context weblog 2001
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january 23, 2001 ::
Barbara Lee Williams: Once again, the San Jose Museum of Art has led the way in the Bay Area with this historic retrospective, "Blurring the Boundaries, Installation Art 1969-1996," which spans 27 years of site-specific multimedia art installations, and was originally curated by San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. Given the diverse artists in the show -- ranging from Richard Long and Ann Hamilton to Alfredo Jaar and Bill Viola -- I think the title of the exhibition is quite apt. Not only does this art nudge the limits of painting and sculpture by its complex physical presence, but it engages the audience in complicated and varied ways. Moreover, the works seem intriguingly placed to stimulate ideological and aesthetic dialogues.
Sonya Rapoport: The San Jose show is of particular significance in that SFMOMA will extend this spectrum of installation art with its coming exhibition, "Art in a Technological Age," opening March 2, 2001. Their prospective inclusion of video and sound pieces, along with projects employing recently developed digital technologies, makes "Blurring the Boundaries" even more important as a historical foundation.
BW: Surely these two exhibits will provide irrefutable evidence that the shape of art has evolved dramatically - and substantively -- and that there is no going back!
And so, on to the exhibition: what did you think of the first room with its installation pieces by Long, Oppenheim, Ericson and Ziegler, among others? I find Richard Long's piece "Baja California Circle," a sensuous circular sculpture of orange and umber granite, a joyous and clever introduction to this exhibit. I like how you can't enter the gallery without nearly tripping over it.
SR: Barbara, yes, I noticed that you dove right for Long's "Baja California Circle," but I'm still at the entrance where my mental pulse has been quickened by Sol Lewitt's "Isometric Pyramid" (1983/re-installed 1996), strategically painted on the wall outside the gallery. Its acute angles provide metaphoric directional arrows into the exhibit. While the ink wash medium echoes ancient fresco 'installations,' its brilliant colors pulsate and create ambiguous geometric space. This catapults the viewer into the cool, quiet first gallery with its 1969 - 1996 time-frame.
I wonder, is this the year of the installation exhibit? The National Gallery of Art in Washington has announced its acquisition of four early works by James Turrell and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has commissioned Christian Boltanski to do a site-specific work to complement the exhibit, "Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theater?" Ironically, as The New York Times' critic Roberta Smith has suggested, the current presentation of installations of "Unnatural Science" at Mass MOCA provokes questions about the institutionalization of 'conceptual-oriented installations' and 'festivalism.'
BLW: Installation art usually engages each unique site or place in a compelling way -- and often involves time: we are participants and witnesses forced in, around and through the works which vary from venue to venue. Often we have to manipulate the art, although all installation art is not interactive. I, too, was intrigued to read about the Turrell acquisitions by the NGA, but then his work is aesthetically comfortable and, after all, minimalism is now part of the established canon of American art. As for installations falling into 'festivalism,' I find Roberta Smith's arguments that installation works often have little "staying power," and that their meanings can be 'completely available,' to have an element of truth. Obviously, it's important for us to consider these works at San Jose in terms of complex meaning(s) and staying power.
SR: Lets finish with Long's circle: You say that you find Richard Long's piece "a sensuous circular sculpture." Well, that's the problem! I have often felt that his "pre-installation" activities are too highly motivated toward creating beautiful objects. The granite colors are gorgeous. The comprised units, in this case, small chiseled boulders, create virtual motion that is activated by the open spaces between the rocks. The piece is truly beautiful but is it a 'challenging conceptual' installation representing the 'markers' he makes along his physical journey?
BLW: Ah, you mean there might be too much beauty at the expense of expanding intellectual or conceptual content? Regarding your concern about the 'perfunctory' quality of yet another circular piece, I would argue that this work's effectiveness is witnessed by its lasting seductive quality and by the fact that it still insistently evokes the other natural world outside the museum. This stone as reshaped by the human mind and hand speaks to me in a profound, existential way.
Moreover, there is an interesting formal exchange between Dennis Oppenheim's "Sketch for Beats" and the Long piece. The earthen colors -- browns and blues -- create a gentle dialogue. Of course, it's not Oppenheim's real stuff: it's a sketch.
SR: Yes, it's difficult to interact with a drawing that represents a bona fide installation. And the Oppenheim "Sketch for Beats" is actually rather dry. However, the two circles, the Oppenheim, described, and the Long, inscribed, do activate each other in subtle discourse; and being composed in similar earth colors highlighted with blues, they evoke communicable landscape.
BLW: Putting aside the exact definition of installation art for a minute: this is a wonderful room.
SR: Yes, the Erikson and Ziegler piece, "Leaf Peeping" (1988), on the left as you enter, is a series of small jars, almost literally tree icons. They are appropriately muddy-colored to match the real leaf color of each virtual tree. A facsimile of each leaf has been stamped on the outside of the jars. These are hung on the wall according to the location of the trees planted in the New York Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden. This conceptual piece appears bland at first, but it soon activates the room into environmental exchanges.
BLW: With its measured composition of neatly labeled jars on the wall, it evokes scientific, even digital, things.
SR: While retaining its allusion to landscape and nature and rocks and earth and trees, and the jars remind us of digital punctuations, I would refer to the work art as environmentally referential conceptual landscape.
BLW: In recreating the specific arrangement of trees in the MOMA sculpture garden, it is an ironic reference to the artistic establishment, as well. Art may introduce new subjects and forms, or media, yet it is hard to escape reference to traditions of art, for a modern artist the art canonized by MOMA and other institutions.
SR: I am sure some artists would take issue with that statement. Many are trying to avoid references to artistic traditions, especially as housed in museums. Ironically, in a different sense, to glorify the trees rather than the art, that's is more like it! This latter supports the rebellious, the new high-techies and the art/science establishment.
BLW: However, as environmentally referential art, I am more intrigued by Jaap Bonger's "Anatomy of a Tributary River System" with its nine steel framed photo-like images of tributaries of the Lomami River in Zaire. This is a wonderful visual illusion. From across the room it appears to be different photos of sun dappled river water with the name of each tributary superimposed upon it. But up close they do not seem to be photographs but wax rubbings on a textured surface.
SR: The wax produces an iridescence -- and the names of the tributaries are sandblasted on the glass. This gives the images depth. Again, beauty supercedes concept. However, the water theme, and the pictorial resonance in golden browns contribute to the dialogue among the unmistakably environmental artworks in this main room.
BLW: The curator proclaims that the work is about how rivers 'shape continents and civilizations' but I, too, think it is more concerned with visual illusions, with light vs. darkness in a direct reference to the temporary blindness suffered by the artist. The geometry of the work -- the nine neat squares -- is suggestive, too, of our scientific urge to catagorize nature. Of course, with all these squares it also evokes geometric minimalism, especially when you align it with Long's circle of rocks and Ericson and Ziegler's neat mapping of trees. This installation art seems deeply concerned with science as well as the environment.
SR: Frankly, I'm impatient with such beauty. Let's see what other perceptual adventures "Leaf Peeping" leads us to. Here is James Turrell's own room of minimal construction and maximum impact. For me the most gratifying installation in the exhibition.
BLW: Turrell's "Stuck Blue" and "Stuck Red "(both 1970) represent more traditional installation art: the geometric elements demand a specific, especially created environment. These two, glowing, prism-like shapes transform the museum environment into a modern cathedral, austere yet spiritual. Even the colors -- blue and red -- are like stained glass. When you get up close you see that it is an illusion, the impression of the floating forms, yet the magic continues for the prisms are actually created by larger spaces filled with colored light. They remain magical: geometry and light restoring the spiritual to art.
SR: The two rectilinear vertical apertures of light residing in space, measuring about 26" x 90" each, are eye-dazzling and mind-bogling. I was expecting from Turrell more subtly puzzling horizontal vistas with less eference to a tangible structure. This makes me wonder whether the curator or the artist is responsible for this cathedral-like setting. Without it, the religious/spiritual effect would certainly be reduced as would its scale which is perfect for intimacy and meditation. In addition, an illusionary green light on the exit wall plays an extra optical trick.
BLW: This piece is consistent with the accepted definition of installation art in that it demands viewer participation -- we are more than witnesses, our presence activates the work. We had to move through a constructed environment -- not the norm with minimalism. Moreover, our eye is essential for the optical illusion. In this, Turrell's work leads the way towards interactive environments.
SR: Let's continue our foray into "peeping" and try to integrate perception with installation in the next piece, Robert Gober's "Drain" (1990).
BLW: I like that it confused me: I actually peeked into the drain like it was a tiny window -- and, of course, found nothing!
SR: This pewter replica of an ordinary plumbing drain is inserted into the wall about five feet from floor level. Gober considers that the world that you enter into through the metaphor of the drain would be something darker and unknown, like an ecological unconscious.
BLW: Can you compare it to the Anish Kapoor 'slash' on the opposite wall?
SR: I am assuming that you are referring to the "Healing of St. Thomas" (1989). Kapoor explains that the vaginal shape of the image of the wound, a 12 inch gash of red pigment, painted on the wall has more to do with wholeness than death. It refers to the space beyond the wall. The Kapoor and Gober are a perfect pair each installed (essentially back to back) on a long expanse of thick white wall. Gober evokes Marcel Duchamp in two ways: first, as a readymade, and second, as a reference to "Etant Donne," Duchamp's "peep hole" through a door.
BLW: As we wander into the next gallery, it strikes me that the works here are more diverse, and, individually, more complex. Seeing Tony Oursler's "Don't Look at Me" (1994) -- a soft, life-sized cloth doll trapped underneath an armchair, its large head animated by a video -- is like meeting an old friend. It's a favorite of mine because of the strident, accusing voice that hollers at us: 'What are ya looking at? I SAID what are ya looking at?' It's charming but ironic: the trapped figure that refuses to be observed, or helped, even though he's 'trapped' -- what a modern dilemma! Moreover, the noisy sound track makes me realize that the rest of the exhibit is silent.
SR: Barbara, you're much more generous than I in appraising Oursler's 'installation.' The figure may appear trapped but the scenario is soft, lacking tension. This particular work just doesn't click for me here and I'm trying to figure out why. . . .Is the configuration of the face too vacuous? Or is the chair too artfully postured over the figure? Probably I am experiencing this work within a forced context of installation art. What is missing for me is a frame to anchor the frisson to this "hysterical" scene.
BLW: I also wonder if you are responding to the limits of the work's technology. It's rather amazing to think that a piece created in 1994 can seem 'historic' but then developments in technological art have been rapid-fire. Still, I'd argue that Tony's work is unique, aesthetically intriguing and more complex than it first appears. (And I think the vacuous face is intentional....) Your point about its relationship to site is interesting tho -- is it installation art simply because it is 'installed' with multiple pieces and a wee bit of technology?
SR: It is valid installation art when the pieces are integrated into the site. As you say, this is an 'historic' piece. I also approached this signature work as an old friend. However, I do wish that if it purports to be installation art, that the elements be more imaginatively defined within their allotted space.
BLW: Some of these works seem tucked into a corner -- the site doesn't matter -- others seem to adapt to their sites but Ann Hamilton's "linings"(1990) is complete, a world within itself. Each component is tenderly created and beautiful: the pile of soft "boots" made of beige felt, the large but simple felt house. Inside, the floor is composed of splendid dried grasses arranged under large panes of glass and the white walls are constructed of tiny delicate glass pieces like microscope plates. I wanted to read all of the words inscribed on the walls but, of course, that's impossible. Still I could decipher bits of text: 'hills with flowers,' 'prairie,' 'alligators,' 'pools,' 'solemn pine woods'. . .I feel like there is a wonderful story here that I am missing by not reading it all.
SR: I do enjoy Hamilton's pastoral calm and her enigmatic and surprising juxtapositions. Deciphering the labor intensive wall writings (partially washed away); and cautiously stepping on the glass panes (protecting the grass underfoot) are interactive experiences of a kind. Eventually the elements do make sense according to Hamilton's sensibility.
BLW: What do you mean?
SR: I mean that her process of including the unexpected seems formulaic: inclusion of a labor intensive ingredient; elusive narrative; suggestion of physical changes. These and more trigger a continual flux in the viewer's consciousness. So her elements make sense in this regard. Outside the house the pile of felt boot linings evokes a kind of protective warmth, but to me they are more quizzical, a quiet distraction. The size of the pile of linings is either too small to make a focused statement or too big to create a gracious beckoning into the work. Here is evidence that the confines of museum space for an ambitious survey have limitations.
BLW: ... What do you think of the video -- a mouth filled with water -- kerplunk in the middle of this glass and grass house?
SR: That small video at the far end, a woman's mouth being filled with water, provides provocative visual punch. This could connote a two-fold source of life-force, water and woman. In any case, Hamilton startles us and to do so the video is needed. On the other hand, the adjacent work by Alfredo Jaar, "Gold in the Morning" (1986) is overloaded with punches.
BLW: In Jaar's piece, the elements are intriguing but the whole is too abstract. In the center of this small room is a lovely pile of golden nails and a gilt frame. Large scale light boxes frame the central element. It makes a visually stunning piece but the symbolic meanings (although provided by the catalogue) may be a stretch for for the average visitor. And we have seen so many tragic photographs -- are these unique or commanding?
SR: The photographic transparencies, located at the outer edges of the installation make individual compelling statements, but not a cohesive aesthetic statement. Unfortunately this room becomes an unintentional abstract display. We are 'too present' here.
BLW: You make an interesting point, we are 'too present' in this work. I think that relates to scale. This piece was originally shown in the 1986 Venice Biennale: there the glowing light boxes of devastated terrain and peasants with extraordinary, haunting faces were propped against or hung on a large expanse of battered brick wall. The effect was totally different: the light -- literal and symbolic -- came from the images of people and of the land as well as the golden pile of nails/frame that represent the church. I think that the installation must have felt far more spiritual.
SR: Your 'lovely gold nails' heaped in the floor's center symbolize the 'golden calf' of western capitalist exploitation and the domination of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Although referentially and reverentially laiden, this center-piece is a decorative fixture in the museum installation.
The Biennale site would have enclosed us within an environment. Here we are another element too close to the narrative.
BLW: What's interesting about Hamilton, Oursler and Jaar is that the technology is absorbed into the work but does not seem to be the primary subject or the only technical vehicle of the work. Unlike in Bill Viola's vivid "Heaven and Earth" (1992), in which two video monitors face each other and probe, through the reflection of images, the cycle of life. Here the digital world has begun to merge with other forms of installation art. Yet through its persistent presence, technology itself, as viewing our lives perhaps, emerges as an essential component of the subject .
SR: And, by sandwiching his monitors within an interrupted vertical column, Viola has achieved a classic relationship to the site.
BLW: Thus, like several works in this show, Viola achieves our
criteria for significant installation art: intriguing aesthetics that
yield rich levels of meaning and result in staying power.
reposted with permission from *Leonardo Digital Reviews*
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