Throughout Modernism, installation art has abandoned the confines of designated ”art’ spaces in an attempt to fuse art with life. As the role of the viewer and everyday life became increasingly important installation art became comparable to the theatrical environment. Audiences found themselves enveloped in sensations, memories, and narratives. ”Space and time reborn’ when Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was conceived in 1919 as ”a union of purely artistic forms (painting, sculpture and architecture) for a utilitarian purpose’1.
In 1917 Tatlin designed the interior of Moscow’s Cafe Pittoresque with Rodchenko and Yakulov, in which constructions on the walls and ceiling disturbed and fractured the solidity of the space. Futurists celebrated this death of ‘Time and space’2 and Constructivists like El Lissitzky extended the sculptural possibilities of the gallery space itself; exemplary in the hanging of his Prouns in Berlin’s 1923 Russian exhibition. This new approach to space in turn had a liberating effect on set design which concerned itself with deluding and involving its audience.Order now
Meyerhold’s productions ‘presented to the spectator a new consciousness of space and making him participate in the action’3. In the first performance of Famira Kafirel Exter’s scenography sought to construct its own environment by appealing to the spectators and inviting them to ‘discover the autonomy of pure forms’4. Contemporary set designers like Richard Wilson also manipulate space to the point of deception as shown in The life and Times of Joseph Stalin.
This relates to Gregor Schneider and Richard Wilson’s installation art which is interested in the relationship between appearance and construction and the function of architecture and the environment it creates. Gregor Schneider’s Haus ur undermines its architectural foundations so that its occupant is aware that the space is false. Similarly, Richard Wilson illuminates the way in which self-contained spaces are taken for granted, most memorably in 20:50, a pool of oil, impossible to see through, and without any double reflections.
In Elbow Room he employs a theatrical-style false perspective by giving the illusion that the floor runs through to the back wall of the gallery. Similar distortions of space are seen in Anish Kapoor’s The Healing of St Thomas (1989), Robert Gober’s Drains (1990), Simon Unger’s Post and Beam(1991), Arakawa/Madeline Gins’s Reverse-Symmetry Transverse-Envelope Hall (1998) and in much of Dan Graham’s work. Various movements at the beginning of the 20th century attempted to unify art and life which derived from Wagner’s ideal; the Gesamtkunstwerk.
One of the initiators was Gropius, the head of the Bauhaus school, who asked fine artists ‘to go into buildings, endow them with fairy tales … and build in fantasy without regard to technical difficulty. ‘5 Likewise in the De Stijl movement, Van Doesberg insisted that ‘the word ‘Art’ no longer meant anything to them as it existed in the same domain as life. This concept recurred in 1957, with the forming of the Situationist International, led by Guy Debord who regarded art as inherent to everyday life rather than as an elite interest.
This new ideal of art effected theatrical performance shown in the creation of The Moscow Art Theatre. Director Stanislavsky instigated Method acting and Naturalist theatre which abolished the lines between theatre and life, imagination and dreams. Simultaneously art became ‘a spectacle, but without a stage a daily undertaking’6 . In Oskar Schlemmer’s work, for example, he broke ‘the narrow confines of the stage and extend the drama to include the building itself’7 . Art as object to be addressed, had shifted to art as environment.
It had become the product of an reaction between onlooker and stimuli. Lucy Lippard has famously termed this as ? ”the dematerialisation of the art object’8. In 1967, Michael Fried’s Art and Objectionhood implied that one could no longer straightforwardly perceive art as being somehow manifest in the objects before one. Experiencing Minimal art was, for Fried, an instance of ‘theatre’9 ; the meaning unfolded as a consequence of the spectator’s awareness of his or her relationship, psychological, physical and imaginative, to the object.
Fredric Jameson named these experiences as ‘material occasions for the viewing process’10 In turn there was a growing sense that the viewer was important, and that art’s meaning was actively produced in its ‘reception or consumption as much as its production’11 – one which has always existed in the theatrical environment. . In the 1960s the Situationists created idea of ‘psycho geography’ which studies one’s passage through a number of different city quarters in order to observe their varying effect.
The audience’s viewing experience could no longer be overlooked by the artist. So John Cage’s Happening (New York, 1952) involved a number of participants – artists, musicians, poets and dancers ? ”doing what they do’12 in front of an audience that was spread among four differently orientated blocks of seats. The audience were left to construct their own path through the various elements bombarding them and construct the meaning of what was going on before them. Written in 1952, 4’33” his “silent piece”13 equally depends on its audience; as they create the sound to be heard.
Claes Oldenburg was also involved in early Happenings, followed by Jim Dine’s 1960 Car Crash performance and the work of Allan Kaprow. Today we see a similar engagement with audience reaction in the work of Mike Kelly. Take Activity Projective Reconstruction no. 1 (A Domestic Scene) which is concerned with the way in which society finds it hard to tolerate or come to terms with unorthodox views and lifestyles. This theatrical pedigree recalls Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau and Johannes Baader’s Das Grosse Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama ? ”Deutschlands Grosse und Untergang’, from the 1920s.
The spectator temporally experiences ‘being in’ the space and so the art work depends on the impulses of the social encounter. Exemplary in this respect is Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, which examines the relationship between the artist and her son during the first five years of his life. Additionally, Vito Acconci used ‘the gallery as a place where the “art” actually occurred … By making choice, then, I was shifting my concentration from ‘art-doing’ to ‘art-experiencing’.
This is seen in Bill Viola’s description of his Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) or The Sleep Reason (1988): “We all get dreams like this every once in a while throughout life. What is interesting is that their vividness is not really about visual clarity or detail-it is a fidelity of experience, of being. The total sensation of what it is like to really be there fills our body … These are the real ‘images. ‘”14 Installation art’s ‘skirmishing’ with a sense of theatre and life led to the belief by many such as John Cage that it ‘is what we’re really living in’; art had grown out of its own ideal realm into that larger ‘dream world’ of reality15 .
During the 1960s’ this idea led to the development in installation and performance was the wish to address economic and political realities through ‘an unsettling of the certainties of the art world’16 as they are addressed in the theatre. For example Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed and Texas Overflow are metaphors for the kind of mental deliberations demanded by the fragmented world. Joseph Kosuth uses installation art to deliberate upon the complexities of representation in our culture.
It is above all, the narration and performance that links installation art and theatre. In recent years Mike Nelson has become known as a maker of ”the observed’17 – he brings to life narratives by taking his spectator on a extensive journey. In the same way Paul Carter creates alternative realities, which ‘take the viewer from the bedroom to the ends of the universe and beyond’18 . The line between performance art and installation is smudged by Joseph Beuys to Matthew Barney (Field Dressing or Transsexuals, 1991), to Gail Pickering (Pradal, 2004).
The collective quality of theatre has merged into performance groups, providing a supportive and stimulating basis. Station House Opera combined theatre and art in The Bastille Dames of 1989, whilst the Danish group, Hotel Pro-Forma, composed of artists, musicians, architects and scientists, produces works that combine installation and performance (Facte Arte Fact, 1991). Richard Wilson too sometimes works with Anne Bean and Paul Burwell, of The Bow Gameelan Ensemble, who use industrial detritus as instruments to produce sounds and as a source of carnivalesque spectacle.