A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

What is Installation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation Art, edited by Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio

Reviewed by Natalya Lusty

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In selecting the best critical writing on Installation art over a thirty year period the editors of What is Installation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation Art have given us a valuable historical record of an important period of Australian art. With contributions by art critics, writers, scholars and artists, these essays paint a complex social history of how some of the most important issues informing Australian cultural and political life in the last three decades ­ the environment, reconciliation and more broadly the rapidly changing nature of the post-industrial world ­ are taken up in many of the works examined in this collection. Moreover, the collection’s title foregrounds the difficulty of defining Installation Art. This is made easier, however, by the anthology’s carefully considered structure which helps to clarify the development of Installation work in a number of different contexts.

The essays in the first section, “Theories and Beginnings” define and critically trace Installation’s historical and aesthetic genealogy in both local and global contexts. The remaining sections focus on the various sub-genres within Installation, including installations that engage with and are installed in institutions (Part Two); Installation largely informed by the environment (Part Three), Minimalism or Object Installation (Part Four); and finally Video and Digital Installation (Part Five). While this structure serves to define discrete movements or sub-genres within the field, it is loose enough to allow the overlapping of material so that various works as well as ideas emerge in a variety of contexts and sections. Many of the authors have slightly modified their pieces for this collection and this results in a more coherent response to the question “What is Installation?” than might have been expected, without removing individual pieces from the archival significance of their historical context.

In their informative introduction to the book, the editors Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio suggest that Installation “approaches the very consciousness of art itself” in that it is always aware of its status as art in terms of its reciprocal relationship to space and the importance of the viewer in bringing another level of meaning to the work. As such the very nature of Installation reveals that “the eye is never innocent, the place is never neutral, and the object never hermetic”(2). Expanding on this theme, Edward Colless, in his essay “Installing Art” examines the significant role “process” plays in Installation at the expense of its potential status as an art object, as a commodity item. While he reads Installation as a peculiarly hybrid and therefore postmodern genre, he nevertheless points to its antecedents in modernist culture’s critical re-evaluation of aesthetics and its concomitant desire for the “new”. Suggesting that “there is perhaps more modernism in Installation art than might at first seem apparent”(12), Colless locates its origins not so much with Duchamp’s readymade, as do many of the contributors in this collection, but with his decor creations for the surrealist exhibitions of 1938 and 1942, as well as El Lissitzky’s trade fair designs of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Colless’s historical overview provides an important context for how we mediate between the “new” of modernism (Pound’s call to “make it new”) and the “new” of postmodernism (Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame). Tracing Installation’s genealogy from Duchamp through to the installation art of the 1960’s, including the work of Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein and their attempt to expand the field of art through anti-formalism, to the minimalist geometric hangings of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland, we are afforded an important historical perspective to an art form that, despite it pre-eminence in the latter part of the 20th century, has received scant scholarly attention.

Other pieces in this section formulate more locally specific definitions and historical accounts of Installation, from Mike Parr’s mapping of his various projects in the 70’s at Inhibodress Gallery (one of the first artist run spaces) to Julie Ewington’s reflection of feminist art practice in the 80s. Pondering when it was that the term “Installation” entered our critical vocabulary, Ewington, like so many of the writers in this anthology (McDonald, Alexander, Smith, Best and others), invokes Rosalind Krauss’s seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” as an important moment in the critical awareness of Installation’s ubiquitous arrival. Aware of Installation’s growing importance within postmodern art practice, Krauss concluded: “Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured, possibilities”. [i] The expansion of the field of sculpture saw the emergence in Australia of a generation of important women installation artists whose work engaged with discourses of art, philosophy and the socio-political world. Ewington’s analysis of the significance of the environment to this generation of women (Joan Brassil, Simone Mangos, Joan Grounds and Robyn Bracken) can be read against Susan Best’s much more recent examination of many of these same artists in her essay “Elemental Constructions: Women Artists and Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” While Ewington warns against reading this work in terms of traditional and essentialised notions of women and nature, Best turns to the work of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty to reflect on how many of these artist’s subtly refigure the feminisation of the elemental and in doing so offer a much more critical engagement with “the relationship between the subject and its surroundings”(185). Best argues that “”it is precisely through a certain “feminisation of our relation to the world that the masculinist sovereign subject has been questioned by philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty”(185).

Haunting many of these essays is the sense in which Installation’s acceptance within institutional contexts began to diminish its critical potential. In his essay “Installation’s Crisis of Presentation” dating from 1992, Jeffrey Fereday reminds us that Installation arose out of the “ferment of social critique in the 1960s” and attempted to usurp an art market through the ephemeral nature of its art form, by “refusing to produce discrete artefacts such as painted canvasses, which held privileged value as luxury commodities for speculative investment”(55). Impermanent, site specific and often adversarial in its relation to other art forms, Installation promised to provide a critique of commodity culture by emphasising the conceptual and intellectual process of art at the expense of the museum’s investment in the production of the art object.

And yet as an art form on “display” Installation was perhaps always closer to commodity culture than it liked to imagine. This is amusingly reinforced by George Alexander in his enchantingly surreal essay “Thrift Store Alchemy: Notes on Installation”. While acknowledging Installation’s inevitable commodity status, Alexander suggests that it is the commodity of the thrift store, a “scavenged, ephemeral, shipwrecked aesthetic” that nevertheless resists “the reductive formulae of merchandise.” As an “anti-style” that resembles the eclectic nesting of the bower bird, Installation art combines the obsessive associations of display, collection, souveniring as well as the anarchic nature of performance and theatre:

Installation is the ephemeral prose poem of visual arts, an unforeseeable bastard offspring of all the misalliances that constitute experience; disjunctive but nonetheless emotionally compelling. They can be tiny, intimate, discriminating habitats or uncorked environments of violent theatricality. Installation is really an activity (verb) pretending to be a thing (noun). Installation eludes like the sea, and like it, is alive with discovery, emotion, adventure, peril and repose. (Alexander, 65)

Many of the essays collected in “Section Three: Environment” are essentially concerned with challenging the space of the museum as a place that collects, classifies, displays and in the process homogenises the art object. While much large scale environmental art represents what the editors describe as “the last and most ambitious neo-romantic effort to bring art, humanity and nature together,” Installation could never escape entirely the institutional effects of art making, even if it escaped its four walls. Here, however, indigenous environmental art subtly discloses non-indigenous culture’s belated re-aestheticisation of humanity and nature by revealing the sacred connection that has always existed between Aboriginal identity and the land and, therefore, the profound significance of its loss. In his essay on The Aboriginal Memorial Installation, 200 Poles, Djon Mundine documents his development and co-ordination of this monumental project, which was commissioned by the National Gallery but first displayed at the 1988 Sydney Biennale. The significance of its unveiling in the same year as the Bicentennial Celebrations, which were largely oblivious to the very different significance of Philip’s landing to indigenous Australians, is integral to the work’s public display of loss and mourning. Consisting of 200 Hollow Log Poles assembled in the manner of a forest, Mundine initially conceptualised the project as “a War Memorial to all those Aboriginal people who died defending their country.” But, as Mundine suggests, this work is not simply about loss and mourning, but about cementing and renewing the elemental significance of land to aboriginal culture and identity:

The work is unified by a number of shared themes: a celebration of the cycle of life, respect for the dead (deceased ancestors), mortuary traditions and people’s eternal connection with ancestral beings and their land. Transition and regeneration within Aboriginal culture pervades the memorial. The creation of the memorial should be seen less as a reconciliation statement and more as an affirmation of the survival of Aboriginal society…(Mundine, 211).

In one sense  the history of Installation art is a response to the experience of everyday life in a postcolonial and global capitalist world; what John Barrett-Lennard in his essay “Context and the Site-specific” defines as the experience of “simultaneous fragmentation and homogenisation”(172). While the grand narrative of Installation’s radical resistance to institutionalisation has long been exposed as a fiction, what these essays individually and collectively describe are the micro-political practices informed by artistic exploration, intellectual ideas and community networks, all of which coalesce in a spectacular way around the production of Installation art in Australia over the last three decades.

Natalya Lusty has recently completed her doctorate on subjectivity and representation in surrealism, feminism and psychoanalysis in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

Notes
[i] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde  and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 284.

What is Installation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation, edited by Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio was published in 2001 by Power Publications, Sydney.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also

  • the Art archive