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

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According to this frame of reference the viewer is either subordinate or unquestioningly admiring which amounts to the same thing. One can see the contempt for the viewer in Sierra’s suggesting that the invitees were thinking ‘just get me inside and give me a drink’. And his derision is also evident when he adds that  ‘the aesthetic experience was right in front of them. The corrugated sheet was beautifully made. They just weren’t ready to look at it.’ (Jeffries 2002). The viewer is someone to be mocked. Knowing the narrative behind Sierra’s choice of corrugated metal looking at it as if it were a formalist sculptural object would be an especially obtuse way of understanding this particular work. As such Sierra is adopting an arrogant and derisory stance towards his audience that mirrors the stance he takes towards the unfortunate people who he uses as objects in his installations.

The Media Art Alternative: Multiplicity at Documenta 2002

Possibly I am being a little harsh on Sierra because, as in the case of Hirschhorn, it is not the individual that is at fault but the framework in which that individual works. And at least Sierra is well aware of that. But one is, nevertheless, infuriated by the impasse evident in contemporary fine art’s attempts to be socially relevant. Modern art came into being on the wave of a social revolution, the industrial-capitalist revolution, called the bourgeois revolution by Marxism. And one of its great breakthroughs was to give the artist what appeared to be total freedom of expression. Prior to bourgeois patronage the artist was the servant of the church, monarchy or aristocracy. As such it is extremely disappointing to see the depths of cynicism evident in Sierra’s work because at any other time in the course of the history modern art he would have been an outstanding political artist. So what is wrong with fine art at the turn of the millennium? Basically I have already answered that question. It can be found in a capitulation with wealth and its values.

But whereas Sierra is resolutely cynical, in a manner very similar to Maurizo Cattelan—‘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)—I am not. There is an alternative and the basic premise of this book is that it lies beyond fine art in the emerging domain tentatively referred to as ‘media art’. The term ‘media art’ is not perfect because of its resonance with mass media but at the same time that resonance is fruitful because it points to the integration of media art with the visual technology that pervades late capitalist culture. The term ‘digital art’ can also be used because with the advent and increasing power of the personal computer in the late twentieth century, media technology that was once only affordable by wealthy corporations has become available to the general public, in the First World at least. One of the interesting aspects of media art is that it is no longer handmade and there is, therefore, no necessity for a precious object. This is not a new idea, it was pointed out by the pioneering media art theorist Walter Benjamin in 1936 (Benjamin 1973). In the regime of the art gallery and museum, media such as photography and video are castrated by being turned into limited editions. One could produce thousands of each of Andreas Gursky’s photographic prints but instead they are reduced to editions of about five each selling for at least $100,000 (www.artprice.com), which is akin to the price of works by a leading contemporary painter. There are good reasons for this castration of media; the restriction in supply increases the brand value, and even more importantly sets the stage for the massive hikes in value over the decades that we have seen in the case of more traditional media. Although one wonders whether anyone has considered the fact that the archival quality of Gursky’s photographs is limited to seventy-five years, a century at best—but capitalism is intrinsically about risk and short to medium terms gains.

But, stepping outside of the fine art system for a moment, what would happen if art did not have to have a rare and precious object? What if having an object were only a habit, a contingency of the continuing belief that art is fundamentally a handmade object in the tradition of painting and sculpture.  To find this kind of art we turn to the phenomenon of media art. And we know this new mode of art can be considered akin to fine art because in 2002 the curator of the international art exhibition Documenta 11,  Okwui Enwezor, included a powerful media art installation—Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship—by Multiplicity.

Multiplicity is an Italian collective based in Milan which defines itself as a ‘territorial investigation agency’ using the term territorial in a Deleuzian mode that entails a philosophico-political aspiration for deterritorialisation, the breaking down of borders and boundaries. Active in the fields of urbanisation, architecture, the visual arts and culture in general, Multiplicity initiates and develops projects in different parts of the world. This multidisciplinary collective is made up of architects, geographers, artists, urban planners, photographers, sociologists, economists, filmmakers, etc. Such interdisciplinary collaboration is fairly typical of the emerging field of media art, and I will treat the benefits of this new field in more depth in the concluding chapter.

Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship was presented at Documenta in the form of a simple but stunning video installation. It consisted of a blacked out room with monitors and projections that displayed various data—maps interviews newsreel—relating the story of the night of December 26, 1996, when a ‘ghost ship’ with 283 Sinhalese asylum seekers on board, sank a few miles off southeastern Sicily on route from Malta to the Italian coast. Most on board died. What is most telling about this tragedy was that it was ignored by the Italian authorities. The Third Worlders who died were treated as  nonpersons, as nonhuman.

Despite the fact that bodies were continually being caught in the nets of fishing boats from Portopalo and the pleas of relatives and survivors, the authorities denied the existence of what was the greatest marine tragedy off the Italian coast in the post-WWII period. For five years, the sea gradually revealed the traces of the tragedy which were then quietly disposed of by the authorities. Nobody in the fishing community or in local government had the courage to denounce the deception, until the recovery of an ID card belonging to a young man from Sri Lanka. Apparently being human in the administered world is dependent upon whether or not one possesses documentation. Investigations into the tragedy began, driven to a large part by the meticulous work of Giovanni Maria Bellu, a reporter for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

One might call Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship a documentary film installation. What made it so successful was the intersection of a powerful commentary on the relationship between the First and the Third World with a nonlinear montage-like mode of presentation. The information was not presented in a linear manner but via the nonlinearity typical of installation art. And the theatricality of the dark room with lines of flickering monitors on the floor created an ambience wherein the gravity of the story was impressed upon the viewer in no uncertain terms.

Because Multiplicity produce significant and aesthetically sophisticated visual artefacts designed for exhibition it is not especially problematic to call what they produce ‘art’ and, more specifically, ‘installation art’. Accordingly, works such as Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship both raise the bar for more traditional fine art media at the turn of the millennium and throw into relief the distinction between ethico-aesthetic art and solely aesthetically sophisticated art. 

The crucial distinction between Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship and the work of Santiago Sierra is that Sierra is an artist in the traditional sense whereas Multiplicity are a new phenomenon: the art collective. The members of Multiplicity are not artists in the traditional sense they mostly work in academia or fields of applied art such as architecture. As such they are not dependent on the same system upon which Sierra is dependent.

What the comparison between Sierra and Multiplicity reveals is the interrelatedness between the institutional structure of fine art and its products. A person who takes up a career as an artist is ultimately dependent upon the commercial gallery system. Indeed the commercial gallery and the fine artist are virtually a partnership, one can’t have one without the other. Ninety years of deconstructive art has failed to take the fineness out of fine art because it is the myth of fineness—and its corollary, genius—that bolsters the massive overvaluation of art objects.

Yet, from an art theoretical standpoint at least, as soon as we understand Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art thesis (1973 orig. 1936) we realise that the fineness of fine art is unnecessary. The sophisticated collective creative actions of Multiplicity indicate that the artist-individual is also unnecessary.

There is no doubt that the quality of work produced by Multiplicity is at least as good, from the standpoint of fine art, as that of Sierra. And from the point of view of an intersection of aesthetics and ethics its lack of cynicism makes it more successful.

Use Value

Another key feature of media art is its intersection with design which recalls the period in history when modern art achieved considerable social relevance. This was the time of De Stijl, Constructivism and the Bauhaus whose liaison with architecture and design achieved, for a time, the goal of bringing art into life. There were problems, certainly, but the turn away from the liaison with architecture and design that accompanied deconstructive art of the 1960s can be considered a backward step.

Deconstructive art is characterised by a dislocation of reason and a fundamental lack of concern with function. A dedication that has led ultimately to a self-reflective and self-absorbed mode of art that fails to integrate with everyday life and eventually, however unintentionally, accentuates elitism.

Of course, the social impact of classical modernism was not without its problems. In particular, in the field of modernist architecture there was a tendency to assume that people had to adapt to the purism of the minimalist modernist box rather than the architecture adapting to the vernacular culture of the people it was housing. According to populist conceptions—such as Robert Hughes’ television series The Shock of the New, 1979—the modernist dictatorship of style becomes focused on glaring failures such as the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, designed in 1951 by architect Minoru Yamasaki (who would later design the ill-fated Twin Towers of the World Trade Center).

Built as a postwar public housing project the large high-rise development was completed in 1956. Over the years the project became such a notorious zone of vandalism and crime that nobody wanted to live there. In 1972 the St. Louis Housing Authority demolished three of the high-rise buildings. The photographs of Pruitt-Igoe imploding in clouds of smoke became a symbol for the fall of the modernist dream of rationally designed mass architecture. But it was more a failure on the part of the St Louis authorities to create workable support structures for the predominantly African-American communities that were relocated into this development.

We are dealing here with pragmatic, rational issues, and this constitutes a problem for art, especially deconstructive art which often embraces the other of reason as if it were a political stance. There are, however, facets of deconstructive play that aspire to widen the concept of what we might understand as rational by intersecting creative play with real world issues. In this subsection I will examine the socially relevant work of Atelier Van Lieshout and Dan Peterman. But first I would like to cite an instance of an intersection of art with design that underscores the Dadaistic manner in which deconstructive art can value pure play over and above function.

Dada Design: Andrea Zittel

Andrea Zittel is New York based artist whose approach to the intersection of art and design can be defined in terms of individualism. Individualism lies at the heart of the American dream. It is also one of the targets of the critique in this book, and we should remember that the free-market theory of individual freedom was echoed in Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘there is no such thing as society’ announcement: ‘who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families’ (Thatcher 1987). In the age of the disintegration of the family these words take on the implication that we are, quite simply, on our own. That becomes the definition of freedom in the absence of concepts of society and community. But of course we know that people who are brought up in middle class environments are formed by family, peers and the institutions they are associated with. People can be cultivated and trained to play the social game better than those less privileged. In Foucauldian terms there are societal infrastructures which inscribe body and mind creating the entities we refer to as ‘individuals’ but which might be better described in terms of their societal connections as nodes in a social nexus.

 

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Multiplicity, detail, Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship, Documenta, Kassel, 2002.

Multiplicity, Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship, Documenta, Kassel, 2002.

Multiplicity, detail, Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship, Documenta, Kassel, 2002.

Multiplicity, detail, Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship, Documenta, Kassel, 2002.

Multiplicity, detail, Solid Sea 01: The Ghost Ship, Documenta, Kassel, 2002. Video projection.

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, designed in 1951 by architect Minoru Yamasaki.

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, USA, 1972. The project was designed in 1951 by architect Minoru Yamasaki. This event has been taken a graphic symbol of the end of modernist utopianism.

Andrea Zittel, A-Z Escape Vehicle

Andrea Zittel, A-Z Escape Vehicle, 1996. Exterior and interior.