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The Installation Effect

How installations continue to redefine art

A thin black vein of paper pours up the gallery wall and into the air. Beneath, it a monitor shows an aged hand receiving injections. Nearby, colorful pencil drawings depict molecular structures.
    Combined, the elements become a statement. Or a question. An art installation.
    To Mexican-born Georgina Valverde, the Chicago artist who conceived and created Route of Exposure, the work became an exploration of human migration and the ways we’ve moved
through and conquered our environment, both personal and geographic. She was commissioned to contribute to a Contemporary Arts Council exhibition called State and Lake, presented at Gescheidle Gallery in spring 2006. Though the curators defined those words as the state of Illinois and Lake Michigan, Valverde interpreted them more broadly, as land and water. She considered the way early settlers in Illinois diverted the river, causing it
to flow inward from Lake Michigan, rather than out, as is natural. She thought about other unnatural treatments of water, such as the dumping of pollutants into our waterways. Valverde contemplated the effect of these acts on our bodies and the impact of
disease—and how we treat disease.
    To convey these thoughts, Valverde wanted a medium that could not only accommodate her range of ideas, but also compel the viewer physically. She wanted to create an environment and to ask her viewers to consider themselves in an environmental context.
She chose installation.
    “Installation can be considered a display strategy,” Valverde says, “but at its best, it’s a conceptual strategy. It articulates relationships, deals with large contexts—that’s the crux of it. It’s about directing the viewer toward frameworks that have significance.”
    That may sound serious, but installation art isn’t lacking for fun. Consider, for example, Free Basin, an exhibition created in 2000 at the Hyde Park Art Center by the New Mexico-based duo, Simparch. This installation placed a huge skatebowl inside the gallery, and the public was invited to bring boards to use the bowl.
    It that art? Yes, says Chuck Thurow, director of the Hyde Park Art Center. In fact, the installation was “amazingly successful,” traveling from Chicago to Ohio, Germany and San Francisco. But why?  
    Because of the surprise element, Thurow explains. He’s interested in the unexpected. By bringing an outdoor activity inside, the creators challenged traditional thinking. They were able to expose a facet of life with its own formal culture and social milieu. In essence, they presented the urban youth experience. They also created egalitarian
social interaction. The show was “about the interactive element,” Thurow says.
    That sort of democracy and accessibility to everyone has been part of installation theory since the form began taking shape in the mid-1950s. Artists such as those in the Gutai group in Japan and Allan Kaprow in the United States began experimenting with
creating experiences that went beyond a discreet two- or three-dimensional object. In 1955, for example, the Gutai artist Shiraga rolled around nearly naked in mud for the piece, Challenge to the Mud. Kaprow created Environments based on giving viewers
opportunities to participate in the work. He wrote in 1965, “I immediately saw that every visitor to the environment was part of it. And so I gave him opportunities like moving something, turning switches on—just a few things. Increasingly during 1957 and 1958, this suggested a more ‘scored’ responsibility for the visitor. I offered him more and more to do until there developed the Happening... The integration of all elements—environment, constructed sections, time, space, and people…” From there, Kaprow said, installation was
    Today the viewer can participate even beyond the location of an installation. At Flatfile Galleries this summer, for example, Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal installed himself—and Internet access—in the gallery space for the six-week run of his work Domestic Tension. The piece not only had a web-cam and chat room constantly running, but Bilal provided a computerized paintball gun so that viewers could shoot at him. According to documentation of the show, “Bilal’s self-imposed confinement is designed to raise awareness about the life of the Iraqi people and the home confinement they face due to
both the violent and the virtual war they face on a daily basis.”
    Like the Hyde Park Art Center’s Free Basin, Domestic Tension was an overwhelming hit. According to Susan Aurinko, the gallery director, the show was reported in more than 130 countries. The website had 80 million hits, 20 million of which were returning visitors. Sixty-five thousand paintballs were fired. “It ruined the gallery wall, it ruined the floor,” she says. “But as a gallerist, and as a curator, you have to figure that’s going to happen.
    “I’m very interested in taking risks,” Aurinko continues. “Not just interested, but very interested. I want to do it; my artists want to do it. I want people to take something home with them, in their mind—it doesn’t matter if they buy anything,” she says. “The purpose of art is to affect. We need to make people feel. People with cell phones and ipods are so inside their heads. We want to make people come out of themselves. Installation demands that. It’s physical, multi-sensual. That’s one thing that distinguishes it from art that hangs on the wall. The viewer is part of why it’s there. It’s participatory.”
    Certainly Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija creates participatory work. His contribution to the upcoming Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, which will run through January 6, 2008, provides viewers with the opportunity to cut a demo tape in a recording studio set up in the museum. People can experience the work as a viewer or as a performer. But they can only hear it if they have on headphones.
    “The artist, rather than make something in a more traditional way, wanted to make a piece that engages people on a different level, to make the viewer a participant,” says curator Dominic Molon. “It’s the same way that watching a football game on TV is different than being there in the flesh. Because you’re physically inside it, it affects
you in a different way.”
    According to Molon, “Installation has changed the way artists work and changed art itself in modern times. More and more, even artists who are known for more traditional media, such as photography, think intensely about how the work impacts a space. How the viewer experiences the work in the space.”
    Indeed, says Georgina Valverde. “Installation is about breaking out of the confines art was placed in. Modern art stratified the image, took things out of context. Installation says no. At it’s best, installation art articulates relationships. It’s a set of objects
in conversation. It makes the viewer aware of the site. The pieces need each other.
    “Artworks aren’t autonomous,” Valverde continues. “I don’t know if the public thinks about this, but we ought to. Nothing happens in a vacuum. We may want to be autonomous, but we are in relation. We have an impact.”

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007