Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 3, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dube
Phil Nixon
Mark Goldfarb
Robert Rotondo
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Emanuel Pordes
  Arts Editor
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
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  Noam Chomsky
Robert Fisk
Michael Moore
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Mark Kingwell
Arundhati Roy
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Jean Baudrillard
John Lavery
David Solway
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein



by Robert J. Lewis


Enter. 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.

Enter. A room with disassembled plumbing and toilet parts around which visitors can circulate. Exit.

Enter. A room with human bones and skulls arranged on flat, rectangular slabs of concrete. Exit.

These 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 successful endeavor.

From 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.

urinalThe 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 The Golden Tower Project (2000), which featured a tower made of 400 jars of urine, to assure the movement’s continuity -- doing Monsieur Duchamp proud.

With 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 mind.

Installation 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.

Despite 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.

Installationism 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. What 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.

By the 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.

Since 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.

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