A HYBRID FIELD OF EXPRESSION IN CONTEMPORARY ART: INSTALLATION

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In contrast to traditional art forms, installation art is an art form that does not contain an object of art independent of its environment, that is created for a specific space, that utilizes and explores the qualities of that space and that fundamentally requires the participation of the viewer. Installation could be realized in enclosed as well as open spaces. With its roots going as far back as conceptual art and even the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters in the beginning of the 20th century, installation, or installation art, is a hybrid style in contemporary art that is aided by architecture, performance and various other disciplines of visual art. As an art form that accentuates the stages of exhibition and presentation in its practice, installation is clearly defined and accepted in the 1970s and still remains amongst the most commonly practiced forms of art.

Roots: From Duchamp to Schwitters

With the first ready-made objects that he created, Marcel Duchamp was questioning the aesthetic competence that Western art has cultivated over centuries and the significance of the Genius that creates that aesthetic competence while paving the way for a new language in art that acquires meaning through the context of thought alone. As Rıfat Şahiner (2008: 35) points out; “When Marcel Duchamp first presented his Pissoir in 1917, an industrial object with a mechanical form that was used every day, it created a scandal. In his act Duchamp was not aiming at creating a new artistic value. Perhaps he wanted to make everyone an artist, but what he really wanted was to destroy the sacredness of ‘art’ that has attained a near religious value. If the industry has the power and technique to implement ‘mimesis’1 better than him, then there was no longer the artist who was perceived as a ‘genius’ because he depicts the divine image in the most convincing way.”

During that time, with an ingenious inspiration, Duchamp came up with the found objects that were going to have a highly significant place in contemporary art. Thus, the 1913 “Bicycle Wheel” (model, Museum of Modern Art, New York) was nothing more than an ordinary bicycle wheel. The 1914 piece “Pharmacy” was again created by adding two figures resembling medicine bottles to a print of a winter landscape. It took almost 40 years to appreciate that ready-made objects were not only there to ridicule the extreme significance-laden works of art, but bear a positive value of their own. With the emergence of ready-made objects, contemporary art was transformed into a synthesis of creativity and criticism. As Hasan Bülent Kahraman (2005) points out: “The repeated use of concepts like memory, individuality, identity, belonging in 20th century created the foundation of the current practices in art and the New York pop movement. In short, in 20th century, to put it in a general way, the father of art that was not on canvas, was Duchamp… Western art progresses in two major directions. The existential reality of man, his ‘dark’ side is examined in works produced in one of these directions. Generally speaking, the accumulation of Renaissance painting and the works deliberating on the ‘human condition’ are in this direction. The other domain develops towards the ontology of the work of art. Questions like; what is art, where does the reality of the artwork begin, in short, investigations and questioning of the relationship between art and philosophy remain within the boundaries of this domain. Perhaps one of the main issues of every era and every artist is to provide viable answers to these questions.”

Duchamp sent one of the most famous ready-made objects, a porcelain urinal by the Mott Works company in New York, in 1917 signed ‘R. Mutt’, to an exhibition. Although the exhibition was open to all, the organizing committee could not afford to exhibit this piece; this ready-made object was held at exhibition space but not shown to the public. The existence of this piece was recorded by a photograph taken by a friend of Duchamp, photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. From the title selected for this object (Fountain) and from its position we understand that the intention of this piece was altered. Another significant transformation that Duchamp was intending was the relationship between the artist/art object/public. Instead of choosing a certain material based on a motivation or an instinct and giving it a meaning through the use of creativity and mastery the artist was just selecting an object. And as Duchamp emphasizes, he was selecting this object randomly. This object was not a new and unique article but an ordinary, mass produced object. The only thing that was new about this object was the new location provided by the artist and the transformation of meaning brought about by an allusion (the signature of the artist or any other addition could have contributed towards this end as well; the painterly signature ‘R. Mutt’ had provided this ordinary, cold piece with a certain characteristic). Thus, the viewer was deprived of a satisfaction that he thought he could expect from art, and instead of the customary choice of embracing or disapproving a work of art the viewer was forced to question whether the exhibit is a work of art or not. With this, the contribution of the artist – if it could be called a contribution – was reduced to the least possible extent and the viewer was confronted with the problem of the loss of all sorts of cultural values. And Duchamp was going to maintain this intellectual pressure on art a great deal further.

Yves klein

This intellectual pressure was also a revolt against the social context of Western art which was considered to be aesthetically founded on bourgeoisie. In the same period the devastating effects of World War I would result in the emergence of many other Avant-garde movements, nihilist movements such as the Dadaists2 would exhibit a parallel stance to the field of discourse of Duchamp. This literally suggests a new artistic language. On the other hand, German painter and graphic artist Schwitters seeks to combine different artistic movements in his works. He was writing poetry alongside his collages, and producing typographic and architectural pieces. Recruited in the army in 1917, Schwitters was employed in the offices before becoming a workshop painter in an iron factory. In the same year he broke off from the academic style and turned to abstract painting. During this period, he produced the art work that was a mixture of expressionist and futurist tendencies, titled Abstraktion Nr.11 (Die Gewalten) (Abstract Painting No.11, 1917). In close contact with Herwarth Walden gallery and its magazine Der Sturm (The Storm), Schwitters produced his first collages during the winter months of 1918/19. He chose the title MERZpicture for one of these works. He cut out this word from an advertisement of the KOMMERZ-UND PRIVAT BANK (Trade and Finance Bank). Confiscated during the Third Reich, and since then missing, this picture was an example symbolizing the aim of Schwitters. He aimed at lightening up the overload of content in art and to reduce it to an impetus of pure composition. In doing so, he persistently divorced himself from traditional oil painting. “I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it.” So, in Thirty-One (1920), he used the daily ads pages of a newspaper, the lid of a can, round cardboard discs and pieces of fabric. Without considering himself a Dadaist, Schwitters was close friends with the representatives of the Dada Groups in Zurich (Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp) and Berlin (Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höck). When he made public posters for the anthem-like love poem called Ode to Anna BIum, written with words, sounds and associations that was formed like a theatre play, in 1919, he caused a sensation. Inspired by a writing on the fence around a construction site, he called this work MERZpoem.

Schwitters started designing advertisements and booklets, during early 1920s. Alongside classical portraits and landscapes he secured his livelihood with these works. These were also responding to his desire to establishing a relationship between “all the objects in the world” with MERZart. Unlike most of the artists belonging to the Berlin Dada Group, Schwitters was not interested in politics, which led to a growing alienation between them and became apparent in their art, too. Influenced by Theo van Doesburg and his “Stijl” theory, Schwitters gave up his colorful Dada montages that he was producing until then, and started producing constructivist compositions. His artworks like MERZpicture 1922 are characterized by strict vertically and horizontally classified lining up (regional lining up) of surfaces.

Around the same period, Schwitters produced reliefs like Die Breile Schnurchel (1923) that indicated his Dadaist roots. At that time Schwitters began working on the MERZbau (MERZ construction) aimed as a symbol of his total artwork which was later destroyed during World War II. Schwitters transformed the interior of his house into a walk-in sculpture with a wide variety of objects he placed inside. He called the central space, Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (KdeE) (Cathedral of Erotic Poverty). These were the pioneers in the art of installation.

Installation

Although the terms of assemblage3 and environment were used by artists in the United States and Europe of 1960s for the materials brought together in a specific space, the term installation was only used with reference to the way works were exhibited, for example, in defining how and in what order the paintings were hung on the walls. In time, through an emerging awareness of the gallery space and a realization that artworks could not be observed/experienced independent of the space in which they stand, the way in which works are placed and the space itself started to gain significance. Installation art shares the same origins with the Assemblages and Happenings in the early 1960s. At that time, the term “environment” was used to describe the tableaux of funk artist Ed Kienholz, Pop artists George Segal, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann’s habitable assemblages, as well as the happenings of Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Red Grooms and others. These environments were merging with the space around them, and in a clear negation of traditional artistic practice the viewers were contained in the works of art. These works with an expansive and inclusive nature, were considered not as guardians of a fixed meaning, but as catalysts for new ideas.

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This kind of art based on fluidity and provocation became instantly popular: since 1960s installation was developed by various artists in different ways. The trend was certainly not limited to a single country. In 1958 the Nouveau Réaliste artist Yves Klein exhibited an empty gallery space in Paris, with the title, Le Vide (Emptiness): the response came from another Nouveau Réaliste artist Arman two years later, who filled the same gallery with rubbish and called it Le Plein (Full). The “Environments, Situations, Spaces” exhibition in 1961, at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, was another show in those early days with its subject matter focusing on what shall be considered installation art.

The idea of ‘the work of art as environment’ in 1960s, brought about the expectation that the viewer not only looks at a work of art, but lives in it as he lives in the world, and at times even becomes part of it. One of the key people in this field is Robert Smithson. He has come up with a distinction between sites (a specific location at a larger space) and non-sites (the representation of a site in a gallery through photographs, maps, and a variety of materials and documents). This distinction was important, because although land-artists such as Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, James Turrel, Walter de Maria and others worked outside the gallery space, their works ended up depending on the framework of the system provided by the gallery. Installation soon expanded widely to cover a diverse range of artworks. Temporary works such as Christo and Jeanne Claude’s famous packages are examples of this diversity. An early work of Christo’s, Rideau de Fer (Iron Curtain), was made in response to the Berlin Wall erected in 1961, and revealed the accurate power of installation art. On the night of June 27th, 1962, 240 brightly colored barrels were transformed into a barricade shutting down Rue Visconti. This was a stunningly beautiful visual action and a strong political demonstration. On the other hand installations were often prepared for specific exhibitions. Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Finnish artist Per Olof Ultvedt’s enormous installation Hon (“female pronoun” in Swedish) for the Moderna Muset in Stockholm, in 1966, is an example. The giant pregnant woman reclining on the ground between whose legs the viewers wandered, featured a movie theatre, a bar, a lovers’ corner and an entertainment park complete with hosts welcoming the visitors.

Current Predicament

Since the 1970s, commercial galleries and alternative spaces all around the world supported the art of installation. Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Royal Academy of Art in London and other major museums hosted exhibitions on the art of installation. Today, alongside everyday objects and natural materials, video, sound, performance, computers and the internet are also utilized in installations. Initially, a radical form of making art, installation was fully recognized by museums and galleries since the early 1980s, and became the dominant art form in the late 20th century, a position which it still maintains. Artists making video or sound art or those pursuing a conceptual path, such as Gabriel Orozco and Juan Munoz were designing installations too. These could be artworks, such as the autobiographical works of Tracey Emin who is well known in Turkey, or works like Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle and Ilya Kabakov’s that bring to mind the imaginary lives of others. And again, could involve interventions to architectural spaces like Gordon Matta-Clark does to buildings. In 1990, a museum dedicated to installations was established in London.

Installations could be site-specific, as well as made for various different venues. Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (the ninth hour) was first conceived for a museum exhibition in Basel, and when it was set up again next year for the “Apocalypse” at the Royal Academy of Art in London it was still equally effective. The “humor”, the “pathos” and the ambiguous uncertainty of the life-size wax figure, the torn ceiling, the red carpet and the velvet ropes were bringing up the same issues (blindness of faith, the nature of miracles and the glory and power of religion and the arts) and ensuring a new installation. Darren Almond’s Shelter in the same exhibition was pointing at another actual place: Auschwitz. The sculpture-like reproductions of the actual bus stops outside the prison camps were going to be installed at the same place after the original works were moved to another exhibition in Berlin at the end of the show. The transportation of these materials was a powerful reminder of the continuity of the routine of everyday life outside that place where one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century were witnessed.

Installation has proved to be a genre full of potential for activist artists such as Robert Gober, Mona Hatoum and Barbara Kruger. Kruger’s installation at Mary Bone Gallery in New York, in 1991, was covering the walls, the ceiling and the floor with texts and images about the violence against women and minorities, besieging the viewers and urging them to scream and shout.

During 1980s and 1990s installation artists were inclined towards mixing different media and styles in the same work. At first sight these works seemed to be made up of detached pieces although there was a principal theme that brought them together. Canadian Claude Simard had collected the elements of figurative paintings, sculptures, objects and performances in a single show. Composing exhibitions that are worthy of Duchamp in that they are not limited by a single media or a style, Simard utilized any means necessary while working on his projects founded on his own memory, identity, autobiography and history; and in the article titled “The Web of Memory” in 1996 he was stating that:

“…while I personally would be happy to expunge my childhood memories, with all their traumas, my childhood will simply not go away. And to some extent my art is a series of devices I construct to appease a rather spoiled inner child…”

During the 2000s, installation has continued to be an effective means of expression both in Turkey and throughout the rest of the world in line with the new realities of a multi-centered globe. It is reaching large audiences especially in effective organization, such as the Biennials of Venice and Istanbul. Born in Istanbul and living in Paris, Sarkis is considered to be one of the most important installation artists in Turkey and in the World and he continues producing contemporary works.

In the beginning of 21st century, the art of installation has gained a stable position as one of the main genres of producing works of art. In fact, as the practice of installation evolves, its flexibility and the diversity of the work it covers has transformed it from being a specific term into a generic one. This hybrid genre deals with contemporary issues utilizing unlimited methods and materials, and endless layers of thought, expressed within a spatial limitation. In this respect, the artist who has to deal with the infinite freedom of expression on the one hand, and the specific reality of the restricted space on the other is somewhat forced to be sincere. Thus, installation could be considered to be one of the most effective forms of art that exist in our age.

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