Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2006
Julie Reiss From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. 205 pp. Paper $23.00 (9780262681346 )
Mark Rosenthal Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer Munich: Prestel, 2003. 96 pp.; 14 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (3791329847)
Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004. 208 pp.; 268 color ills.; 49 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0500284512)
Claire Bishop Installation Art: A Critical History New York: Routledge, 2005. 144 pp.; 268 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (0415974127)

As an inherently heterogeneous practice, installation art presents a challenge to those who would define it and write its history. The task is both to determine its consistent attributes without being too exclusive and to parse the expanding number of works described as “installation art” into categories coherent enough to provide a critical framework. To complicate matters, these generally ephemeral pieces have often been only poorly documented in photographs and first-hand accounts. Given these challenges, it is not surprising that the approaches and potential audiences for the four books under review are so varied: they range from broad surveys to, most recently, a critical history and theory of installation art.

Julie Reiss’s book, From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, is the most straightforward history of installation under review here. The author limits the scope of her project to work made in New York from the 1950s to the early 1990s. Within this framework, she chronicles what she sees as the co-optation of installation by mainstream established institutions and the seeming exhaustion of what began as an artist-controlled avant-garde practice. Reiss loosely organizes her account according to the changes in the term used to describe work—from “environment” to “installation”—over the course of forty years.

Concerned with the difficulties of studying these works with often scanty material, she establishes a methodology based on evidence from four different sources: published criticism; interviews with artists, curators, and critics; published and unpublished photographs; and, finally, investigation of the exhibition context. This scrupulous methodology reveals numerous repetitions in the literature on installation across four decades. A number of ideas and terms, such as viewer participation and “theatricality,” appear again and again in critics’ writings and viewer accounts. These repetitions suggest that within a community of critics and artists, critical terms that initially illuminate new forms of art eventually calcify. Without the historian’s mediation, these clichéd terms tend to obscure genuine differences among works.

Reiss’s methodology yields a useful overview of the history of exhibition spaces, an aspect of the history of installation that deserves more attention in general. Her history includes an account of the golden age of alternative spaces and the stories of important exhibitions such as “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum in 1969. Although Reiss chose exhibition venues as evanescent as Gordon Matta-Clark’s altered industrial bin outside of 112 Greene Street, the book tends to linger on more established venues. Smaller or more ephemeral spaces, such as those in the East Village in the 1980s, have been left out. This may be due to a lack of archival material, but it only reinforces, perhaps unfairly, the book’s thesis that the practice of site-specific and temporary work was moribund by the mid-1980s. In addition, by choosing to end the book with two shows at major museums that included only established artists, Reiss provides the reader with a conclusion that is too neat and overly pessimistic.

Limiting her history both chronologically and geographically does enable Reiss to provide a more nuanced answer to the question that looms over any book that deals with this often amorphous practice: What is installation art? Reiss’s responses to this question are relative. Each is conditioned by her descriptors and by the exhibition spaces in which the works are produced. When she does venture an overall statement about what an installation is, the definition is necessarily quite open-ended. Reiss argues that the installation artist constructs an entire space for the benefit of a perceiving and responsive viewer. This loose definition appears variously in every one of the books under review.

Two recent books tackle the problem by means of the survey and taxonomy. Nicholas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry’s Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses updates their 1994 book, Installation Art. In the new book, installation is presented as a tool for examining contemporary perceptual experience. In the foreword, art historian Jonathan Crary posits installation as a way to investigate a rapidly changing cognitive environment. The authors describe a shift over the previous ten years conditioned by a loss of public space, an increase in the mobility of artists and information, and a deeper dependence on established institutions and international exhibitions for sponsorship. Recent installation appears more diverse and more inward looking, as once site-specific pieces have been cut loose and transformed into mobile units of artist-generated space that travel among the various art venues around the globe. These circulating spaces are often chic, ultra-designed sites of personal fantasy, which the authors describe as “interior art,” a mixture of lifestyle marketing and art, as in the work of Lee Bul or Andrea Zittel. The counterpart to these works is the nomadic installation artist who travels from venue to venue across the globe providing critical “services.”

The specificity of the authors’ claims in the introduction unravels a bit in the survey. From their general observations, the authors derive categories, which are rather ambiguous: escape, author and institution, time and narrative, and the body of the audience. These categories seem to describe something, but the diversity of artists included in each tends to overwhelm the generalizations. The categories also have no clear relationship to one another. Author and institution refers to relationships that artists establish around the situatedness of the work, while time and narrative refers to content. Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting if somewhat Europe-focused overview with photographs of a range of projects. The images are sometimes illegible, but installations rarely photograph well anyway. To remedy this, the book includes synopses of each work.

Mark Rosenthal’s Understanding Installation Art From Duchamp to Holzer is aimed at the non-professional museum-going reader. For this reason, perhaps, Rosenthal overreaches at points in his claims for installation. For instance, he describes it as the flowering of a realist tradition: a “pinnacle” in the attempt to represent the world (27). Like de Oliveira et al., Rosenthal formulates four categories based on a few historical precedents. These include enchantments, which he describes as immersive, theatrical environments. He dubs spaces that mimic everyday settings impersonations, an interesting term he must derive from the writings of Brian O’Doherty. And intervention is Rosenthal’s term for site-specific installations that perform institutional critique.

Rosenthal’s categories include some puzzling choices. For instance, rather than the more accurate intervention, he claims Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as a precedent for impersonations, because although not an installation, it represents, “an example of art that maliciously mimics life” (48). He also makes surprising claims such as the one put forward for his fourth category, the quasi-mystical arrangements of light and space he calls rapprochements: “It is the ultimate in figurative art, with the human being present not by depiction or implication but by actual presence” (77). He then includes as rapprochements work by artists as unlikely as Dan Graham and Robert Smithson.

Rosenthal touches on all the usual suspects as precedents for installation art: Kurt Schwitters, El Lissitzky, and Duchamp, while including, quite rightly, pop culture sources such as Disneyland. But he also points to the ancient Egyptian Temple of Queen Hatshepsut as being an antecedent for a rapprochement. This raises the question: Is installation a transhistorical category that can include church designs and cave paintings as well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s piles of candy? Installation, as it is currently practiced, seems particularly meaningful only in relation to the modern system of the gallery/museum. Along with his tendency to mention titles of works without describing them in any way, Rosenthal’s inclusions and omissions may confuse readers, even those who are new to this kind of work.

Claire Bishop’s recently published book, Installation Art: A Critical History, is a relatively short text that approaches in a persuasive manner the problems intrinsic to writing a history of installation art. The center around which Bishop’s project pivots is the common assertion that installation requires the bodily presence of the viewer. She frames her inquiry by asking what type of experience and, by extension, what subjects are produced by various installation spaces. In this way, Bishop is able to cast a wide net while generating a set of categories that are not dependent on strict formal or content-driven limits. These categories are based on two ideas that Bishop sees in the discourse on installation from its very beginnings. They are terms repeated in the literature on installation, as shown in Reiss’s history. First, installations activate the viewer in terms of perception and often in terms of her or his ability to critique. Secondly, installations address a decentered or fragmented subject. Bishop’s categories constitute four “modalities of experience” that correspond to different models of decentered subjects derived from theories significant in art discourse from 1965 to 1975.

The first modality draws from Freudian psychoanalysis. It addresses a subject whose psyche is fractured by the competing demands and desires of the conscious and unconscious. Mimicking the experience of dreams, these immersive installations call forth images from the viewer’s unconscious, provoking viewers to make associative connections among various elements in the space. Bishop constructs a genealogy of these reverie-producing installations, beginning with Schwitters’s Merzbau and the 1938 International Surrealist exhibition in Paris, and including Allan Kaprow’s environments, Ilya Kabakov’s tableaux, and Ann Hamilton’s sensuous spaces. She claims these works attempt to interrupt everyday perceptions and practices to produce new ways of experiencing the material world.

The second modality centers on the phenomenological subject described in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty posits a subject fully enmeshed with the space it experiences, so that perceptions of self and world continually condition each other. Rather than having a stable and certain viewing position, the subject in this modality is continually prompted to examine and reflect upon its changing perceptions. According to Bishop, these spaces address an embodied viewer who is continually made aware of her or his perceptions within the space. Her historical model for this type of work is, of course, Minimalism, and she includes in this category Robert Irwin, Michael Asher, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, and more recently Carsten Höller.

Bishop introduces the idea of “mimetic immersion,” her third modality, by describing the experience of being plunged into almost palpable darkness. Modeled on Freud’s theory of the death drive, which proposed that organisms possess an inherent drive to return to the state of inanimate matter, the third modality represents the dissolution of an integrated subjectivity into its surrounding space. This mimetic-immersive installation induces a sensation of being absorbed by or completely disoriented by the environment. Bishop includes in this genealogy the vertiginous mirrored rooms of Yayoi Kusama and Lucas Samaras, as well as video environments, such as those by Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Stan Douglas that encourage through spectacle a cinematic absorption.

Installations in the final category address not a single viewer but the audience as a community, producing viewers that are activated politically but also decentered. As an early example, Bishop points to Oiticica’s works, which she argues generated a transgressive communal sensuality that produced subjectivities capable of resisting the authoritarian power in place in Brazil. Oiticica’s work relates to others that construct community, such as Gonzalez-Torres, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and especially Santiago Sierra. In Bishop’s discussion of this final modality, a hierarchy emerges. One can argue that installations that disorient, such as Kusama’s mirrored room, also pacify the subject and are less effective or desirable than Joseph Beuys’s “social sculptures,” which invited, or demanded, that the viewer be active and engage in a dialogue with a community.

However, Beuys’s work or Tiravanija’s collective dinners are also problematic, Bishop argues, as they imagine their inclusiveness to be democracy, and rely on a stable, unproblematic identification with a group. Using the political theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Bishop critiques as utopian “relational aesthetics,” Nicholas Bourriaud’s term for these small art world gatherings designed for interaction and enjoyment. Against these aesthetic, art-world pseudo-communities, she positions the work of Sierra. Sierra’s pieces have consisted of paying prostitutes to have a line tattooed on their bodies or Chechnyan refugees to hide under cardboard boxes, and even using his space at the 2003 Venice Biennale to allow only those holding Spanish passports to enter. His work, Bishop argues, allows viewers to experience in a conscious way the disidentification and exclusion that occurs within society. She dubs this “relational antagonism,” in which incomplete and contingent identification among perpetually decentered subjects produces dissatisfying, discomfiting situations that are therefore open to change.

In her conclusion, Bishop acknowledges the contradiction at the heart of much criticism on installation, including her own. Although the postmodern theory from which much criticism of installation derives assumes that the decentered nature of the subject has already been demonstrated, installation art, emphasizing the presence of an active viewer, actually addresses itself to a centered and unified subject. Bishop argues that the criticism often simply conflates the literal viewer with the ideal model of a decentered subject. She insists on distinguishing between the ideal abstract model of the subject posited in the theory and the literal, viewing subject, and argues that the successful installation is one in which these two subjects are not conflated, but coincide: “Installation art calls for a self-present viewing subject precisely in order to subject him/her to the process of fragmentation” (131). This criterion is clearly a complex and abstract foundation on which to develop an aesthetic critique.

Bishop’s thesis also downplays certain types of work and issues. What of installations that do not emphasize the experience of presence as much as the process of representation? These installations would be what writers such as Alex Alberro and Hal Foster have described as archives, as in Renée Green’s Partially Buried. The ideal subject imagined by these installations is not so much a sensing and perceiving body, centered or otherwise, but a critical reader. In addition, the insistence on the literal presence of the viewer in the literature on and promotion of installations results in the reinforcement of installation’s “aura” and, by extension, the authority of the sponsoring institution. Miwon Kwon has described installation in this light as a magnet of global cultural tourism (witness the effect on tourism in New York City of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates). Addressing the power relations of exhibition venues would undoubtedly muddle Bishop’s project, but it is an important aspect of installation that deserves more attention.

Regardless, this book is the first to develop a persuasive theory of installation that manages to provide a framework by which to parse a confusing welter of examples. Rather than simply dismissing installation as another form of spectacle, or declaring it dead, Bishop takes the practice seriously while avoiding making overly utopian claims for it. It is a book that is both critical and a pleasure to read. A work like this has been much needed by those who have a scholarly interest in the histories and practices of installation art.

Monica McTighe
Visiting Lecturer in Contemporary Art, Department of Art and Art History, Tufts University