Apr 19, 2013

Installation's Crisis of Presentation

Feature article by Jeffrey Fereday

At Ian Burn's recent talk at 200 Gertrude Street, which concerned historical Conceptualism and his experience with Art&Language, an ironic conclusion arose from the floor. It was suggested that in light of an historical failure of conceptual practices (namely their assimilation within mainstream art practice) the marginal practice of painting could perhaps now be seen as a radical alternative artistic activity. A glance around the audience suggested that the humour of this logic was lost to the proposal's alarmingly enthusiastic acceptance by a wide spectrum of Melbourne's contemporary art community.

I mention the incident because it provides a current, local background to this article's concerns as to the poorly theorised situation of installation practice, and because the conservative project of Re-Investing Painting is assisted by such a milieu of acritical liberal-pluralist lethargy. It is bunkum to suggest that the practice of painting has ever been marginalised within the Australian art institution; painting has remained the pre-eminent form of mainstream radical practice and the centre of institutional attention. As radical practice it has persistently proven itself lacking a capacity to support serious critique of its own assumptions - beginning with its belief in that which lies within its frame, a 'truth' only visible upon suspension of awareness towards its frame and its contextual periphery.

Restitution of the notion of radical practice in painting almost always involves an abrogation of critical awareness towards the social construct of art. The imagined radical activity of painting substitutes critical appearance for critical engagement. Its regression is prominent as affirmation of the artist's traditional role - as expressive, author-manipulator of privileged visual material that is somehow removed from political economy and establishes its own discrete value - a function which supports the free-market unconsciousness of the pluralist cultural agenda. As such the re-investment of painting, especially when it aims to fortify the value of transcendence, reacts acritically against previous critical movements. Unlike radical projects, the painting putsch has no ambition to disturb the conservative ideological function of the artist, to expose the bankruptcy of authorial painterly utopianism, or to challenge the precepts of representational activity; it makes no demand for an activity of art in critique of the cultural institutions.

There is palpable difference between the ongoing conceptual work in painting within effective laboratory environments such as Store 5, and the sporadic appearance of radical painting in less specific exhibition contexts. For measure of just how radical the new painting can be in its public engagement consider the function of those works involved in the ArtWorkz Three BP Acquisition show at Caulfield Arts Centre recently. With selection based on criteria of innovation and appeal for acquisition, and gallery display reflecting an uninspired arrangement of work in competition, to a piece these works resisted active regard to space beyond their frame. BP's sponsorship of the exhibition is an example of art serving the needs of respectable corporate citizenship, where the negligible costs of involvement return a disproportionate value in the community's perception of a business. Just ten kilometres away from the exhibition gallery, BP Australia's former bayside site in Port Melbourne was for years severely contaminated – much to the concern of bay users and local residents, who learned of the extent of contamination only when the Victorian government bought the site for development and set about a major clean-up project. How, then, are we to read the formal innovation of the collectables displayed in this show as transgressive, bound as they are by a context which serves the social grease (1) of a tarnished corporate image?

The 'given' situation of Conceptualism's mainstreaming is, in any case, somewhat misleading. To the extent that mainstream acceptance of conceptual concerns is achieved, then the inclusion implicates all art practice: despite its nominal category, Conceptualism extends to all art an awareness of its material basis as encoded construct of ideas and ideological positioning. Conceptual art's adversarial potential may have been reduced to that extent of category, to the realm of authorised style and to a lessened value of comparative equivalence (where the value of its expression is formally legitimised as marginal), but to the extent that it has established its moment there is perhaps some progress made. To suggest, therefore, as post-Baudrillardian cultural conservatism attempts, that art's contestative impulse is bound to critical absorption and that we'd all be better off just getting on with the painting, is to deny the process by which art as cultural contestation disperses its social work – strategically, randomly, directly and indirectly, across all fronts, within language and against its atrophy. Perhaps it is not a question of whether painting, or any other art activity, is radical in relation to other art practices, but whether its practice can remain useful as art towards active cultural critique. Despite and precisely because of its profound lack of direct contestative effect, through its peculiar value as cultural surplus, painting may yet claim an activity within that project.(2) Like radical painting, Conceptualism might be critically exhausted as style, but the contestative impulse is the motor of art/history, ephemeral, constant, constantly changing, and not so easily suppressed.

Towards an interrogation of the term 'installation', the situation and critical currency of installation practice are to be examined here in relation to a similar process of institutional absorption. Like Conceptualism, installation has historical association as a contestative strategy within the artistic, its procedural arrangement is often concerned with the space of its reception, and because its popularisation and institutional acceptance are now held to have diminished its critical effect.

Arising from the ferment of social critique in the '60s, historical installation used its conceptual material to address the culture of specto-commodity. By refusing to produce discrete artefacts such as painted canvasses which held privileged value as luxury commodities for speculative investment, it constructed an art which was not readily marketable as discrete works, which was conceptually based and site-specific, which stressed process as much as product, and which demanded experiential investment of its audience. Situated as spatio-temporal display, perhaps the first reference of installation practice concerns site-specificity. Early installation was consciously a critical strategy which sought to foreground the situation of the institution, as prioritised in the work of Daniel Buren: work – as interventive construction, by which the architecture of the art institution was made visible – in its site. The impermanence of its construction and the formulaic reconstitution of its context worked oppositionally, emphasising the conceptual activity of art against the object-focus of the art institution.

Though this historical work against art's institutional commodity may sound naive to a contemporary art culture indifferently aware that market economy pervades all language, the expanded field of installation at least clarified a condition of complicity and privilege within prevailing forms of art activity and display. Further, by its exposure of such conditions, installation pointed the need in contestative art to critical practices of disruptive engagement, a site-specific game of logical anarchy within the cultural arena.

How useful is the term today when a profusion of work, extraordinarily diverse in its media, ambition, and presentation, assumes the title 'installation'? So casually is it applied that 'installation' can variously describe such divergent practices as gallery-constructed mounds of earth formed like pudenda, multi-media shows which subject audiences to the indignity of interactive spectacle (an assault upon all the senses!), and even the scatter/clutter-display or serial arrangement of discrete made-for-loungeroom, boardroom, or stockroom paintings and drawings. Little wonder that some artists and writers have become hesitant about the term's use. In fact, the aesthetic ascendancy of installation as cross-media art form, and the resultant baggage of aesthetic expectation now carried by 'installation', inform a movement of artists against use of the term as description and nominal entry-point to their work.

The passage of the term's critical moment has not been affected so much by conservative writers/artists, for their projects have, by and large, continued to ignore installation. Greater damage to installation's critical functioning has accrued as the effect of curators/artists/writers whose work prioritised the material presentation and challenge to viewing conventions. Instead of directing their address toward installation's interventionist content, they have largely approached installation as an art form. While this situation points to a failure of criticism and the curatorial function, it also changes both the stakes and the game plan for artists who continue to work installation's adversarial potentials.

It may be useful here to consider the work of Perspecta 1991, whose thematic interest in 3-D art has contributed to the wider art-institutional shift in the situation and status of installation as an art form. The Perspecta survey is of course only one agency through which installation has shifted status from marginal activity to a legitimised marginal activity of curatorial interest to the Australian art museum, but its high public profile and its use of the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition space give its process particular interest. The agency of this shift in status was the event, itself distinguished as cutting-edge survey. With this cover of mediation, the museum anticipates installation's absorption within its architecture, materially defining and enclosing installation practice, while the event culturalises it, constructs it as tendency, and legitimises it as new form. The art works, even as they may critique and seek to redefine their site, are themselves anticipated, accommodated, positioned, while their interventionist noise is already absorbed. We witness a moment of cultural schizophrenia: a moment of reaction to institutional closure circumscribed by a moment of celebrity. And thereafter, under the aesthetic ascendency of form, we applaud the broken rhetoric of its strategy, now legitimate content within the institutional discourse. Few of the Perspecta works anticipated this process in a way one could describe as site-specific.(3)

But curatorial events such as Perspecta only formalise a situation which, within a broader art-curatorial context, has already taken 'installation' as a description of tendency. Instead of a critical reference to cultural presentation, installation now more widely describes an approach to display which operates as an aesthetic principle concerned with constructing expanded material space upon the art work. Even where artists work against that tendency, there are other agencies to recuperate installation's critical effect: criticality in this new aesthetic is commodified as the expected formal gesture, while installation's constructed impermanence, far from being inherently critical of the art-institutional commodity, could be said to celebrate cultural exclusivity by means of its uniqueness and by its ephemeral relation to institutional permanence. All dressed up with nowhere to go and nothing of affect to say, the first tendency of acritical contemporary installation is to celebrate its gallery ambience. In so far as 'installation' describes aesthetic procedure, this assimilation has already occurred: new aesthetic = old agenda.

Installation's site within the art institution prescribes the formal material of its expectation, the limits of its contestative potential, and the institutional basis of its criticality and referentiality. In order to differentiate its arrangement of objects from the image economy of spectacular commodity display, to signify its privileged status, to demonstrate the surplus cultural value of commentary or intervention, installation must utilise the functional remove of the artistic. It participates with, and works from within, the consciousness industry. Perhaps this mediation goes without saying, but it is an awareness that is overlooked at the practitioner's peril – as evidenced in much contemporary installation work which either ignores institutional mediation upon the situation it represents or else rejects reference to its social activity and is concerned solely with aesthetic expression, a poetics of installation-as-form. Such installation, second generation forays into the celebrated frontiers of gallery space, often bases its work on the physical space of site and is thus space-specific, rather than site-specific. It has more in common with theatre-set design or interior decoration than critical, site-specific installation.

'Installation' is commonly used in place of 'exhibition' to prioritise an art work's condition of display before the form of its constituent material, where display is conceived as integral to the art work's content – as in An Installation Of Rocks rather than Rock Art. To the extent that this reflects or alters perception, emphasising display as arena of significant artistic concern and problematising the culturalised relationships of 'exhibition', then 'installation' describes more than simply a rearranged, expanded, authored, or directed view of the art object; as work constructed within the cultural, and as a construction dealing with arrangement and display, installation works to prescribe an experience of a condition of reception.(4) At its broadest reference, and yet its most basic, installation addresses the condition: Cultural Spectator.

If through generalised overuse or limiting historical association 'installation' now lacks specificity to describe a work's strategy of presentation, or even its material form or aesthetic convention, then to what extent of situation or approach does its currency describe? The strategic shift whereby installation replaces exhibition as procedure replaces display now rarely functions as contestation, but is more often gestural. The idea of such intervention remains, but is often simulated as aesthetic manner, as part of the distinguishing baggage carried by the form. Here the gesture of interventive act might replace the artefactual object without contest to its commodity. Clearly formal strategy is as easily reconstituted within the spectacular rationale of the commodity as any look or any style. Thus a value is established: installation begins to represent, to a familiar hierarchy of consumer taste, new expectations of connoisseurship in the commodity being addressed.

Yet it is installation's concern with display that might provide its most useful connecting factor to reference social spaces of and beyond the art institution; installation's differentiated objects are arranged upon this nexus to stand not alone as discrete signifieds but in relation to the system of objects represented in and beyond the constructed space of display. Despite installation's gesture towards articulation of individualised, specific experience, the possibility of activity in its reception typically is rendered unavailable except as an experience of contemplative isolation: one no longer stands before culture as its alienated subject, one stands this way within it. So engaged, installation speaks ironically to the condition of cultural spectator, its speech constructed as a silent, one-way, uninterrupted conversation. Yet the silence installation affords its receptive space may speak critically: beyond the point where consumption has grasped the whole of life; where all activities are sequenced in the same combinatorial mode; where the schedule of gratification is outlined in advance. Where environment is complete, completely climatised, furnished, and culturalised finally to the systematic organisation of ambience, then an installation art concerned with redefining the culture of commodity must address as participant the situation its privileged appearance stands to mask – our culturalised relationship with objects.

  1. On Social Grease is the title of an installation work by Hans Haacke first exhibited in New York in May 1975.  It comprises plaques of quotations taken from books and magazines about what is good about art for business. One of the texts quotes Robert Kingsley of EXXON – 'EXXON's support of the arts serves the arts as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment.'
  2. I am not suggesting that art's utility is direct – rather, it is highly mediated, immeasurably dispersed – but that its constitution as cultural surplus value, as cultural object without functional use-value, is itself a use which prefigures and circumscribes art as a functional condition.
  3. Of notable exception were Adam Boyd's sculptural installations of borrowed tuna and tomato tins, with their ironic references to monumental sculpture, pop art, colour field, and the threat of culture constructed as a precarious and untouchable arrangement of consumer goods, which were indeed site-specific to the Perspecta event and to the situation of critical absorption which the museum context anticipated. 
  4. Even where it avoids directly interractive elements, installation anticipates the presence of an audience. In this respect it shares with certain performative arts a similar ethical concern as to the selective and manipulative construction of its designed experience, at least to the extent that its meaning is incomplete without an activity of reception and that its design is established as a directorial process.
© 1991

  • First published as feature article in the art journal, Agenda: Contemporary Art, no. 21, Jan 1992, pp. 5-6
  • Reprinted as the opening chapter in book, Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio (eds.) What is Installation?: An anthology of writings on Australian installation art, Sydney, Power Publications, 2001