Back to School Special
In 2005 I was invited to teach installation art at the University of Alberta. An earlier version of this article served as my conclusion to the course (prior to this posting, the piece existed only as a statement read to students at the end of the class). A new school term has just started and I believe that many of the challenges of teaching contemporary three-dimensional or object-based art remain. This information remains relevant and is presented here in essentially the same form as it was written in 2005.
The work of Vancouver based artist Andrea Pinheiro, then a student in the class, is used throughout this article. You can check out her current work at http://andreapinheiro.ca/.
Andrea Pinheiro, “All the Names”, 2005, beeswax stenciled on walls (names of nuclear tests), bed frame, bed covered in porcelain slip.
No Mystery: Installation Art CSI
By Writer in Residence Blair Brennan
“The art object has become a set of clues” — Ralph Rugoff1
With serious reservations, I agreed to teach a senior installation art class at the University of Alberta, Department of Art and Design. Teaching the course would be complicated because installation courses to date had been taught separate (and without technical support) from any existing departmental divisions and this, I felt, revealed a lack of departmental commitment to this studio area. The course was introduced and enthusiastically supported by the Chair of the Department at the time, Jetske Sybesma and was developed and taught for the first two years by Edmonton artist Lyndal Osborne. My respect for Jetske and Lyndal is immense and Lyndal’s students were, I believe, very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her. 2005 would be the third year for this course and, as installation art (in one form or another) has been the dominant art form for close to twenty years, this meagre offering seemed too little and far too late.
As a relatively new studio course it was important, I thought, to start with a definition that would be the foundation for everything the course would cover. I was told that teaching would affect my own art practice and the most immediate and visible impact on my work is with regard to this definition. I was forced to define, with some certainty and precision, what I mean by the term “installation art”. Ironically (or perhaps inevitably) teaching simultaneously confirmed my suspicion that such definitions are useless and that the traditional boundaries between art mediums, materials or techniques have never been less relevant.
We started this course with a somewhat generic definition of installation art. This is how I had described it in the course outline that students received the first day of class:
The term “Installation art” is increasingly used to describe three-dimensional art works that are no longer considered to be discrete autonomous objects. Conventional strategies for creating and presenting installation art have included (but are not limited to) site-specificity, the multi-disciplinary use of non-traditional materials and related new technologies, viewer interactive components, artistic collaboration and non-traditional (non-gallery, often temporary) display sites. Time-based media such as film/video, performance art, modern dance, poetry/monologue reading and non-traditional theatrical performances are closely related practices which often intersect with installation art. Much current object-based art work is the product of artistic practice that incorporates these elements of installation art with an awareness of related post-modern critical concerns that examine art within a social, political, psychological or poetic context.
I believe this definition is essentially accurate, just not very interesting. This is especially embarrassing for me as our first class also included a discussion of the John Baldessari’s work “I will not make any more boring art” which Teaching Assistant Richard Boulet and I introduced as rule number one and two of our own installation art “fight club”.
This course actually made me take books out of the library and this research contributed greatly to the ongoing artistic explorations and discussions of the class. The emphasis on doing more than thinking in most studio courses makes this statement less self evident than it seems. I will mention only a few sources that were especially useful. In her book on American artist Ann Hamilton, Joan Simon defines installation art this way:
The term installation implies a theatrical arena, indoors or out, in which the audience is invited to be actively present, a charged environment that offers immersion in its visual and perceptual challenges, and that may be sensual, political, and didactic in any combination. It may employ sound, text, light, air, painting, found objects, animals, relics, video, film, photography, music, and performers; conversely, it may be a space emptied of everything but its own presence—and, crucially, a visitor’s to witness it.2
Well this definition is much better! But, by the time I found it, I knew that definitions would only take us so far. Much current installation work seems forced or contrived. My own bias is that the best installation art is the result of a rich and varied artistic practice and that, when installation art is most effective, it is the inevitable result of specific developments within an artist’s ongoing research. It is (or should be) as though the art work could take no other form, could not have been presented in any other media than this room filling amalgam of ideas, materials and objects. Again, this might seem self evident but teaching installation art separate from other artistic media, apart from a larger artistic practice and divorced, somewhat; from critical art theory is, as they say, problematic.
An important guest lecture in our class seemed to support this position. Edmonton artist Marc Siegner talked about the development of his work for an Edmonton Art Gallery (now the Art Gallery of Alberta) exhibition “Imagining Home”. I could discuss the aesthetic and conceptual success of Marc’s work. These are significant; however, Marc’s work was important to the course because it specifically illustrates the organic evolution of an engaging installation art practice out of an advanced practice in another artistic media (one could argue that Marc is best known as a print artist) and, ultimately, reveals how an artist’s entire body of work is linked, regardless of media.3
Another important lecture was delivered to our class by U of A, History of Art and Design and Visual Culture professor Steven Harris. Steven talked about the development of the Surrealist object.4 It is valuable to examine Surrealist objects with regard to installation art because many artists and critics find the origins of installation art in early collage and mixed media assemblage. Similarly, Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades are the obvious historical precedent to the “found objects” ubiquitous in much contemporary object based art work. Steven presented the Surrealist object as a total reconsideration of the collage as a poetic practice that may incorporate material from numerous sources to create a kind of thought made visible or a statement of belief manifest in an (often) eccentric collection of objects. This was especially valuable as early projects in our class attempted to explore the process of thinking with objects—how one might understand objects and materials as metaphors, symbols, icons, poetic artefacts, single units in larger systems of thought etc. and how one might simply combine objects and/or materials to invite rich and multilayered associative thought.
Surrealist objects are an important precedent to contemporary installation work but equally significant are the bold experiments in sculpture that took place in the late seventies.5 It is, for example, easier to understand the work of Rachel Whiteread with some knowledge of Eve Hesse’s work, easier to decipher Andy Goldsworthy if you have already digested Robert Smithson. Jannis Kounellis is more readily understood if you already “get” Richard Sera and Robert Morris and, you will certainly understand Judy Pfaff more profoundly if you’ve already seen and considered the work of Kurt Schwitters, Nancy Graves and (dare I say it) Anthony Caro.
No surprises here, this is just the way that art history works (and why it is important it to teach it to young artists). I don’t want you to think I’m being coy here so I will state this as plainly as I can (and again, I will warn you that this is less self-evident than it seems). The history of (what we call) installation art is inextricably linked to the tradition of sculpture. It is, therefore, inappropriate to teach them as separate studio disciplines and we do so in Edmonton and at the U of A only because of a certain mix of history, personality and precedent (OK, here I am being a little coy but the explanation is lengthy and well beyond the scope of this article).
No single artist is as important with regard to the change in contemporary sculpture and installation art as German artist Joseph Beuys. In conjunction with an extensive exhibition of Beuys’ work at the Tate Gallery in London, Modern Painters featured a cover story entitled “Who Cares about Joseph on Beuys?” in their February 2005 issue. In “The Beuys Continuum”, Martin Herbert reminds us that objects alone mean nothing. With regard to Beuys and a number of younger artists that he continues to influence the “(art) work is completed not buy the audience but by the artist and his / her web of extrinsic meaning, or our encouraged projection of same. For Beuys, meaning was not innate but depended on its activation by the artist…”6 More of exactly the right information at exactly the right time for this class.
As important as the above definitions, information and guest lectures were, I was certain that the young artists in my class were missing some essential information. American artist, writer and activist David Wojnarowicz said that he “discovered that making things meant leaving evidence of life behind when he moved on”7. My personal bias is that art is always evidence of something—an emotion, a thought process, a strongly held religious or political belief (to list but few examples). That was my intuition, and it was supported, to some extent by Steven Harris’ comments on the surrealist object and Martin Herbert’s thoughts on Joseph Beuys. I was still concerned that this idea was not sufficiently understood by my students.
Late in the term I found “Scene of the Crime”, a catalogue of an exhibition of 39 Californian artists held at UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture Center in 1997. The exhibition was curated by Ralph Rugoff and the catalogue includes essays by Rugoff, Anthony Vidler and Peter Wollen. The exhibition and catalogue essays discuss art as “evidence” and postulate the need for a “forensic” reading of much contemporary art. “It is”, Peter Wollen suggests in his catalogue essay “as if an alien had landed there and left a weird message for us to decode, challenging us to make sense of things that seem odd and out of place…”.8 It was extremely helpful for the young artists in my class to approach the art object as a kind of evidence and to similarly expect (as Rugoff suggests) that viewers might perform some manner of mental reconstruction based on this evidence.9
“Scene of the Crime” was an important find for me and came into my hands while I was struggling to formulate a meaningful conclusion to this course—some final words of wisdom for my students or sage advice that would be more useful than “save string” or “everything takes longer than you think it will”. Rugoff’s central “crime scene” metaphor provided the answer.
In his catalogue essay, Peter Wollen suggests that viewers can adopt one of four “elementary subject positions… those of the detective, the criminal, the victim, and the onlooker.” Wollen provides a synopsis of the each of these roles. For example, “The detective sees the crime scene as a place of opportunity, the site of obsessive curiosity, observation and interpretation”.10 Wollen’s and Rugoff’s “Scene of the Crime” essays reminded me of Raymond Chandler and it seemed appropriate that I would leave my students with words from Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s famous fictional private-eye. “You just don’t throw away evidence.”11 Marlow tells some temptress in “Farwell My Lovely”. It seems like sound advice to me and all you really need to know about how and, perhaps more important, why you make art.
Andrea Pinheiro, “All the Names”, 2005, beeswax stenciled on walls (names of nuclear tests), bed frame, bed covered in porcelain slip.
Ralph Rugoff, Scene of the Crime, Catalogue of an exhibition organized by UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Curated by Ralph Rugoff; essays by Ralph Rugoff, Anthony Vidler and Peter Wollen (Cambridge, Massachussetts and London, England: Published in association with MIT Press, 1997), 60. ↩
Joan Simon, Ann Hamilton (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2002), 12. ↩
The same observation could be made about the work of Lyndal Osborne. ↩
I am certainly simplifying Steven Harris’ comments here. You should all go out right now and buy several copies of Steven’s book Surrealist Art and Thought in 1930s: Art, Politics and the Psyche (Cambridge University Press, 2003) ↩
Richard J. Williams, After Modern Sculpture: Art in the United States and Europe 1965–70 (Manchester, England and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000) is a very good place to start. ↩
Martin Herbert, “The Beuys Continuum,” Modern Painters: International Arts and Culture, February 2005, 64. ↩
David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Press, 1991), 156. ↩
Ibid, Ralph Rugoff, 25-26. ↩
Ibid, Ralph Rugoff, 17. ↩
Ibid, Ralph Rugoff, 26. ↩
Raymond Chandler, Farwell My Lovely (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), 83. ↩
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