Installation Art-Essence and Existence
by Nicholas Zurbrugg
( Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1991, pp 16-21)

In his purpose of 'changing the definition of art',
Duchamp had no power to exclude, he could only widen
the language, only make us aware that art is all pervading.

As Richard Hamilton hints in the lines above from his introduction to the Tate Gallery's 1966 retrospective of The almost complete works of Marcel Duchamp, innovative art widens the languages of creativity rather than sharing theory's compulsion to propose definitions which exclude practices or perspectives by pronouncing them to be universally discredited or dead. Postmodern installation art typifies some of the most interesting 'wider' contemporary artistic languages, challenging and extending our preconceptions regarding art's material, conceptual, institutional and authorial parameters.

Considered in terms of its wider characteristics, installation art might tentatively be defined as that which artists install, inside, outside or around exhibition space. As becomes evident, exhibition space may be institutional, commercial, domestic or public Installations are in turn orchestrated in real time, in the techno-t me of recording data, or virtually outside time, within display cases, for example Installation materials range across static, dynamic and interactive combinations of organic, graphic, typographic, plastic, sonic, kinetic, photographic, filmic, videomatic, telematic, cybernetic and virtual representation of everything from material, physical, environmental and mechanical realities, to evocation of conceptual, theoretical, spiritual, and metaphysical experience.

Perhaps the single-most common feature of all installations is their use of three-dimensional space One way or another, most installations extend beyond the picture frame, exploring and asserting a more complex spatial impact than the framed picture or the sculpture object. In other words, whereas conventional painting or sculpture are studio products predating specific exhibition spaces, which then enter and inhabit a specific space according to the requirements of their owner or curator, installation art usually comes into existence as the artist's attempt to redefine a particular exhibition space. In this respect, every installation artist is their own curator, and every exhibition space is subject to the requirements of the installation interfacing with its dimensions.

Considered in existentialist jargon, the aesthetic essence and the aesthetic impact of conventions art and sculpture might be said to precede their existence within exhibition space. By contrast, much installation art attains its aesthetic essence and its aesthetic impact in terms of its very construction and completion within the parameters of a particular exhibition space In this respect existence Determines essence. Its existence as an installation responding to a particular spatial or environments context determines its specific aesthetic essence as installation art.

The concept of 'installation art' is of relatively recent origin as a widespread, self-conscious term. While it is tempting to redefine ancient constructions such as Stonehenge as primitive modes of environmental or astronomical installation, such hypotheses at best add a somewhat specialised aesthetic gloss to more rigorous accounts of their subject As I shall suggest in the following pages, it seems more helpful to consider the origins of different kinds of contemporary installation art in terms of the early twentieth century avant-garde movements, such as Futurism, the Bauhaus experiments, Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism. Despite the widespread assumption that modernist and postmodernist culture are characterized by an oppositional dynamics, it seems evident that postmodern installation art derives from modernist experimentation in terms of an evolutionary dynamics, elaborating, extending and making explicit the implicit potential of these artists' differing aspirations towards an art of installation. As the French Surrealist poet Aragon (remarks referring in this instance to Robert Wilson's theatre), the most positive forms of postmodern art realise and revolutionise what the most positive modernists 'dreamed' that art might become, 'after us, beyond us'.

Briefly, many forms of contemporary installation art make historical sense as the systematic and technological realization of modernist 'dreams'. As becomes apparent, another less satisfactory form of contemporary installation occurs when an initial installation within a public, domestic or commercial gallery space is inadequately transported or inadequately documented within institutional gallery or museum space. This problem occurs most frequently where what one might think of as installation-performances, or installation-actions, in public, domestic or commercial spaces are transformed from dynamic process into fragmentary, static product as a kind of inert, documentary installation relic.

As one might expect, Futurist experiments place considerable emphasis upon technological subject matter, technological performance and technologically mediated modes of installation. Discussing "Electricity in Italian Futurism", in the catalogue for Electra (Frank Popper's survey of electronic art at the Paris Musee d' Art Moderne, in 1983), Noemi Blumenkanz-Onimus cites Enrico Prampolini's call for 'electromechanical architecture' in his Futurist Scenography and Choreography Manifesto (1915), noting how Prampolini's Magnetic Theatre (exhibited at the International Exhibition of DecorativeArts,1925, in Paris), conceived of "a semimobile set which allows the 'luminous chromatic space' architecture to display itself" Prampolini's Pavilion de l Electronique (1940) in Naples approximates still more closely the large scale kinetic installations of postmodern artists such as Piotr Kowalski, whose Champ d'interaction (1972) typifies the emergence of monumental interactive environ ments and installations.

Similar experiments inform the work of Bauhaus artists such as Laszio Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Hirschfield-Mack. Moholy-Nagy's Light Space Modulator (1930), a work concluded after he left the Bauhaus, seems to exist both as kinetic or static sculpture, and as a twofold installation piece. On the one hand, as Kriztina Passuth notes in her essay on "Light Displays" in the Electra catalogue, it could function as a self-contained installation, "to be enclosed in a box with an opening through which spectators could look at the lighting effects within". On the other hand, it functioned as an interactive, site-modifying work, transforming its surroundings with revolving rays of projected and filtered light. Like Prampolini's semi mobile electro-mechanical stagings, and like Hirschfied-Mack's experiments during the mid-twenties with the Reflected Colour Displays deploying what Hirschfield-Mack defined as "the powerful physical and psychical effect of ... direct coloured beams combining with rhythmic accompanying music to evolve into a new artistic genre", Moholy-Nagy's Light-Space-Modulator anticipates the wave of international mid-sixties exhibitions of kinetic art, kinetic and sonic environments, and kinetic and sonic interactive installation in exhibitions such as Kunst-Licht-Kunst (1966) at the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, and Lumiere et mouvement (1967) at the Paris Musee d' Art Moderne. At the same time, Hirschfield-Mack's work with what Passuth terms "projections containing defined elements and somewhat improvised ones", and his decision to interrupt his visual and musical materials "by switching circuit-breakers on or off", evince much the same spirit as that informing John Cage's chanceanimated musical installations and performances of the mid-sixties.

To discuss Cage's work both as installations and as performances might appear a strategy to stretch the former concept rather more widely than necessary. But as my opening remarks suggest, innovative art's function is precisely that of widening critical concepts. Cage offers the perfect example of this process On the one hand, his presentation and recording of Variations IV (Everest, 1965) at the Feigen-Palmer Gallery in Los Angeles transforms this gallery space into a sonic mixing-pot intermingling concert, performance, happening and installation conventions, as those present in the gallery witness and supplement the sonic collage of live and prerecorded sound orchestrated and activated by Cage and David Tudor

The originality of this kind of installation performance derives specifically from its identity as unpredictable art-in-progress'or unpredictable artas-process' within a specific location. Considering the label for this record one confronts the paradoxical texts: John Cage. Composition (Indeterminate), followed by the extremely precise, determinate detail: 1. Excerpts:7PM to 8PM 5 23. The copresence of such details typifies the recurrent disparity between installation art as some sort of real time process within a specific location (Cage's performance at the Fiegen-Palmer Gallery, in 1964), and installation art as documentation (in this instance, the recorded documentation of Cage's 1965 Everest L.P.). While documentation offers a sense of retrospective precision (timing excerpts from Cage's Variations IV to the precise second), Cage's own performance and composition methods are notionally indeterminate and imprecise.

Put another way, Cage's installation performance, like many interactive performances 'installed' within complex temporal, spatial and presentational parameters, as the precipitate of certain performers or of certain performers and spectators, resists repetition or replication. The same sense of indeterminacy and of unrepeatability characterises Variations V (1965), which Cage performed in a concert situation at the Lincoln Philharmonic Hall in New York. Asked how long the performance would last, a Philharmonic spokesman told reporters that "no one knew how long it would be, that it might last 30 minutes or go on for 45 minutes" In the event, Cage's premiere lasted 40 rninutes; a fact of almost no significance, given that the piece's lighting and sound effects combined continuous tapes, sound from shortwave receivers, and additional sound and lighting effects randomly activated by photo-electric cells responding to the movements of Cunningham's dancers. Consciously evading both pre classification and post-classification, Cage's performanceinstallations and installation performances synthesise both the Futurist artists' and Bauhaus artists' enthusiasm for technological creativity, and the Dadaist artists' enthusiasm for chance compositions employing any and every kind of material available to the artist.

The different Dada groups are particularly rich in examples of proto-installation art The First International Dada Fair (1920), for example, employed Dr. Otto Burchard's Berlin Gallery not so much as an exhibition space, as a total environment in which paintings and collages sat side by side placards with polemical slogans, surrounding the Fair's most notorious exhibit: a suspended tailor's dummy, outfitted in military uniform, ornamented with a pig's head, and annotated with the inscription "Hanged by the Revolution". On the one hand, this multi-media icon anticipates such Pop art installation pieces as Rauschenberg's Monogram (1955), a 'combine' complete with stuffed Angora goat sitting upon its own 'environment'. On the other hand, the satirical strategy of this piece shows how closely Dadaist satirical installation approximates Dadaist satirical performance. For artists like George Grosz, the division between these genres was very narrow indeed, in the sense that Grosz offered military values quite reckless 'active' injury, by ostentatiously wearing dirty military attire in public.

Associated with Dada (if not exactly a card-carrying Dadaist) Kurt Schwitters probably created the most substantial modernist installation'the Merzbau' a structure which, according to his son Ernst, "grew and grew and eventually filled several rooms on various floors of our home". Commenced some time between 1924 and 1925, the Merzbau evolved from a series of idiosyncratic grottos commemorating Schwitters' friends (with items such as a lock of Hans Richter's hair, a piece of one of Van Doesburg ties, one of Sophie Tauber's bras, and a pair of MoholyNagy's socks) towards a more constructivist, architectural structure. As John Elderfield puts it, in his masterly study of Kurt Schwitters, the Merzbau was "a diary on the grandest of scales", integrating sliding doors, secret panels, and over forty 'caves', 'grottos' and 'caverns'.

Considered in tandem with Dada's other most influential installation, Marcel Duchamp's industrially produced urinal entitled Fountain (1917), and signed 'R. Mutt' (exhibited at the Independents Exhibition in New York) Schwitters' Merzbau and Duchamp's Mutt-work lay down two of the guide-lines of all installation art. On the one hand, Schwitters implies that any selection of pre-existing materials may function as an installation in any place if the artist considers them to have artistic value On the other hand, Duchamp suggests that any materials, irrespective of artistic merit, must become art when signed by the artist, or when institutionally legitimated by the curatorial act of accepting them for exhibition within a gallery context.

Schwitter's Merzbau might therefore be considered a precursor for the commemorative impulse in postmodern installation art, or those works which take values seriously. One thinks of Christian Boltanski's poignant accumulations of tin boxes and portrait photographs; of lan Hamilton-Finlay's pastoral and neoclassical inscriptions on wood and stone in his garden at Little Sparta, or of Joseph Beuys' more romantic celebrations of elementary elements and constructions, such as the felt, fat and sledges in The Pack (1969). At a more general level, Duchamp's conceptual impact seems to have made possible any combination of installation materials. Not surprisingly, Perspecta s contents range from Adam Boyd's use of everyday consumer items, Irene Briant's work with garden wire, Richard Goodwin's use of used clothing and rags, Fiona Gunn's non-functional constructions of wood, sand and glass, Maria Kozic's use of 'Bgrade' filmy and T.V. images, Juliet Lea's post-atomic piles of second- hand books and eggshells, to Luke Roberts' collections of kitsch fragments and domestic memorabilia. Working with video, Peter Callas' compositions similarly animate and interact with fragments of urban and media culture.

It is surely significant that Beuys quite explicitly criticised Duchamp's studied indifference to aesthetic and existential values, proposing that "the silence of Marcel Duchamp is over-rated". As Beuys made plain in one of his last interviews (with William Furlong, October 1985, Art Monthly, No. 1 12, January 1988), he deplored the "falsification" and the "cancer" of restrictive postmodern theory, and advocated "something which is related to humankind's creative structures and senses and to thought, feeling and the gaining of power". Such challenging ideals raise a number of problems.

First, it seems clear that there is something unsatisfactory about installations which simply exploit a kind of second-hand Duchampian shock value. Having seen Duchamp's Fountain (or one of its replicas), one gains little joy before postmodern clones by junior Marvels. Likewise, with one or two timeless exceptions such as the opening scene to Dali's and Bunkers On chien {andalou) (1928), one gradually grows impatierit before the more obvious surrealist jokes. Photographs of Dali's Rainy Taxi; an installation in the entrance courtyard to the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris, seem to lack the impact that Dali's original assemblage of taxi, bewigged and bemasked manikins, and abundant live snails, might once have had. In much the same way, Robert Wilson's Memory of a Revolution (1987) (an installation depicting a shrunken Napoleonic figure sitting with mechanically fluttering hands over a miniature theatre held upon his knees, inside a giant hollow elephant's foot, placed within a cage full of stuffed rats), seems curiously pedestrian compared with Wilson's immaculately animated and illuminated theatrical 'installations'.

Rather than following the fortunes of Surrealist installations, one might look for more satisfaction to the Russian Constructivists' polemical textual installations, such as the slogan-covered agitprop river boat, The Red Star (1920), or the agitprop train V/. Lenin (1919) The public textual installations of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and groups like Gran Fury all extend the rather simplistic banners on such boats and trains to the dubious heights of Times Square publicity, electric sign-boards, and highly sophisticated 'total bombardment' gallery installations incorporating texts and images on every possible surface. Beuys' blackboards, and Finlay's more ascorbic posters and prints similarly elaborate this tradition .

Nevertheless, when one asks oneself which installation works or installation-performances and installation-actions seem most substantial, it seems arguable that different kinds of kinetic works seem most attuned to present times. All too often, static installations appear dangerously close to flowerarranging exercises and conjuror's tricks-yet another top hat with attendant rabbit, or yet another flak-jacket with attendant dead hare. In fairness to Beuys (who certainly was an arch-magician, lending himself to arch-caricature), one should also add that he was the author of some of the most compelling public installation-actions and gallery installationactions of the last three decades, even though it is very difficult to say why one has this conviction.

Put very simply, Beuys' gallery based installation-actions, such as Coyote. I like America and America likes me (1974), presented in Rene Block's New York Gallery, and such public installation-actions as his Ausfegen (The Sweeping Out), presented on May Day 1972 in Karl Marx Platz, West Berlin, probably intrigue us conceptually because we have not witnessed their entirety -- and cannot witness their entirety, and can only imagine their entirety when contemplating fragmentary remnants of their process or precipitates, on film or on gallery floors, or within glass cases. What seems interesting about these remnants is the fact that one knows that something much more significant preceded this inadequate evidence of Beuys' actions. In a sense, it is absurd to lovingly encase rubbish from Karl Marx Platz within display cases as though it were pieces of the true cross. Glass cases in Sydney have very little to do with campaigns for 'Direct Democracy' in the early seventies in West Berlin.

Where this leads perhaps, is to the dilemma posed at the beginning of these pages: the problem of distinguishing valid forms of installation and installation action as process from less valid variants of installation as product, or worse still, as substitute for a process that never took place. To be sure, most installations inaugurate an interactive relationship or process between the viewer and the artist's work, requiring the viewer to walk around the work 'reading' its different connotations and implications. But there again, the same is true of most newspaper cartoons: the eye is invited to roam from image to caption, and back again. What seems to count is that there be something worthy of consideration in either installation or cartoon.

As I have rather fragmentarily attempted to suggest, the most rewarding installations are perhaps those which imply or enact some sort of movement, be this their own literal movement as kinetic structure or as installation-action, or be this the viewer's physical or mental exertations, across material or metaphysical space. Paradoxically, perhaps, many of the most interesting installations are 'second-hand' installations which inadequately record -- and very adequately evoke -- their earlier, essential incarnation as installation-actions within more fugitive circumstances, in public, gallery, or inner space.

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