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I still think with pleasure about Bill Viola’s video projection installation, Five Angels For the Millennium that ended last April at the Getty. It was a haunting and thrilling emersion in underwater sound and stunning visual bursts as bodies fell or rose forcefully through deep seas of dark water, tailing glistening streams of explosive bubbles. As I wandered, scanning the five immense screens, waiting for the random bouts of dynamic imagery to break the thick fields of empty water before me, the sense of anticipation became almost tangible. Slowly that feeling became a delicious metaphor for all kinds of physical and metaphysical longings.

Installation art has always been for me that kind of vivid experience; part physical poetry, part intellectual conundrum, something that transforms empty space into a vigorous place of encounter and thought. But recently many of the installations I’m seeing in museums feel tired, even moribund.

That’s certainly the feeling I had after I exited Ernesto Neto’s organic sensory tent at the MOCA Gallery at Pacific Design Center and again when leaving Sitings: Installation Art 1969 -2002 at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary site: so many pieces, so little juice. It got me wondering why. While Neto’s stretched pink nylon birth/passage was subtly interesting, his elaborately counterbalanced and padded art womb was a dull sensory game and strangely lethargic. Sitings, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, might have been an engrossing survey of the art form’s most prolific years, like the Arte Povera exhibit presented in the same space last year.

Bill Viola, "Silent Mountain,"
2001, video installation.

Ernesto Neto, “Three Religions, No
God and the Children,” 2003, textile,
polyurethane foam, rocks, polypropylene
pellets, beans, corn, rice, Styrofoam
pellets, chamomile, lavender, and
oregano, dimensions variable
Photo: Brian Forrest

Instead Sitings’ works, which often relate only tangentially to installation’s ambiguous history, read in this setting simply as dry artifacts of once vivid experience, as labor intensive sculptural objects or a collection of performance art artifacts, robbed of the immediacy that gives the genre life. Only a few pieces retain any kind of body heat, most notably the subversive power of Mike Kelly’s corridor gauntlet damning the damaging tyranny of utopian thought, Pay for Your Pleasure; the fragile trail of interconnected life in Sarah Sze’s Many a Slip; and Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest, Julie Becker’s poignant real estate office and cardboard box apartment/compartments that unite the viewer with the hopelessness of the homeless masses.

Installation is a hard-to-pin-down kind of art making. There is no clear and simple definition of what it is, of the sort enjoyed by painting, sculpture or video. Indeed artists have been known to use all those mediums in making an installation. But one constant for installation is space or site and what the artist makes of it. I could argue that the works that still feel vigorous to me in Sitings have, or make, an intellectual as well as a physical connection to the context of the museum or to its urban locale. Many of the others, despite the exhibit’s title, sit in the galleries like isolated, preserved specimens. Occasionally the gallery has been altered to accommodate the work, but nothing is made from the exchange. Essentially the pieces could be anywhere.

It’s hard to tell if that detachment from site is just typical of the kind of installation art being selected by MOCA for its collection, or if it’s something that happens to this kind of temporal and space specific art when it gets repeatedly re-made and re-presented. I wonder about that because also at the Geffen, apart from Sitings, is a stand alone installation by Gregor Schneider, Dead House ur. It is an enormous, intentionally fragmented, topsy-turvy, jig- sawed reconstruction of the interior of his parent’s home in Germany that is built into the backside of the museum. The artist uses the obsessive pathology of this home’s renovation as a potent metaphor for interior angst and disorientation. It’s an action that gets an added spin because the home’s interior, room by room or in its entirety, has been repeatedly transported all over the world. Completely un-tethered from it origin and external skin, Schneider’s labyrinth of discontinuous rooms and blind passages is painstakingly reformed and inserted in each new site. It’s a surgery that has been repeated so often the work has become a kind of mobile, formulaic Disneyland of disjunction, feeling weirdly artificial, slick and pre-packaged even as it struggles to present a sense of immediate authenticity with the artist dousing the place with an assortment of cultivated smells, clutter and grime. Even a genuine artist is unable to escape the ennervation that seems attendant to multiple presentations.

(No links to screen size images)

Christoph Büchel, “Untitled,”
2003, mixed media installation,
dimensions variable.

Robert Gober, installation,
dimensions variable.
BIn contrast, however there is nothing detached or slick about Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s transformation of LACE’s storefront exhibition space on Hollywood Boulevard into a fictitious, abandoned armament storage facility. While both venues have you sign waivers in case you slip and fall in the constructed room’s disturbed spaces, only Büchel’s messy, funny and decidedly hard to follow labyrinth of covert operations passing through a torn-up bathroom, metal locker, raw hole ripped into an office wall and forcing you to slide narrowly past stockpiles of derelict missiles and rusting bombs seems to really demand caution. In addition the artist has covered LACE’s street facing windows and door with rough plywood sheets and sprinkled the stoop with dirt and discarded cardboard. From the outside the site looks truly abandoned. Locals on the street commented to me as I stood outside that it was a shame the space had closed. They were stunned to hear the boarding up was part of the art being presented in the darkened, junk-filled interior.

That confusion, located in the tenuous existence of an alternative art site and the reality of businesses going under in an area of town slowly recovering its economic footing, makes Büchel’s abandoned military stockpile resonate on another level as well. The stockpile hidden in plain sight speaks of paranoia, military industry and what could happen after “homeland security” is history. Because Büchel’s installation doesn’t just occupy its site but uses it to generate meaning, the work seems to vibrate with all kinds of questions.

For all its psychological complexity and the incredible labor involved, Schneider’s Dead House ur does little to affect or dialogue with the museum it now occupies. Only the mysterious indigent’s “dead body” that the artist some-times deposits in the parking lot near the work’s outside door pushes past the relic-enshrined-in-a-museum deadness.

Installation art had its origins in site specificity, happenings and alternative spaces. Rooted in the contemporary hunger for authentic experience it has always been, at heart, a transient kind of work. Museums however are dedicated to the preservation of art, not just its presentation. So it is not surprising that MOCA’s installation collection would feel so much like assembled artifacts. Or, too, that art rotating from site to site would suffer a loss of immediacy or feel detached from where it takes up a residency. What is troubling, however is what this kind of detachment from place, site and time might signal about the future of installation art. After all, the artists who now do installation routinely pack them up and travel them from venue to venue, biennale to museum to gallery world-wide. Every re-presentation brings its challenges but the necessary mobility also encourages formulaic approaches with an assumption that all sites are the same. When I compare the vigor of say, Ann Hamilton’s, or Robert Gober’s installations made specifically for the Geffen to the work on view now, that assumption feels to me as if something vital is slipping away.