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

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

 

From the radical art of the 1960s to contemporary installation, deconstructive art can be understood as a complex series of variations on and manipulations of fundamental art language games such as the Readymade and montage. The problem facing deconstructive art is that many artists have lost touch with the original goal of such strategies which is to engage the creativity of the viewer and bring art into life. Expanding creativity within everyday life is, indeed, the crux of the deconstructive project. And in order to understand this project more thoroughly we need a demystified concept of creativity and an attempt to outline such a concept will be provided in chapter four.

Instead of engaging in a critical discussion of the social uses of creativity contemporary ‘avant-gardist’ fine art has returned to the more traditional concept of the primacy of the individual artist creator where the role of the viewer is the equally traditional position of one who appreciates the ingenuity of the artist. This mode of reception would be perfectly acceptable if it were not for the fact that the interrelated goals of breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art and bringing art into life were not central premises of deconstructive aesthetics. It has been nine decades since the first Duchampian Readymade yet apart from isolated instances, such as the interpersonal media installations of Dan Graham, fine art has been remarkably unsuccessful at enabling creative engagement on the part of the viewer and thereby bringing art into life.

In contrast, interactive new media art is much better equipped to achieve the crucial goals of deconstructive art. But various circumstances have created a rift between fine art and media art. Historically, new media art came into existence in the late 1970s at the precise moment when fine art lost the interest in science and technology that was particularly evident in conceptual art of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Burham 1968; 1969). The lack of interest in the world of fine art in the emerging capabilities of digital media in the 1980s and 1990s created a vacuum out of which a parallel world of art arose. At the turn of the millennium we find another art world has been created, evident in institutions such as the Ars Electronica, ZKM, the Banff New Media Institute, ISEA, Eyebeam etc.

Fine art is fundamentally grounded in the commercial gallery system where an emphasis on the mystification of the cultural commodity gives an elite group of artists financial independence. In contrast, new media art has not been submitted to such lucrative mystification and many new media artists are based principally in the university sector which affords this emerging mode of art both intellectual credibility and a productive relationship with a culture of research and experimentation.

There is only a twilight zone of overlap between the parallel worlds of fine art and media art and it is fraught with misunderstanding. And although new media art is capable of appreciating developments in fine art, the reverse does not appear to be the case, which underscores how cloistered and exclusive the fine art avant-garde has become. The institutionalised and professionalised world of fine art is currently ignoring the most experimental and radical forms of art available. In short, new media art is the new avant-garde.

Within the context of fine art the core values of deconstructive art have evaporated into rhetoric, and this is especially evident in Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002), which is the most significant theoretical text to have emerged out of art of the 1990s. In most instances of fine art deconstructive art games are the strict preserve of the artist (genius). The alternative to this traditional avenue is a direction in which the artist is able to formulate creative games that shift the viewer out of a purely spectatorial role into creative engagement.

Whereas media art finds it relatively easy to facilitate participation, fine art is resolutely spectatorial. Even very advanced attempts by fine artists to involve the viewer such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work become revealed as essentially the artist’s game, with the viewer as a pretext or passenger (see chapter three). Only when we come to digital interactive art do we find artists who can formulate aesthetic games that facilitate genuine creative engagement on behalf of the viewer. Interactive digital installation enables an embodied gaze even in the maximum security environment of the gallery/museum due to the fact that the interactive input devices it employs are not parts of the work of art, they are input devices specifically designed for the viewer to touch. Accordingly, any examination of installation art is that much poorer if it ignores the contribution of digital installation art. Yet none of the current crop of books on the topic of installation art tackles digital interactive installation.

The attempts by fine artists to achieve interaction are often disappointing, especially when compared to digital installation art, which is exactly what will be done in chapter three. Take for instance the CommonWealth exhibition at Tate Modern, 2003, which was promoted as interactive. Two works, by Carsten Höller and Gabriel Orozco, made attempts at interactivity. Höller’s Frisbeehouse, 2000, consisted of an igloo-like tent with holes cut into it. The viewer was invited to throw frisbee’s through the holes. Orozco’s contribution was a four-sided table-tennis game with a waterlily pond in the middle. Would the balls land on the water or on a waterlily? The only remarkable feature of either of these works was that the viewer was released from the usual lap dancer-like ‘look, but don’t touch’ regime of the art museum. What was missing from these invitations to interactivity was any requirement for creative engagement on behalf of the participant. This is especially strange because Orozco has devised many elegant formal games for himself such as making a clay heart via the imprint of his hands or creating a minimalist-sculptural object by rolling a ball of clay over a grid. It appears to be exceedingly difficult for him to create participatory ‘art games’ that have a similar degree of elegance. Carsten Höller, on the other hand, has created more successful interactive installations. His slide installation at Tate Modern in 2006 is a key instance. One can also mention his Umkehrbrille (upside-down glasses), 2001, installation. For Umkehrbrille participants were invited to wear spectacles which turned the world upside down.[6] The idea here was to foreground art as a new way of seeing. Similarly, his slide installation at Tate Modern in 2006 offers a radically new point of view regarding how the sanctum of the art gallery/museum might be used in the new millennium. One might say that Höller projects an image of the interactive, creative playground of the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz into a bastion of High Culture. Höller may not be a new media artist but the fact that he trained as a scientist is a contributing factor to the groundbreaking character of his work.

But although Höller is outstanding in the context of contemporary fine art, he is, like Tiravanija, part of a minority. It is in the field of digital interactive installation that we discover the most powerful instances of creative participation such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Vectorial Elevation, 1999–2000 which will be examined in chapter three. But I will also examine a less successful attempt by Lozano-Hemmer, Body Movies, 2001, that points to the difficulties facing the design of viewer-oriented creative games. Even digital art can be challenged when it comes to achieving the long-standing aspiration to facilitate a creative engagement from the viewer and bring art into everyday life.

Recombination and Dissociation

Although ‘old media’ installation art finds the construction of viewer-oriented creative games particularly difficult, its zone of excellence is evident in the creation of the nonlinear narrative text, and this key aspect of installationism will be investigated in chapters four and five. Chapter four will deal with evaluating the extent to which nonlinear narrative can elicit a creative engagement of the reader. Chapter five will continue the exploration of nonlinear narrative but with a focus on the issue of ‘dissociated’ authorial identity in contemporary women’s installation art.

Installation art provides an appropriate medium for nonlinear narrative due to the fact that the placement of a variety of objects in a room as part of a single work requires the reader to engage creatively in making connections between the parts (recombination), without the specified linear direction evident in literature, theatre, film, video, music etc. The emergence of a narrative dimension in the scattered objects that make up a nonlinear sculptural and/or multimedia installation also seems to be entwined in a critical dialogue with classic narrative cinema, as is the case in contemporary video art.

But in order to assess level of the viewer-reader’s engagement it will be necessary to shift beyond the romantic mystification of creativity that fuels the art market. We need a more pragmatic concept of creativity and in chapter four the notion of ‘recombination’ will be deployed to this purpose.

The concept of recombination is derived from Roland Barthes’ landmark essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977 orig. 1968) and his discussion of the distinction between the ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ text in S/Z (1974 orig. 1970). It will be argued that recombination plays a key role in Barthes’ death of the author/birth of the reader thesis evident in his reference to the artistic ‘text’ as ‘tissue of quotations’ and his suggestion that the author’s ‘only power is to mix writings’ (1977: 146). In other words there will be an attempt to suggest that a bridge can be built between the creative input of the artist and that of the viewer-reader, because both entail processes of recombination.

The concept of recombination will be further elaborated by an examination of the central roles played by imagination and the association of ideas evident in the philosophy of David Hume. Hume’s concept of imagination is very relevant to deconstructive aesthetics because he placed the faculty of imagination above that of reason. For Hume imagination is the principle mechanism of mind. And Hume’s focus on the association of ideas had a significant impact on the evolution of modern psychology via Hume’s contemporary David Hartley, then J. S. Mill, and Freud’s use of word association tests which, in turn, influenced Surrealist automatism. More recently, one can point to the continued evolution of associationism evident in the connectionist movement in the fields of cognitive science, artificial intelligence and artificial creativity.

Returning to Barthes, in S/Z  he introduced a distinction between the ‘writerly’ and the ‘readerly’ text. Andrew Milner and Jeff Browitt explain that readerly texts position the reader as a ‘passive consumer’, whereas writerly texts ‘demand that the reader actively participate as co-author of the text’ (Milner & Browitt 2002: 113) [emphasis added]. Another way of putting it would be to suggest that the ‘readerly’ text is immersive and the ‘writerly’ text is interactive—in the distanced, intellectual, sense.

The emergence of a narrative dimension in the scattered objects that make up a nonlinear sculptural and/or multimedia installation also seems to be entwined in a critical dialogue with classic narrative cinema, as is the case in video art. If we take the instance of Candice Breitz, her work uses Hollywood and mass media as its raw material subjecting it to a deconstructive recombination. But the cinematic influence is also evident in the installation art of Georgina Starr, Renée Green, Pierre Huyghe, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

If we consider ‘writerly’ installation art in terms of a broad concept of narrative then we can return to the concept of the creative game, because narrative is such a game, whether it is linear or nonlinear. Certainly the constructor of the narrative has to put more creative effort into the game than the reader, which is to say the artist creates the game. But the success of the linear/nonlinear narrative game in facilitating the creative engagement of the reader is dependent upon the author taking the reader into consideration. Such consideration is part of the literary, theatrical and cinematic conventions but it is not part of the conventions informing contemporary fine art, because the institutional focus is so thoroughly fixated on the artist. Since the advent of modernism, so much creative licence has been afforded to the artist that they can totally ignore the viewer-reader.

The question posed in chapters four and five is whether the emergence of a narrative dimension in installation art has made the fine artist more aware of the viewer-reader. Is the writerly text an art game or an artist’s game, a dialogue with the viewer or an instance of aesthetic autism? What we find in practice is an orthodoxy founded on the theory that the more complex and nonlinear the text is the more aesthetic value it possesses. Whether it can be read or not is not really an issue. And part of the exploration of narrative installation art in chapter five will concern a theoretical text by Renée Green in which she indicates the degree to which the current generation of artists subscribe to what might be termed orthodox anti-narrativity. This orthodoxy brands linear narrative as a false picture of reality but its total devotion to nonlinear narrative can lead to an aesthetics of obscurantism.

In nonlinear narrative installations the viewer-reader is presented with fragments which they are invited to recombine, but without any presumption that there is ‘correct’ way of so doing. There is no clear notion of what the purpose of such nonlinear narratives is, apart from being an intellectually stimulating game for the artist to play and the viewer-reader to dutifully appreciate and/or work hard at ‘decoding’. There will, therefore, be an element of constructive criticism, for example, in chapter three it will be argued that the primary purpose of nonlinear narrative texts ought to be to encourage a creative and a critical-reflective engagement on behalf of the viewer. Bishop is more ambitious, she suggests that activated readership might inspire the viewer to ‘active engagement in the social-political arena’ (Bishop 2005: 11), but none of the instances cited in chapter four or chapter five support Bishop’s conclusion. 

This is quite extraordinary, especially in the context of chapter five where I will be dealing principally with female installation artists who belong to the post-Cindy Sherman generation. Instead of an ‘active engagement in the social-political arena’ one finds a much more low key approach to political issues, one that prefers the ambiguity of nonlinear narrative to the kinds of direct ideological message evident in the work of artists prominent in the 1980s such as Barbara Kruger or Hans Haacke. The very fact, however, that I can devote an entire chapter almost exclusively to contemporary women artists is in itself political due to the fact that without second wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s there would be as few women artists as there were during the supposedly radical 1960s, and the hundreds of years that preceded that decade of artistic revolution. The first female artists to become key figures in a major movement in the history of Western art were Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger who achieved this position in the early 1980s, which is a mere generation ago. Yet it is possible to perceive a disturbing relaxation in the art of the so-called ‘postfeminist’ period of the 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps we are witnessing a period in which the new found status of women artists is being expressed in terms of a crisis of identity that will eventually lead to the emergence of a new mode of art. This crisis of identity will be discussed using the psychological concept of dissociation.

Dissociation marks a shift away from the strident and confident vision of second wave feminism. In its place there is a vision of contemporary late capitalist culture which has lost critical direction. This is understandable considering the complexity of contemporary capitalism which brings benefits as well as problems. But one hopes that the dissociative phase evident in women’s art of the 1990s will not last too long because there is both a need and an opportunity to alter the fabric of the discourse of deconstructive art. We do, however, see signs of a more radical approach in a younger generation of female artists such as Oda Projesi and Catherine D’Ignazio’s Institute for Infinitely Small Things.[8] These most recent trends, that go beyond installation art, will be dealt with in the final chapter.

The concluding chapter will summarise the findings of the core chapters, identify the key problems and go on to examine solutions via emerging forms of art that are noticeably excluded from texts on contemporary fine art such as Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002). The principal alternative to fine art is ‘media art’, or ‘new media art’; but such labels are misleading because the key feature of media art does not lie in its use of media so much as its capacity to involve the viewer and bring art into the everyday. Often media such as video or internet is used only to represent such activities, rather than being the medium of the work of art itself.

The media art strategies examined in the final chapter actually achieve the key goals that installation art promised to achieve when it attained the status of a coherent aesthetic strategy in the 1960s. Media art, therefore, becomes the paradigm against which the reality of the achievements of contemporary museum-bound and gaze-bound installation art can be judged.

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | CONTENTS

Rikrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free), 1992. Installation in 303 Gallery, New York. The gallery is transformed into a kitchen and dining area

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free), 1992. Installation in 303 Gallery, New York. The gallery is transformed into a kitchen and dining area.

Carsten Höller, Umkehrbrille, (Upside-down spectacles), 2001.

Carsten Höller, Umkehrbrille, (Upside-down spectacles), 2001.