security mentality that still reigns in the rest of the museum. Still from a video taken by Mariana Xavier.

Kaffe Matthews, Sonic Bed, 2002-05

To make a Dadaist poem:

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003.