When is a room not a room?

Answer: when it's an installation.
There was a bit of a fuss at a Tate Britain exhibition of modern art a few years ago. A woman was hurrying through the large room that housed an intriguing work entitled Lights Going On and Off in a Gallery, in which, yes, lights went on and off in a gallery. Suddenly the woman's necklace broke and the beads spilled over the floor. As we bent down to pick them up, one man said: 'Perhaps this is part of the installation.' Another replied: 'Surely that would make it performance art rather than an installation.' 'Or a happening,' said a third.

These are confusing times for the visual arts audience, which is growing rapidly. More and more of London's gallery space is being devoted to installations, so what we need is the answer to three simple questions. What is installation art? Why has it become so ubiquitous? And why is it so irritating?

First question first. What are installations? 'Installations', answers the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists with misplaced selfconfidence, 'only exist as long as they are installed.' Thanks for that. The dictionary continues more promisingly: installations are 'multi-media, multi-dimensional, and multi-form works which are created temporarily for a particular space or site either outdoors or indoors, in a museum or gallery'. As a first stab at a definition, this isn't bad. It rules out paintings, sculptures, frescoes and other intuitively non~installational artworks. It also says that anything can be an installation so long as it has art status conferred on it, so the flashing fluorescent tube in your kitchen is not art because it hasn't got the nod from the gallery.

The only problem is that this definition is incomplete. In some cases, installations have been bought and moved out of the gallery for which they were intended and re-installed in a different context. Also, unlike looking at paintings or sculptures, you often need to move through or around installations to appreciate the full impact of the work. What this suggests is t at we are barking up the wrong tree by trying to define installations. They do not all share a set of essential characteristics. Some will demand audience participation, some will be site-specific, some will be conceptual jokes involving only a so light bulb.

Which brings us to the second question: why are there so many of them around at the moment? There have been installations since Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a New York gallery in 1 91 7 and called it art. This was the most resonant gesture in twentieth-century art, discrediting notions of taste, skill, and craftsmanship, and suggesting that everyone could be an artist. But why has the number of installations been going up so quickly?

American critic Hal Foster thinks he knows why installations are everywhere in modern art. He reckons that the key transformation in Western art since the 196Os has been a shift from what he calls a 'vertical' conception to a 'horizontal' one. Before then, painters were interested in painting, exploring their medium to its limits. They were vertical. Artists are now less interested in pushing a form such as painting or sculpture as far as it will go, and more in using their work as a terrain on which to evoke feelings or provoke reactions. True, photography, painting, or sculpture can do the same, but installations have proved most fruitful - perhaps because with installations there is less pressure to conform to the demands of a formal tradition and the artist can more easily explore what concerns them.

Why are installations so irritating, then? Perhaps because in the many cases when craftsmanship is removed, art seems like the emperor's new clothes. Perhaps also because installation artists are frequently so bound up with the intellectual history of art and its various 'isms' that they forget that those who are not educated in this neither care nor understand.

But, ultimately, being irritating need not be a bad thing for a work of art since at least it compels engagement from the viewer. Take Martin Creed's Lights Going On and Off again. 'My work', says Martin Creed, 'is about fifty per cent what I make of it, and fifty per cent what people make of it . Meanings are made in people's heads - I can't cont rol them.'

Another example is Double Bind, Juan Munoz's huge work at the Tate Modern gallery in London. A false mezzanine: floor in the massive main exhibition hall is full of holes, some real, some trompe l'oeil. A pair of lifts chillingly lit go up and down, heading nowhere. To get the full impact, and to go beyond mere illusionism, you need to go downstairs a, d look up through the holes. There are grey men living in rooms between the floorboards, installations within the installation. I don't neeessarily understand or like all installation art, but I was moved by this. It 's creepy and beautiful and strange, but ultimately you, the spectator, need to make an effort to get something out of it.

Questions 1-6: Multiple-choice questions
Choose the correct letter, A, B, C, or D. In each case, decide which option is most like your own answer in 4 .

1. The writer includes the story about the beads to show that
A installations are a relatively unsophisticated art form .
B people get away from install ation art as fast as they can.
C t he audience often actively participate in modern art.
D t he public a re unsure what modern art forms consist of.

2 Why aren't domestic lights considered installation art?
A They go on and off inside a building.
B They are not created by painters or sculptors.
C They are not officially recognized as art.
D They only go on and off for a short time.

3 What important features do all installation works have in common?
A immobility
B viewer involvement
C humour
D none

4 Why was Duchamp's 1917 work so important?
A It ma rked the beginning of installation art.
B It made traditiona l art ists extremely a ngry.
C It was a particularly well-made object.
D It was proof that installations were not a rt.

5 Foster says there is now so much installation art because artists
A nowadays have a t radit ion of installation art to fo llow.
B want to find their own new ways of involving audiences.
C find it easier than creating works within traditional art forms.
D cannot make a udi ences respond emotionally to paint ings.

6 One reason why in stall ations irritate us is that the artists
A seem to be following fashion.
B know nothing about art or its hi story.
C are often too concerned with obscure issues.
D try unsuccessfu lly to achieve technical perfection .

Questions 7-11: Short-a nswer questions
Answer the questions with words from the Reading Passage. Write NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS for each answer.

What is the writer's ironic response to the first part of the d ictionary entry? ..... .
8 How much of the effect of Lights Going On and Off depends on the audience? .. .. ..
9 Where is the best place to appreciate Munoz's installation? ......
10 How did Double Bind make the writer feel ? ..... .
11 Who is responsible for ensuring the sign ificance of the work is und erstood? .....

Question 12: Global multiple-choice
12 Complete this statement about the text in your own words.

Overall, the writer believes that installation art is ...
Choose the appropriate letter A-D. Decide which is most like your answer above.

Overall, the writer believes that installation art is...
A only of interest to a small audience and the art ists themselves.
B hard to define but challenging and so metimes worthwhile.
C impossible to appreciate without knowing the histo ry of modern art.
D now of much higher quality than other visual art forms.

When is a room not a room?

Text: Oxford University Press

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