INSTALLATION'S
EXPANDED FIELD

SUVAN GEER


 

 

Bill Viola, "The Crossing," video/sound installation,
27'6" x 80' x 16', 1996.
Photo: Kira Perov.

 

I want to talk about time. That is, about time and installation art. There has been a lot of discussion about installation in terms of site, but nothing in terms of the form's fundamental temporality--its unique dependence on the lived experience of the present moment and the way its intrinsic present-ness highlights the temporal dislocations of vision, memory and identity. Yet it is the way that that conflated present steps into those realms of timelessness that makes time the expanded field of this kind of art. I think it is significant that an artform that was originally called 'environmental' and so reeked of space, eventually became 'installation', a designation tied to time. "Installation" in the dictionary simultaneously means either a permanent site or the ongoing process of setting up--both meanings are temporal.

Installation art is distinguished by its temporality. Unlike paintings or sculptures that still "are" in the storehouse, installation only really "is" while it is presented. Fragments may remain from an Ann Hamilton installation: piles of singed shirts, a video element, even a couple hundred sewn fencing dummies--but those things are not the art. Hamilton even refuses to title her installation's fragments. Untitled they are less independent of their installation.

Her insistence strives to make clear that her objects are artifacts not art. In this way installation is akin to performance art. And, as the amazing documentation of the Out of Action exhibition at MOCA recently made clear about performance as a temporal art form, artifacts are documentation but not art. Only when a piece is re-installed does it again come into existence.

The rotating nature of gallery or museum exhibitions undoubtedly tends to make all art look temporary, but only installation is completely dependent on the exhibition's duration for its life span. Much installation also exploits that dependency. Richard Wilson's 20-50 walk-in lake of reflective black sump oil (20-50 weight) at MOCA had to be remade for each exhibition as it traveled around the world. Remaking an installation is more than setting up a sculpture; it is a fusion with the site and its temporal structure. Skylights, the museum site and time of day all mattered in Wilson's artwork. It derived meaning from the visual and social inversion of what was seen as high and low, crude and 'enlightened', polluted or pristine, lasting and evanescent.

But as self-conscious of its time as much installation is, it is also keenly aware of the viewer's time within it. Pieces that require the viewer's movement through the space to be completed are based on the experience of time as linear, with one event following another. The actions required by Margaret Honda's installations are elemental to the work's meaning. Climbing ladders, touching marbles or negotiating darkened spaces around fishhooks are cumulative experiences of helplessness, control or precarious order. That information is always imbedded in the ongoing tick of the body's experience within the space. It is in the arena of video installations that installation shifts past the time of the viewer's lived experience to draw attention to the temporal quality of vision or looking.

In Bill Viola's The Crossing, presented at the Grand Central Market downtown, his video's real-time took the viewer's experience of the art into a dimension suggesting timelessness. The projected images of a man's body enacted a slow ritual of arrival for viewers who similarly had to find the site and circle the screen to arrive in front of either of its two images. Once "there" the audience and the image were both inundated by an assault of auditory and pictorial fire and water in an endless cycle of visual absorption.
Gary Hill's rooms often reveal the telescopic nature of time as it contracts or expands within the intensity of looking. Many of his videos cycle unending loops of perpetually breaking waves, infinite ocean horizons or fragmented sequences of things tied to time, like closing doors or fingers on a keyboard. The unceasing but always moving nature of the looped images bouncing across strings of video screens or sliding across walls strangely shifts time from the linearity of the film into the disjunctive territory of memory. It's a kind of ongoing déjà vu that knocks the work from real-time into recollection as the viewer confronts the representation as well as their memory of it in an awareness that seems to stretch into infinity but finds no immediate location in space.

 

Gary Hill, "Learning Curve,"
computer generated model
for installation, 1993.



Lewis DeSoto, "Language of
Paradise", installation, 1990.
Photo courtesy Bill Maynes
Gallery, New York.

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Art's space or site was once considered a neutral ground, without significant meaning. Similarly time has been taken to be benign. But time can also have meaning because memory and identity are time-based constructions and politically and culturally loaded. Memory hauls the past into the present where it floats, tethered only by mental strings to reality and real time. Identity is an experience of the present self or others based on memory and the recorded past.

Installation can, by investigating memory, identity or even the politics of vision, use its particular "present-ness" as a comment on, or to evoke the dislocation or rootlessness of self or history. Lewis DeSoto's installations allow viewers to site themselves as obliterating shadow, anticipated observer or investigative participant in the myths, land and language of the Cahilla people who are his ancestors.

Distance is both a journey to be made in time and a perceptual field of film loop images and fragmented objects where separation and dislocation from a personal and cultural self is both perceptual and real.

Time is a construct, a territory mapped and measured, but time is also nothing and beyond calculation. Memory leaps into that infinite chasm in search of self and meaning, vision gets lost in it and just looks.

Installation more than any other art form is linked to and acknowledges time. It's an acknowledgement that always returns insight and meaning to the lived territory of experience.