ART OR ARTIFICE
by Robert J. Lewis
A room with 15 dried cow stomachs suspended from a knotty cord
that runs diagonally from the upper left wall to the lower right
floor corner. Exit.
A room with disassembled plumbing and toilet parts around which
visitors can circulate. Exit.
A room with human bones and skulls arranged on flat, rectangular
slabs of concrete. Exit.
are not sets for Hollywood freak films or the work of adolescents
discharging their angst. Astonishingly, for some us that is, all
the rooms are valued as works of art. I caught the dried cow stomach
installation at Canada’s National Art Gallery in Ottawa.
That the part time agriculturalist-artist did not indulge in the
obvious sound effects speaks to the restraint required of any
da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks to disassembled
plumbing parts, the jumpy line that traces the history of art
cannot be accused of standing still. Somewhere along the way,
the room replaced the frame in defining the spaces we set aside
for art. The reasons for this are as interesting and telling of
our times as the artwork itself and are the subject of this primer
on installation art, which, broadly speaking, consists of rooms
or spaces in which items are installed as art.
first example of what was then called Conceptual Art, whose bold
new mediums consisted of ‘ready-made’ or ‘found
objects,’ appeared 1917 when iconoclast Marcel Duchamp installed
a urinal in a New York gallery, which, for the first time ever,
allowed the viewer to evaluate and physically respond to an artwork
without moving from the spot. But it would take another 50 years
for that reckless Dadaist gesture to evolve into an artistic movement.
If installation art prizes novelty above all else, where the room-to-be-filled
and the imagination meet in the winner’s circle on every
occasion, we had to wait for Susan Robb and Jeff Mille’s
Golden Tower Project (2000), which featured
a tower made of 400 jars of urine, to assure the movement’s
continuity -- doing Monsieur Duchamp proud.
Installationism, we are no longer observing the artwork from a
safe distance but are quite literally inside it, part and parcel
of its environment and content: touching, climbing over, exploring,
engaging, rearranging and interfacing with it. We have become
blasé before the conventional modalities of representational
art that feature mere paintings hanging on a wall in a room that
may also function as a study, living room or den. What we now
ask of art is that it totally engage us. We seek out artistic
environments in which all non-artistic elements are purged in
order to facilitate our total immersion and participation in the
art. Could it be that we are so overwhelmed by the rapid-fire
pace of change and lack of instruction and tradition to guide
us through the hazards of modernity, that after the day is done
we want our art to take its place alongside the triple scotch
and favourite drug in attending to the urgent repair of our bruised
and bullied post-modern psyches? Art must now provide not only
artistic moments but alternative worlds that fill the void of
what is most lacking in our daily lives: clarity and peace of
art breaks new ground by virtue of unlimited choice of materials
and manner in which it extends the frontiers of artistic space.
Its founding principles are that its alternative worlds be autonomous
from the real world and that the viewer -- the enabled, aleatory,
gypsy center of the spectacle of which he is both the alternating
witness and participant -- be provided the latitude (the physical
grid) to accommodate his inclusion in the art, which is always
his first reason for being there. The newly empowered viewer merely
has to show up to become part of the creative process.
its radical departure from all previous art, Installationism did
not arrive out of the blue. It has been informed by both painting
(especially minimalism) and sculpture (the mobiles of Henry Moore).
To begin with, painting had to divest itself of perspective (3-D)
and everything figurative in order to reflect the essence of the
2-dimensional surface of any canvas, so that what you see and
what is there are one and the same. This long-term obsession with
the purification of painting -- ridding it of all trace-elements
of illusion -- owes its beginnings to Cubism and geometric art.
But it would require the monochromatic canvases of Rothko and
Barnett Newman for painting to finally evolve into an irreducible,
self-identifying singularity, which becomes the essential condition
of installation art where the artistic content of any room is
the room itself.
completes the coercive trend in art that makes it answerable to
non-artistic considerations. If in the 15th century, it was the
wealthy Medicis and the like that determined and sponsored the
kind of art they felt should be exhibited -- mostly edifying or
didactic (religious) art -- this began to change with the advent
of the Industrial Revolution whose suddenness spawned a new social
paradigm which included a burgeoning middle class. From the 17th
century on, art begins to assume an increasingly pharmaceutical
role as the demand for it becomes democratized. It was a time
when cities became mega cities, generating unprecedented noise,
pollution, poverty, squalor and disease. No surprise that landscape
emerged as the dominant art form, offering beautiful, dreamy,
idealized vistas that diverted the common folk from their degraded
environments and the stress of daily life. The idyllic, pastoral
landscapes of at first Poussin, then Ruisdael, Lorrain, and Canaletto
became their eras' equivalent of post modern escapist art. Folk
and later Art Naif (Rousseau) served the same purpose. With the
impressionists, the last remnants of realism disappear, giving
way to landscape whose alternative-world appeal begins to take
on grander proportions. Not just Europe, but an increasingly wired
and homogenous Western world fell in love with Impressionism.
all of this suggests is that while critics and art aficionados
have historically assigned the highest value to painting and sculpture,
the fact of the matter is that since the 17th century the impulse
behind much in the visual arts has not been our edification, but
to quietly supply the calm and serenity lacking in our lives.
end of the 20th century, the real world has become so frenzied
and unmanageable (unbearable), minimalism is able to carve out
a significant niche for itself, until even that proves unsatisfying
because the viewer discovers himself separate and alienated from
the art he is beholding -- at a distance. From there, it is only
a matter of looking at any room with fresh eyes and making the
(actual) leap to installation art that finally grants the viewer
the freedom to be an active element ‘inside’ his favorite
artwork, to be an object among art objects in a room dedicated
to his temporary but marvelous flight from the real world, where
formalized cubic art spaces are cherished as temporary stays against
the unstable, formless complexities of modern life. And it is
precisely here where art is paused, at the blur between Installationism
and escapism, a state of affairs that reveals the disposition
of art goers no less than the self-assurance of the critics who
sing the praises of this new art.
art never stands still and artists, in collaboration with or at
the behest of their public, are constantly under pressure to push
the envelope and seek out new frontiers, we must ask, what next?
Perhaps those of us least equipped to deal with modernity might
decide to take up permanent residence within an installation.
There, in an alternative world, very real human dramas would begin
to unfold, and once again the distinction between life and art
will blur, and we will have come full circle, only to discover
that from the very beginning we have been riding a philosophical
wheel that turns and turns until it turns into its opposite. The
name for this bold new art-work: As The World Turns,
Monday through Friday at 2 pm, brought to you by Guggenheim Inc.
THE VISUAL ARTS
ART ISN'T ART