edited by: Nicolas DE OLIVEIRA – Nicola OXLEY – Michael PETRY, with texts by Michael ARCHER - Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1994

(book review)

The authors of the book - among whom Oxley and Petry had founded the Museum of Installation, London, as the only institution hosting site-specific works - sorted out the contents of their richly illustrated book into five sections. The first chapter is an introductory essay wearing the likeably hovering title Towards Installation. Termed 'Towards' because installation is a newborn term yet it may cover a huge range of things. Being so fresh a term it lacks its own definition for what the definition should pertain to is so contemporaneous and is still in the making. Anyhow, Michael Archer´s text investigates the forerunning or parallel drifts of art history that tend towards installation. As to the body of demonstrating pictures, they are arranged into one of the four following parts: Site, Media, Museum, and Architecture. The works presented in these thematic chapters add to installation´s hardly exhaustible concept from various aspects. The authors themselves also can firmly assert assert that architecture and Performance Art have the most to do with the parentage of this hybrid genre - beside many other neighbours / phenomena. - Permitting that installation can be called a ´genre´ for, admittedly, it doesn´t at all lay the claim to belonging to the realm of art, or to being described with art´s categories. And this is where installation makes a shift from art history to social (life-) history - since the history of modernism can be conceived as a permanent attempt to reconcile two contradicting tendencies. One of them we inherited from the previous century (-ies): it is aestheticism and elitism attracted to unique artworks; the other is mass production and kitsch-favouring populism brought about by our century. After Duchamp´s ready-mades (the first works blurring the borderline between art and what is outside it) artists started to explore the margins of art and to eliminate the dichotomy between art and life. The Assemblage and Environment Art of the sixties were born out of this exploration: these works of art consisted of various materials and objects piled up by the artist to fill a given space. Installation was not considered as a separate method of art production yet, it only meant the way an exhibition was realized. But soon the qualities of the exhibition hall became of increasing importance owing much to the two main painterly streams of the XXth century. Spatialism challenged the illusory two dimensional picture plane and integrated art with architecture; the technique of collage combined art and everyday objects on the canvas which also interacted with the real space of the gallery - and they both meant to break open the artistic realm and to make it one with the social space, now also including the viewer. All this increased the importance of the work´s context - context indicating the exhibiting space as well as the cultural disposition and sensitivity of the audience - and altered the conventional relationship between the viewer and the work of art .Meaning too, not being predestined in these works, is something being established in this encounter.

Among the forerunning trends of XXth century art the authors list the early Dada, Futurism, and Constructivism first beside the theatrical movements of the Avantgarde that offered a scene for the fusion of art and everyday life throughout the century. Kurt Schwitters´ works, which now may be called installations, also bore a strong theatrical quality. The activity of the followers of Duchamp (who was the first to abandon the aesthetic for the energetic as Apollinaire said) changed our acceptance about the art object: Yves Klein ´organized´ an exhibition entitled Le Vide / Empty (-iness) and left the gallery completely empty; his aesthetically irrelevant paintings became interesting because of the bravura of their making, the living paintbrushes. Piero Manzoni made the cult of the artist´s person just as important as his creation. The understanding of the sculptures of Beuys, and later the Minimalists and Postminimalists lay rather in the process of their making, or their architectural interpretation than in their construction. These works question what we are to focus on when viewing art since it is no longer evident what the art object is, what the subject of art is: what we are required to look at. The minimalists sought formal simplicity and lucidity in creating their ´three-dimensional works´ which did not yield to the category of painting or sculpture but did draw attention to their own non-artistic nature. Unlike them, the Post-Minimalists of the late sixties abandoned formal clarity and produced loosely structured and diffused works seeming to reject altogether the idea that the material was constructed. Instead, the art object is more closely related to the creative process again, and this element leads to Process Art´s revival of the Abstract Expressionists´ gestures: action painting and structural looseness. As the critic Rosenberg asserted, in these actions ´what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event´. Considering its theatrical elements, action painting is evidently related to Happening as well, but the primacy of the creative process over the actual product is an even more important link between the two; the process also including the viewer and his impressions. With this shift the work of art is being dematerialized, it turns, from an object viewed, into a material occasion for viewing. The most important motif - which will also link us to installation - in John Cage´s chance-orientated Happenings is that he left it to the audience to construct the meaning of what was evolving in front of them (in his very first happening: artists ´doing what they do´). The viewer and his reactions were of even greater importance for the Situationists operating with ´ concretely and deliberately constructed moments of life´, and studying these ever-changing and contingent reactions as crucial factors for the artist.

The first occurrence of the term ´postmodern´ is also connected to these works for they have changed the traditional audience-art object relationship through their heterogeneous nature as well. Their different elements are not logically compatible, they require the same attitude as culture itself requires. The works of the Italian Arte Povera, too, are void of specific content or prefabricated meaning, there are only various kinds of information circulating in them which can eventually generate meaning. It is this postmodern culture where installation enters the picture as ´one expression of the gradual detachment of meaning from things´. In the past two decades, after time and space had been integrated in art as its material, installation that originally stood for the ´display of the exhibition´, began to ´describe a kind of artmaking which rejects concentration on one object in favour of a consideration of the relationship between a number of elements or of the interaction between things and their context´. The ´context´ consists of the surrounding space and the people there. The place itself is not ´untouched´: all its potential or repressed meanings are activated. Installation, in its own right, also questions the privileged role of the museums and galleries (=institutional places to exhibit art) since installation is of different kind: it is never just one among the objects exhibited but it is part of the whole space; and the viewer, upon entering this space, will also become a part of it. Looking at museums from this aspect, their contradictory method of operation becomes clear: museums always display objects beside other objects yet it requires that each exhibit be viewed separately. Apart from this, museums present their own version of things, history, or the truth which is not a desired approach towards our 'postmodern' culture.

Theatricality and the strongly performative nature inherent in installation proves the merging of plastic art and another genre, and through this the destabilization of the certainties and norms of art. Or, if we look at it the other way around: this destabilization was a prerequisite for referring to installation as an existing genre (?). Thus unsettling the categories of the art world which had been taken as stable and immoveable, the authors conclude, installation could be able to end the pursuit of modernism: to break out of the ideal realm of art and reconcile it with life.

(Beáta Hock)