Installation Art: All Power to the Artist?

Please ensure to Cite the Author Kerrie Warren adequately to Avoid Plagiarism


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Installation Art: All Power to the Artist?

An essay by Kerrie Warren 2016

Master of Contemporary Art

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Abstract: Installation Art is a broad term given to a range of contemporary art practices.  This essay questions the sovereign right of the artist to freely express themselves through this mode of production whilst being curated within the walls of an art institution or public gallery space. All power to the artist?  Evidence provided within this text clearly demonstrates that all power to the artist remains questionable.

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Introduction

From the 18th Century onwards curators have been carefully selecting and collecting objects to place and configure for exhibition within the walls of art institutions, museums and galleries throughout Western society.  This practice empowers the curator and enables them to transform the space.  Contemporary installation art is a mode of production and display which also involves the placement and configuration of objects within those same walls.  But, here the space itself becomes part of the work, part of the whole sum of the individual artwork, created by the artist’s own imagination and series of choices. In Western culture today we accept and even expect that the artist has a sovereign right to freely express themselves through their work without intervention.  So we would naturally assume that an artwork such as an artistic installation has not been intervened with or influenced by anyone other than the artist.  In this essay I argue that within the production of an artistic installation, the artist can be put into a position where they might find it difficult to assume their sovereign right and thus be disempowered.

After a brief definition of contemporary art installation, this essay examines a variety of key issues that have arisen through artistic and curatorial experiences, each providing evidence for my main argument.  The text is divided into four sections: ‘The Power Within,’ ‘A Notion of Freedom,’ ‘Shifting the Boundaries’ and ‘Competition for Authorship.’ Various points of view, differing theories and personal reflections have been noted from the following philosophers, art theorists, artists and curators: Valery Podoroga, Boris Groys, Anton Vidokle, Rabih Mroué, Pamela Scorzin, Nancy de Freitas, Michelle White, Dorothee Richter and Paul O’Neill.  The title of this essay is also a question, Art Installation: All Power to the Artist? The question mark alludes to my own point of view being that all power to the artist is questionable.  As much as I would like to believe that the artistic installation provides a way for the artist to expand their domain and assert their sovereign rights, research proves otherwise and I conclude that all power to the artist is not always the case, and that artistic freedom might be just an ambiguous notion.

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The Power Within

Today, installation art is a broad term given to a range of contemporary art practices, not a genre in itself that can be so easily defined.  It is a mode of production and display which involves the placement and configuration of objects in a space, the whole sum and total of ‘objects plus space’ comprises the individual artwork which can be experienced from multiple points of view.[1]  As Valery Podoroga philosophically notes, “Installation Art is not a new genre of art but a realisation of a fundamental need for a new vision (‘point of view’).”[2]  The more recent meaning of ‘installation’ in the visual arts refers to site-specific artwork created especially for a predetermined gallery space or outdoor site.[3]  The term can be applied to a wide variety of both interior and exterior spaces, but for the purpose of this essay I have focused on curated installations that have been produced within the walls of art institutions and public gallery spaces. Art installations of this type are most often exhibited for brief periods of time before being dismantled, leaving only documentation of their existence behind.[4]  As viewers we are encountered by the three dimensionality of the experience that engages our senses and requires us as spectators to activate it.  We do this by entering and immersing ourselves in the space, assuming that we have also entered into the world and concepts of the artist.  “The installation folds this world into an enclosed space and postulates a divine authority at the centre,” writes Podoroga in his “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s, On the Total Installation”, suggesting the ultimate observer – God – is installed.  Podoroga propounds that the same space must be occupied simultaneously by the artist and spectator for the installation to ‘work’ and questions what it means to install God. [5] But my question is: if a divine and authoritative power is in fact installed, and that godlike power does not belong to the artist, nor to the spectator, then to whom does it belong?

The artistic installation incorporates the space into the work.  Atmosphere and experience is generated by the total of ‘objects plus space’ and the configuration of such.  If installation transforms the space into an individual art piece, we might surmise that it is the artist who completely controls the space and holds the power within it.  New Zealand born installation artist Fiona Connor regularly works with found objects and appropriation.  In an interview with Patrice Sharkey she admits that even though it is normal for artists to be indiscriminate in how they deal with imagery, there is a limit to their control and power.[6]  However Boris Groys in his essay “Politics of Installation” writes that,

“Under the regime of artistic freedom, every artist has a sovereign right to make art exclusively according to private imagination.  The sovereign decision to make art in this way or that way is generally accepted by Western liberal society as a sufficient reason for assuming an artist’s practice to be legitimate.”[7]

In his essay Groys does not allude to the possibility of God taking a divine role at the centre of the installation, but he does point out that the curator is often considered an intervening force who comes between the artwork and its viewer – with the power to disempower both.[8]  On the other hand, Groys argues that the artistic installation provides a way for the artist to expand the domain of their sovereign right from the individual object to that of the space, and as the space itself is part of the individual artwork all decisions and choices to be made are those to be made exclusively by the artist.[9]  He puts forward that the space of an artistic installation is the symbolic private property of the artist, but I argue that this ‘private property of the artist’ is vulnerable to being trespassed, encroached upon, invaded, squatted on and sold.  I argue that it is possible for the artist to appear to be in control whilst also being under control.  Consequently, the idea of artistic freedom might just be an ambiguous notion.

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A Notion of Freedom

Who makes the rules? You tell me, you’re the artist!  In the case of contemporary art installation, where the mode of presentation – within and inclusive of the space – is the individual artwork, the distinction between artist and curator may be less obvious and therefore distinctive roles unclear.  For years curators have been selecting and collecting objects to place, configure and display within art institutions, museums and gallery spaces for public viewing whilst the artist on the other hand has generally remained in their studio creating the objects which may or may not be selected. The power in this situation has been and still is in the hands of the curator who is in the position to make all decisions relating to the selection and rejection of artworks and wielding the power to transform the space.  Is this the divine power that Podoroga writes of when he considers installation artist Ilya Kabakov’s speech On the Total Installation?[10]  If so, it would not be easy to let go of such power.  If there was another person of power other than the artist, one who has the power to intervene in creative choices and make their presence known within the space of an artistic installation, then how would that artist be truly free? Groys suggests that the artist and curator embody two different kinds of freedom: the sovereign, unconditional, publicly irresponsible freedom of art-making, and the institutional, conditional, publicly responsible freedom of curatorship.[11]  But if freedom means different things to different people, could freedom not be misunderstood?

Historically artistic self-determination has been fought for, and in the Modern era artists began to assert the autonomy of their art and their sovereign right as artists. Artist and founder of e-flux Anton Vidokle in his essay “Art Without Artists”, writes that he can only imagine the frustration of the artist who believes to be liberated from the power and control of the critics of the past, to only discover that the power and control has been shifted to the contemporary curator whom he describes as a totalizing figure that the artist simply cannot bypass.  He questions, “Are we sure that this curatorial gain does not bring a correspondingly diminished status for the artist?”[12]  Further on in his paper, Vidokle advocates that, “we should also be very careful to avoid assigning any kind of meta-artistic capacity to curatorial practice” and “if there is to be critical art, the role of the artist as a sovereign agent must be maintained.”[13] Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese stage and film actor, playwright and internationally recognized artist, writes candidly in “At least One-third of the Subject” about his belief that curators have their own motivations and purposes when they come to talk to him about their ideas and when they ask him questions in relation to ‘problems’ such as the artists relationship to power.[14]  Mroué is a co-founder and executive board member of the Beirut Art Center in Lebanon. His practice spans between theatre and the visual arts, overlapping creative platforms where he explores the artist’s responsibility to communicate with audiences in both political and cultural contexts – in particular their relation to civil war and revolution.  Interestingly Mroué examines issues that have been swept under the rug.[15]  Professor Pamela Scorzin refers to Mroue’s impressive piece The Pixelated Revolution (2012), a lecture based performance and installation that featured in dOCUMENTA (13), and describes it as an emotionally charged new form of contemporary media imagery which frames specific fraught images in a remarkable and artistic way.[16]  Scorzin notes that Rabih Mroué demonstrated how the distribution of these images via social media were less carriers of political information than they were significant, active agents in the stirring of emotions which effectively triggered affects as part of a larger scenographic regime of current political protests.[17]

Rabih Mroué has certainly gained an international profile and it would be easy to assume from a distance that he would not only have complete control over his powerful and provocative works but also unleashed artistic freedom of expression through his emotionally charged artistic installations, however in his published reflections he quotes:

Sometimes I am commissioned to produce an artwork revolving around a certain theme, which falls outside my actual artistic, intellectual, and political concerns.  I try to avoid the assignment, but always find myself complying with the curator’s desires.  I prepare what is required from me, as a pupil trying his best to satisfy his teacher. (Mroué, 2010).[18]

How does an artist say no to a curator who has invited them to participate in a show that they want to be part of?  To him it seems curators stand on shaky ground caught between power and art, but here I question whether or not it is the artist who stands on that same spot?  Mroue’s knowledge about curators stems from his own role as an artist and his personal experience of the artist / curator relationship.  Further on in his essay he admits that he is ignorant of “about at least two-thirds of the subject.”[19]   When I read such heartfelt quotes by experienced artists, I wonder about my own naivety as an artist.  Installation art: all power to the artist? Like Mroué repeats throughout his reflections, “I have no idea”.[20]

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Shifting the Boundaries

As the world around us evolves, so do we as its people.  With this in mind, wouldn’t it be natural for the individual roles we play to evolve also?  As artists and their artworks develop over time, so to do curators and their expectations.  How might this evolution outside the space affect inside the space? Associate professor and installation artist Nancy de Freitas in her essay “Breathing Space for Experience” informs us that a recent shift has in fact occurred and curatorial activity is in the process of being reinvented as a discursive field of initiating, researching, collaborating and making meaning in the context of artistic production.  She writes,

“The shift is evident, and perhaps driven, by a proliferation of curatorial study programmes, residencies and labs that typically emphasize experimental, creative, interdisciplinary, research practices for ‘emerging curators’ with an expectation that crossing boundaries, and the ‘re-definition’ of roles will be encouraged”.[21]

De Freitas also comments that it sounds like a new profession in the making, and that this reframing will generate other changes and have potential problems.[22]  Her research examines the uncertain relationship between contemporary artist, artwork and curator, the physical environment and the contingencies of installation practice which influence both their roles and relationship to each other.[23]  Groys also discusses the physical environment and how the role of artist and curator is influenced by it.  He points out that the most significant difference between the standard exhibition and an artistic installation is the function of the exhibition space itself which becomes part of the individual artwork, creating a space where he believes the difference between artist and curator is highlighted and the artist is in fact empowered.[24]  However, earlier in his essay he admits that during this transformational period where contemporary art has become understood as an ‘exhibition practice’ the definition between artist and curator has become blurred around the edges.[25]  In this shift, within the blurring of boundaries and evolving of roles, I argue that the artistic installation is not fully protected from curatorial intervention as depicted in Groys optimistic definition of it.

Throughout history artists have been fighting for their artistic self-determination and sovereign rights.  The focus of de Freitas investigation is on the growing tendency to misinterpret contemporary curatorial interventions and she points out that since the early 1990’s, individual artistic vision has been assigned to a minor position under a curator’s strategic plan and increasingly the distinctive and individual unfolding of an artist’s intentions has almost become an irrelevant curatorial endeavour.[26]  De Freitas gives us an example of one such intervention Curating Degree Zero (2003 – 2008).[27]  In 1998 a symposium was organised by two curators, Barnaby Drabble and Dorothee Richter, a conference to explore the notion of art and social critique, art as service and art in the public domain.  Between 2003 and 2008 the two curators built an archive of exhibition documentation which continued to expand and evolve as it travelled to eighteen venues around the world as an exhibition and program of live events.[28]  It is interesting to note that Anton Vidokle used this very same project as an example of contemporary curators who have spent time and funding to create their own version of a circulating art installation to exhibit their own reading lists and references, taking up what would otherwise be an artist’s space, funding and opportunity.[29]  Vidokle questions the work of curators superseding the work of artists.  He warns that movement in such a direction runs a serious risk of diminishing the space of art and undermining the artists themselves.[30]  Here I question if this is not yet another form of control? Artistic installations are artworks that specifically require a space.  The space itself is a material support and anything within that space becomes part of the artwork.  It appears in this case that the boundaries certainly did shift, leaving the artist outside.

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Competition for Authorship

The uncertain and transforming relationship between artist and curator in contemporary practice today seems based on power and control as the contemporary curator, now often referred to as ‘cultural producer’, takes on a new shape and size, expanding out from and reaching far beyond their traditional boundaries.  My question is, does this power and control also expand into the sacred space of artistic installation?  When a curator, or ‘cultural producer’ themes an exhibition or biennale, when they create a conceptual framework on which an installation artist is expected to build, are they not to some degree entering into the artist’s territory and putting their own creative stamp on the work?  De Freitas informs us that contemporary curators choose the conceptual framework to create the contexts of exhibition, their personal career development is not only dependant on their choice of artists and concepts but also on their progression towards a recognisable, individual curatorial identity and the establishment of their own profile. De Freitas writes,

“Curatorial propositions can easily become doctrinaire… the authentic power of art to initiate alternative space / time worlds for a viewer may be subverted by the curatorial proposition which in itself becomes a prophetic scheme…”[31]

How does this action not shape and re-shape the contemporary artistic landscape, both outside and inside the space?  Michelle White, Associate Curator of the Menil Collection in Houston Texas states in her interview with Nato Thompson, ‘Curator as Producer’ that the term ‘Cultural Producer’ is a more honest way to articulate the new contemporary role of the curator as it acknowledges the complexity of the collaboration that she believes has to happen. An exhibition or project which involves a more complex institutional web of financial and physical logistics, along with managing the various relationships between collectors, patrons and boards of trustees to the display space itself is beyond the simple curator / artist dichotomy. However,

“But at the same time, in working on site-specific projects or exhibitions with living artists where collaboration is essential to make meaning, I have found myself questioning the boundaries of my involvement in the aesthetic and conceptual production.”[32]

The contemporary curator of today certainly does appear to have a more complex situation to work with.  As the world has become smaller, expectations seem to have become greater in both roles.  But the artistic installation represents another space entirely, another world altogether.  Does this other world not belong exclusively to the artist as Groys suggests?

Earlier in this essay I used Curating Degree Zero (2003-2008) as an example of a touring exhibition / installation that shifted the boundaries by literally taking over the space of the artist entirely, but this project also demonstrated further evidence of the precarious relationship and power struggle between artist and curator within the space of the artistic installation itself.  Dorothee Richter and Barnaby Drabble had initially worked as chief curators and authors of the project before moving themselves into the position of artists.  As artists, informs Dorothee Richter in her paper “Artists and Curators as Authors – Competitors, Collaborators, or Team-workers?” they experienced difficulty assuming the role toward the host curator Annette Schindler when Richter refuted an idea but was unable to assert her position.[33]  Richter states,

“On the one hand, we programmatically agreed to outsource the power of definition, as described in our concept – while on the other, we found ourselves in a pre-structured, power-shaped institution, which granted us as “quasi-artists” less power than the curator.”[34]

This proved to be an interesting and thought provoking exercise which enabled the curator to experience the artist who experiences the curator within the space.  Paul O’Neill, author of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) articulates that curatorship today is primarily understood as an activity distinct from its limited job description.  The exhibition is now a form of self-portrait and meaning is derived from the relationship between artistic positions as presented by the curator.[35]  Further into his book under the heading of Antagonism to the New Curatorship, he writes,

“As already stated, the fact that curatorship has achieved a normalized, or integrated, position within contemporary art production and discourse does not mean that it is without its discontents.  Indeed, it might be expected that these changes in reputational economies during a discursive shift of emphasis from the figure of the artist to that of the curator would be perceived by some as a mistake or as something detrimental to contemporary art.”[36]

Vidokle asserts that the necessity for curators to go beyond their traditional roles of exhibition making should not be justification for their work to supersede the work of the artist, or for authorial claims that cause artists to become actors and their works to become props whilst they illustrate their own creative concepts.[37] Even though Groys argues that artistic installation is protected from curatorial intervention, I believe my research has shown that this is not always the case.  The contemporary curator seems to have broken out of the confines of their pre-existing role, transformed their image, and crossed over the borders where meaning can be made from their own artistic production.  If exhibition has now become a form of curatorial self-portraiture as O’Neill suggests, could this not be the portrait of the divine authority that Podoroga suggests sits within the space of Ilya Kabakov’s The Total Installation?

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Conclusion

As I mentioned in my introduction, I would like to believe that the artistic installation provides a way for artists to expand their domain and assert their sovereign rights, however the evidence is there to suggest that artists need to continue to fight for those rights.  As the world evolves and art becomes part of mass culture, as we wander through the Biennales, Triennales and Documentas, we witness that the style of exhibition making is changing.  Within this transformation curators have extended themselves beyond their traditional roles and are now being referred to as ‘cultural producers’ who propose their own conceptual frameworks and contexts for exhibition, establishing their own profile and individual identities. How does this transformation not transform the contemporary artistic landscape, both outside and inside the space?  Groys asserts that within this transformation the artistic installation remains the sacred space of the artist, it is sovereign territory where the artist makes all the decisions.  But I argue that as the definition between artist and curator has become blurred around the edges, so too has the boundary between the sovereign territory of the artistic installation and the space that surrounds the space. The relationship between, space and the artist is vulnerable. Within this transformative period we have also witnessed the role of the artist evolve to have more of an inclination towards collaboration, socially engaged practises and assumption of the role of curator themselves, but to travel down those other multi-layered, meandering paths was not within the scope or focus of this essay.  However the artist’s transformation is acknowledged here in order to link this information to a broader context.  Artist Rabih Mroué might be ignorant to at least two thirds of the subject, but what he does know is that, “the artist should know, and needs to learn more, be implicated and responsible, and leave this pretentious innocence behind.”[38]  Installation Art: All Power to the Artist? is, still a question.

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Bibliography

Atkins, Robert. Artspeak : A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, 2nd Ed.  New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997.

de Freitas, Nancy. “Breathing Space for Experience.” International Journal of the Arts in Society 6, no. 2 (03// 2012): 305-21.

Gallery, Sfeir-Semler. “Rabih Mroué.” Sfeir-Semler Gallery, http://www.sfeir-semler.com/gallery-artists/rabih-mroue/.

Groys, Boris. “Politics of Installation.” e-flux, no. 2 (01// 2009): 1-8.

Moran, Lisa, and Sophie Byrne. “What Is_Installation Art?”  The What Is_IMMA Talks Series. http://www.imma.ie/en/downloads/what_is_installationbooklet.pdf.

Mroué, Rabih. “At Least One-Third of the Subject.” “Frakcija”, Curating Performing Arts 55 (2010).

O’Neill, Paul. The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(S).  Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England : : The MIT Press, 2012.

Podoroga, Valery. “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’.” Third Text 17, no. 4 (2003): 345-52.

Richter, Dorothee. “Artists and Curators as Authors.” On Artistic and Curatorial Authorship, no. 19 (June 2013).

Scorzin, Pamela C. “Some Reflections on the Photofilmic Aesthetics and Visual Rhetorics of Fraught Images in Rabih Mroué’s the Pixelated Revolution (2012).” Image & Narrative 16, no. 1 (2015): 75.

Sharkey, Patrice. “Fiona Connor: In and out of the Museum.” Art Monthly Australia, no. 271 (07// 2014): 24-27.

Thompson, Nato. “Curator as Producer.” By Michelle  White (2008).

Vidokle, Anton. “Art without Artists?”. e-flux, no. 16 (05// 2010): 1-9.

Zürich, Elektrosmog, W. Hockenjos, Barnaby  Drabble, Dorothee Richter, and Niclac Basel. “Curating Degree Zero Archive.” Medienarchiv der Künste, http://medienarchiv.zhdk.ch/sets/curating_degree_zero_archive_homepage.

 

[1] Lisa Moran and Sophie Byrne, “What Is_Installation Art?,”  The What Is_IMMA Talks Series, http://www.imma.ie/en/downloads/what_is_installationbooklet.pdf.
[2] Valery Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” Third Text 17, no. 4 (2003): 345.
[3] Robert Atkins, Artspeak : A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present, 2nd Ed. (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1997), 105.
[4] Ibid., 106.
[5] Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” 346,47.
[6] Patrice Sharkey, “Fiona Connor: In and out of the Museum,” Art Monthly Australia, no. 271 (2014): 27.
[7] Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux, no. 2 (2009): 3.
[8] Ibid., 2.
[9] Ibid., 3.
[10] Podoroga, “Notes on Ilya Kabakov’s ‘on the Total Installation’,” 346.
[11] Groys, “Politics of Installation,” 3.
[12] Anton Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” ibid., no. 16 (2010): 6.
[13] Ibid., 7.
[14] Rabih Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” “Frakcija”, Curating Performing Arts 55 (2010): 86.
[15] Sfeir-Semler Gallery, “Rabih Mroué,” Sfeir-Semler Gallery, http://www.sfeir-semler.com/gallery-artists/rabih-mroue/.
[16] Pamela C. Scorzin, “Some Reflections on the Photofilmic Aesthetics and Visual Rhetorics of Fraught Images in Rabih Mroué’s the Pixelated Revolution (2012),” Image & Narrative 16, no. 1 (2015): 75.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” 86.
[19] Ibid., 88.
[20] Ibid., 86.
[21] Nancy de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” International Journal of the Arts in Society 6, no. 2 (2012): 308, 09.
[22] Ibid., 307, 08, 09.
[23] Ibid., 305.
[24] Groys, “Politics of Installation,” 3.
[25] Ibid., 1.
[26] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 305.
[27] Elektrosmog Zürich et al., “Curating Degree Zero Archive,” Medienarchiv der Künste, http://medienarchiv.zhdk.ch/sets/curating_degree_zero_archive_homepage.
[28] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 306.
[29] Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” 5.
[30] Ibid., 1.
[31] de Freitas, “Breathing Space for Experience,” 313,14.
[32] Nato Thompson, interview by Michelle  White, 2008.
[33] Dorothee Richter, “Artists and Curators as Authors,” On Artistic and Curatorial Authorship, no. 19 (2013): 54.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(S) (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England : : The MIT Press, 2012), 99.
[36] Ibid., 122.
[37] Vidokle, “Art without Artists?,” 1.
[38] Mroué, “At Least One-Third of the Subject,” 88.