Installation in Perspective:
Two Outdoor Projects

Suananda K Sanyal

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(8), April, 2011: 34-7)

During conversations about installation, I have often heard Indian artists insist that the West has, only in the recent decades, merely intellectualized something that has been part of the Indian heritage for centuries. As with all nativistic gestures, such claim demonstrates an erroneous understanding of installation as a mode of representation. Ubiquitous make-shift shrines under trees or temporary sanctuaries for deities built on religious occasions are by no means cultural expressions unique to India; every culture has some tradition of building structures or marking sites for ritualistic purpose. Such practices can only be called installation in the most generic sense. In contrast, the significance of installation in the context of contemporary art is inseparable from the creative discourse of the avant-garde in Europe and America after Word War II. In other words, installation as understood in art history is the product of diverse intellectual investigations of a thoroughly secular nature, rather than the organic outcome of a communal ritualistic practice. A Hindu tree-shrine can be called installation in this sense only if it is simulated —hence recontextualized— by an artist as part of an art project.

Installation is a common word in art discussion in India these days. But until well into the 1990s, if vaguely familiar in the art circles of other Indian cities, it was practically unheard of in Kolkata’s Modernist bastion. To my knowledge, the first exhibition in Kolkata that flirted with the idea of installation —though not recognized as such in Kolkata— was M.F. Husain’s homage to the city, held at the Tata Center in 1990. Unlike conventional displays, where the gallery walls remain deliberately neutral, the black partitions in this show generated a sense of claustrophobia, compelling the spectator to move in and out of a maze-like structure that served as an apt metaphor for the complex terrain of the metropolis. The images, as far as I can recall, were all two-dimensional; drawings and graffiti-like marks made directly on the walls and on crumpled sheets actively engaged the gallery space to simulate Kolkata’s characteristic chaos and vibrancy. Here I want briefly to chart the historical relevance of installation as a representational mode, particularly in light of two of its most crucial components: space and time.

While any exhibition is essentially “installed” for viewing, and as such all exhibitions impose on their viewers certain regulations of time and space, the name installation —as it has evolved through the history of twentieth-century art with a distinct identity of its own— is applicable only where a display uses specific spatial-temporal strategies. Certain Modernist experiments around Word War I qualify as its earliest precursors, though the term was never used in that era. Good examples are the three-dimensional, tableau-like constructions by Picasso (“Assemblage on Wall of Studio”, 1913) and Braque (“Paper Sculpture in Braque’s Studio”, 1914) from their Synthetic Cubist period. These pieces (both of which now exist only as photographs) demonstrate how deconstruction of the notions of illusion and reality through collage and papier collés eventually led the two artists to the use of conventional subjects of painting (still-life or a man playing the guitar) to explore the relationship between the wall and the void before it. Then there is the rebellious “Bicycle Wheel” (1913) of Marcel Duchmap. Though presented as a composite object, the single wheel inserted into a bar-stool (a cunning parody of the pedestal) is far more radical than a conventional sculpture. The use of found objects, for example, underscores the role of the two components as symbiotic fragments, where neither one is able to stand on its own. This property is fundamental to any installation. Detached from its initial utilitarian context, the inverted yet movable wheel can be credited as the first instance of kinetic sculpture.

Unlike a static object on display, a moving one has a much more dynamic relationship with the ontology of the spectator, who is also a body in movement. For one thing, the impact of temporality caused by motion on both parties demands an active engagement of the spectator’s body as well as memory in interpreting the exhibit. In short, a sense of an environment is evoked, even if minimally, which makes the spectator’s movement unstable and non-hierarchical (as opposed to the way one is supposed to walk around a conventional free-standing sculpture). In short, the spectator becomes a participant in the work. During the 1920s and the 1930s, many artists intimately or loosely associated with the Dada, Surrealist, Constructivist, and Bauhaus movements carried out the brightest experiments with the possibilities of kinetic sculpture. Alberto Giacometti, for instance, explored not only the relationship between a static and an oscillating object (“Suspended Ball”, 1930-1), but also the role of the actual shadows cast by them in the impact of the entire display. László Moholy-Nagy took another significant step when he introduced the effect of light and motorized motion in space in his “Light-Space Modulator” (1922-30). The moving light on surrounding forms caused by the motion of the machine sharply heightens the perception of a total environment that completely engulfs the spectator. Kurt Schwitters, on the other hand, investigated not motion and light, but the spectator’s physical and psychological reactions to unexpected encounters in a built environment. His “Merzbau”, begun three times (only one of which exists today) between the 1920s and the 1930s in three different countries, involves seemingly ongoing contributions to myriad, bizarre relief structures on the walls, ceilings, and floors of an apartment. The projected shapes aggressively invading the spectator’s space cause one to feel various degrees of both curiosity and claustrophobia. A hybrid of picture, sculpture, and architecture, it is what Schwitters called Gesamkunstwerk (“total work of art”), and is most akin to what one would identify today as installation.

It was not until the transitional era of the 1960s that installation actually emerged with its own identity. In Europe, the devastation of World War II produced a decisive disenchantment with the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment. It was an intense existential crisis, in which the universalist, progressive claims of modernity and modern art were held in deep suspicion. In America, a nation unfamiliar with the trauma of war on its soil, anti-conformism manifested itself in the angst of the Beat generation. Far from a homogenous movement, Modernism in art had always had its own contradictions and paradoxes woven into its discourse, as evident in the works of Duchamp, Giacometti, Moholy-Nagy or Schwitters. Postwar artists on both continents thus built on such earlier experiments; but with impetus from an emerging postwar pluralism, they pushed the boundaries farther to express their discontent with tradition. At the core of the new endeavors was the effort to dismantle the myth of the work of art as a unified, self-sufficient entity divorced from the banality of life, produced in a specific medium by an all-powerful Author; and the status of the beholder as its passive recipient. It was a deliberate attempt to blur the distinction between art and life. “The traditional art media are all defined by a specific material support for the medium….”, notes Boris Groys. “The material support of the medium in an installation, however, is space itself.”[1] The gallery, rather than being a neutral space with a quasi-sacred aura that merely accommodated art, became a part of it; and the work became decentered into metonymic components —none of them any more authentic than the others— disseminated across that space. The spectator’s environmental experience was more cerebral than retinal: one was meant to read the temporary environment through a specific spatial-temporal encounter, more than see it.

One of the fundamental tasks in reading an installation is to construct, through space and time, the syntaxes that can hold its various components together to generate meaning, like those which organize words to make a text intelligible. And as with all texts, the meaning of an installation is always inconclusive, open to reinterpretation. The strongest instances of such spatial-temporal strategies and indeterminacy of meaning are some of the works of the 1970s loosely known as Land art or Earthwork, produced by certain artists in Europe and America who made nature a part of their art through a new exploration of the Sublime. While European artists like the British Richard Long produced introspective, lyrical installations in this vein, the massive outdoor projects of their counterparts in America —Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Nancy Holt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, etc.— were more spectacular because these artists had the additional advantage of a vast landmass at their disposal and a prosperous economy to fund their projects. Resistance to commoditization of art was one of the factors that had motivated installations to begin with; now these artists wanted to move farther away from that market, producing a thoroughly non-saleable art.

Walter de Maria, Lightning Field, 1971-7.

Even though Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field” (1971-7) is a permanently marked site, its spatial-temporal function reinforces its indeterminate and ephemeral character. Four hundred stainless-steel poles are installed at equal intervals across an approximate area of one square mile near Quamado, in the southwestern American state of New Mexico, a place known for its frequent electric storms. Visitors can watch lightning bolts striking the poles from a safe distance. Heavily dependant on chance encounters with nature, the work, therefore, provides no assurance of its “completion”, which only happens for moments at a time and can only be captured in high-speed photography or film. What is more, this uncertainty also reasonably undermines de Maria’s authority as the creator of the work. The project offers various metonymic fragments of a text —parts of a whole yet each one inadequate on its own— for the spectator’s consumption: the field, the poles, the whims of nature, the role of the artist, and if one is in luck— the photographs of the installation “in action”. And with each photograph of that action as a unique mnemonic artifact (since the lightning pattern in each one is different), the meaning of the project remains permanently unstable and open-ended.

Walter de Maria, Lightning Field, 1971-7.

Unlike de Maria’s work, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s temporary wrapping of noted landmarks leaves no trace on the site. In this sense, they are more events than things. Christo Javacheff is a Bulgarian artist who was active in Paris in the 1960s, before moving permanently to New York. The wrapped objects and occasional outdoor installations he did in Paris later evolved, in collaboration with his wife Jeanne-Claude, into monumental undertakings. “Valley Curtain” (1970-2) was (the use of the past tense here is telling) a 142,000 square feet of nylon fabric hung between two hills 1250 feet apart in the Grand Hogback Mountain Range of Colorado, over a major highway that runs through the hills. The Curtain was 365 feet high at the two ends, and 182 feet high at the center. Involving more than a hundred workers with expertise in various kinds of related chores, the project took twenty-eight months to complete. The display was scheduled to be up for a few days for public viewing, but an impending storm caused the Curtain to be dismantled after only twenty-eight hours. Therefore, though not as crucial as with de Maria’s installation, the intervention of a natural phenomenon here, too, is a compelling reminder of the inevitable uncertainty involved in such active dialog between nature and art.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Valley Curtain, 1970-2.

Marginalization of authorship, fragmentation, and temporality function in this work on multiple levels. The monumental myth of authorship that had usually accompanied such massive endeavors in the history of art was first undermined by the couple’s collaborative gesture, and then was farther problematized by the vital roles of the dozens of people, without whom the Curtain would never have come to fruition. Furthermore, the two artists have consistently maintained that the various tasks in the entire process —negotiating with the authorities and the community, handling complicated paperwork, organizing the work force; and lastly, installing and dismantling the Curtain— are all equally important components of the work. These temporal fragments have their spatial counterparts— tangible signifiers that recall the temporary nature of the piece. The Christo and Jeanne-Claude team never accepted any corporate money or gallery sponsorship for any of the projects; proceeds from the sale of Christo’s exquisite drawings and collages of a proposed project were always the only source of funding. Therefore, along with the myriad photographs and films of the construction, display, and dismantling of the Curtain, the drawings and collages also serve as mere fragments of the work— signifiers that will always remain isolated, since the actual Curtain is no more. They are permanent reminders of the power of transience in the spectator’s comprehension of the “Valley Curtain”. In short, the installed Curtain —itself a representation, albeit a short-lived one— now lives exclusively through other representations.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Valley Curtain (plans), 1970-2.

These two examples of outdoor installation are deeply introspective in their exploration of different facets of the imposition of art on nature. While “Lightning Field” toys with civilization’s attempt to harness natural forces, “Valley Curtain” evokes a sense of mystery with regard to scale and human ontology by temporarily altering the face of nature. Via the wrapped objects in Christo’s early career, such an incongruous juxtaposition of what is an essentially mundane human act (putting up a curtain) with the enormity of nature builds on the legacy of Surrealism. What is more, in both cases, minimal use of material combined with a deep fascination for formal harmony testifies to the immense magnitude of installation as a means of expression.

While one of the objectives of early installations was to defy commoditization of art, late capitalism’s voracious appetite, it should be noted, has eventually caught up with it. The term “permanent installation”, no matter how oxymoronic it sounds, is a fact, as many gallery and outdoor installations alike are now on permanent display. Nonetheless, its inherent hybridity —the possibility of the use of any combination of materials, from the bare minimum to a vast array— makes installation an ideal representative of cosmopolitanism. It is unquestionably the most promising mode of representation in contemporary art because without any obligation to such art-historical tropes as media, material, style and ism, it is the most effective tool for articulating the complex concerns of a globalizing planet.



[1] Groys, Boris, “The Topology of Contemporary Art”. In Terry Smith et al eds. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, contemporaneity. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008: 76.