Barbara Bloom, "The Reign of Narcissism", installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), 1988-89
Dan Flavin, "Untitled (to Robert, Joe and Michael)," installation, 86 x 82", MOCA, 1975-82.
Installation art is hot right now. Strange. For years no one seemed to know what an installation was, now it's everywhere. From Documenta 9 to the Whitney Biennial. There are even galleries and museums completely devoted to it, here and in Europe. Last year two books crammed with color photo documentation of hundreds of pieces were published, and MOCA has accumulated enough of the work in its permanent collection to flesh out a two part exhibition [Part 2 is currently on exhibit through May 21 --Ed.]. As an artist who has been doing installation art since 1979, the explosive growth of my chosen practice is both satisfying and frustrating.
It's satisfying because I take the proliferation of this genre, with its roots in so many different 20th century traditions--Bauhaus architecture, Dada, Happenings, Minimalism, even theater--to signify art's desire to maintain an energetic inquiry into the merger of art and life by leapfrogging over traditional boundaries where necessary. Further, installation's insistence on the importance of multiple fragments of sensory information and context is part of my own fascination with the art form.
But the deluge of work is frustrating too. There is a lot of work being created and very little analysis of it. Many reviews are simply descriptive. Because the form is experience dependent (and often technologically innovative) critical writing often reads like a step by step tour of Disneyland. When the writing does engage the work's content it often leaves unconsidered the form itself. The result is a confusion which allows mechanized sculptures or a room full of discreet objects to be lumped under "installation" when they have nothing to do with it. I agree with critic Richard Smith that if we had retained the early designation of "environments," suggestive of a "place to be," rather than going with the more process oriented tag "installation," which sounds like a routine putting things into place, things might not be so confusing. But in a world where "environment" is synonymous with "ecology" perhaps there is no word free from confusion.
Clearly installation is a widely diverse and idiosyncratic art form. It would be impossible to come up with a simple definition that included everything artists are doing with it. But there are junctures where installations come together. One of these is space. In many ways perhaps what is most notable yet overlooked about installation is the way it uses, or addresses space, context and site. Space in installation art is not simply the gallery. empty house or unplowed field that the art occupies. Space is one of the essential elements in the work. It is the near tangible, almost liquid air of James Turrell's mass-less light rooms and the open, expansive cradle for Walter De Maria's Nestr Mexico Lightning Field.
Like sculpture, which can slice or suck up space into invisible volumes, installation asks space to participate in creating a work's meaning. But installation does it not just with assembled objects but by referring to and playing off its environmental space. If the objects and the space they create or occupy are not integral to one another, if the experience of moving through the work does ; not engender or alter meaning, it is not, to my mind, an installation. It is a
collection of things.
Installation space may be a firm, physical reality completely bound to the l viewer's body as in Daniel Wheeler's rambling internal journey You are Here, [see Todd Baron's article in the March, 1995 issue--Ed.] an illusionary suggestion of depth such as Richard Wilson's motor oil 20/50, or a representational context loaded with ideological baggage such as Marcel Broodthaers' critiques of the cultural power of museums, or any of Ann Hamilton's site specific explorations of the invisible but tangible presence of labor. Installations are threaded on the space they use, their site, and the context they create or exist within like beads on a string.
Space used as a sculptural material is not new. It can be traced back to the Constructivists and Futurists who incorporated it into their works to reflect the dynamism of the increasingly mobile and chaotically fragmented modern world. Later, however Modernism's narrow concentration on form and the art object drove avant garde artists like Yves Klein to rebel and take on space itself as meaningful. In 1958 Klein painted the outside of the Iris Clert gallery in Paris his spiritually significant blue and painted the inside white, removing everything except one empty showcase. Entitled The isolation of senxibilih in a state of primary mattes stabilized by pictorial sensibility, the exhibition offered the site as subject and object for consideration. This was, in the words of artist Patrick Ireland (who writes under the pen-name Brian O'Doherty), the "new space," the gallery "infiltrated with consciousness. The white cube [as] art-in-potency, its enclosed space an alchemical medium."
In the 60's and 70's art's space, rather than the things within it, increasingly became the locus for many artists' attention. They focused on specific sites: fields, deserts and seashores, as well as on gallery "non-sites" (as Robert Smithson designated them) where other locations could be interpreted. Other artists were looking at space as specific sites and attending to their work's context--whether it was the empty building which housed the work, the museum as cultural institution, or the intangible electronic techno-space of video, T.V. and sound.
While installation space was something to be occupied, explored or felt as a substance or volume it was also something recognized as shaping mind and society and therefore loaded with political and cultural implications. Maria Nordman repeatedly recast public sites and buildings as spaces where observation and human occupation were the art under consideration. She used existing architecture and urban territories of meeting to show how place can interact with the social groups in which it is located. Space could also be genderized. In 1972 Womanhouse was founded as a collaborative art environment by feminist women of the California Institute of the Arts, under the direction of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. It was a temporary space where the domestic rituals of women's lives could be explored in the politically explicit context of an abandoned and condemned house.
Space in this century is a material completely bound up with our experience of it. Feminism and psychoanalysis in an age impacted by Einstein's Theory of Relativity have amplified the position of the viewer and it's a relationship vital to contemporary art. Just as the art object now interacts with its context, the viewer's role in assigning meaning or creating it has become central to the art malting process.
Installation art is inexorably linked to experience. It depends on its audience. Frequently bodily movement unfolds the work's meaning or creates it. Sensations, sounds, and smells are an integral part of it. But most essentially, time passes, and it is the living time of the viewer. Unique to installation art is the importance of the real time experience of the audience. They are observing, and perhaps participating in, something which often has only a limited life span or can be altered by their presence. The piece may not be the same twice, even for j the same viewer. It may be gone next week. While often subtle, this shanng of time by the art and the audience highlights the importance of the expenence of the viewer to the work and its meaning. Clearly an installation is a construction whose function is to be experienced now. It exists for that purpose and then (usually) ceases to exist.
I find installation's transitory nature and experiential basis to be significant at this point in history.
First perhaps because it suggests art is a living thing. But secondly, because installation ideally represents a radicalization of space, a talking back of art's ability to think and operate independently within a world of product marketability and sales (Realistically of course, within a global culture of capitalism where even ideas are commodities, installations are as much product as anything else).
However I consider conscious expenence to be precious. In witnessing one of Connie Zehr's "carpets" of loose copper slag erupting sculptural chunks whose meaningful relationships change as we move around them, or feeling the slow bum keenness of watching something almost imperceptible like Charles Ray's spinning tableware, or chasing our own illusive video image in one of Bruce Nauman's video pieces, something which underlies the significance of art in the present world is emphasized: The importance of the individual's expenence.
We live at a time where Universal Studios and virtual reality have reengineered experience so that first-hand human knowledge is fast becoming indistinguishable from techno-simulation. There are now millions of people living vicanously through actors on soap operas, and the media routinely devours the world for uss burping out detachment and stimulation. In such a world mindful expenence is endangered. Like law and religion, art is facing a brave new world nfe with humanity ' s increasing capacity for self-manipulation, deception and mind games. In such an environment installation art can question and revive the human capability of thinking on its feet, and "knowing" directly by expanding, exhuming and exploring individual experience.