What on earth is creative about installation art?

the gates new yorkWhen I go into an art gallery filled with the masters, be they Rembrandt or Robert Bateman, my first reaction is “Wow! How did they do that?” My second reaction is: “I could never do anything that good in a million years.”

When I enter a space with an installation art piece, my reaction is “cool!” Then I try to open my mind to the possibilities of what the artist was trying to say. 

Finally I’ll mosey over to the ‘explanation’ and see if I got it half right. Sometimes I do, and then I say, “cool!” again. 

I like installation art. It speaks to me.

The term, installation art, is relatively new. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first usage to about 1969. The term refers to the use of three-dimensional materials, placed in such a way that that viewer subjectively interacts with the space created. Rather than passively viewing a two-dimensional painting, installation art invites the viewer to participate in the creation of the experience.

vietnam veterans memorial wallThe most familiar example might be the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Wall created by Maya Lin. More than just a listing of names, a visitor feels compelled to touch the wall as they walk deeper and deeper into the wedge-shaped enclosure. 

It has been voted the 10th most popular architectural feature in the US, by the American Association of Architects. Powerful, as anyone who has visited can attest. Installation art at its finest.

A more controversial installation piece called The Gates was installed in Central Park for two weeks in February 2005 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It consisted of several thousand gold colored gates topped by billowing orange banners. Some folks loved it, others hated it, and it was very expensive to install. The artists donated both time and money, but the cost ran into the millions. Several art critics protested that it didn’t mean anything.

Two artists working with media of earth and sky are favorites of mine. James Turrell has been constructing skyscapes about the country. These are structures in which a portal to the sky has been built. Spectators enter and peer upward almost as though looking through a telescope. Turrell’s purpose, he tells us, “The sky always seems to be out there, away from us. I like to bring it down in close contact with us, so you feel you are in it.”

andy goldsworthyAndy Goldsworthy, on the other hand, works with materials closer to home: moss, rocks, twigs and leaves, to create ephemeral constructions that enrich and stretch our beliefs and cognates about the world in which we live. 

Goldsworthy created an immense piece of installation art for the San Francisco de Young Museum in 2005—A limestone crack that runs for 60 feet—In this earthquake prone part of the world it is “definitely subversive,” says Goldsworthy with a chuckle. 

He is famous for dry stone work in his native land of Scotland, constructing undulating fences that weave in and out of trees and egg-shaped rock cairns. His work, although difficult to comprehend at first, now speaks to me in the strongest of metaphors.

I recently visited the Phoenix Art Museum to see two mirror image works of installation art. In one corner of the new Contemporary Art Wing, is a huge hanging of wood fragments by Cornelia Parker called “Mass (Colder Darker Matter)”. Rescuing charred pieces of wood from a church that was burned by lightning, Parker constructed a large suspended cube, dense at the center and thinning toward the sides.

cornelia parker mass colder darker matter“It appears at once flat and three dimensional, but never solid, almost disintegrating before our eyes.” As spectators move about the cube, the air currents cause the fragments to turn and twist, becoming alive. There is a multiplicity of meanings in this visual communication: I find something new each time I visit.

Across the hall is the light counterpoint to Parker’s black charred wood. There, Yayoi Kusama has created a work playfully entitled, “ You who are getting obliterated in a dancing swarm of fireflies.” To those who visit it faithfully each time they are at the Museum (myself included), it is simply called “The Firefly Room.” 

Imagine a room about 25 feet square, with mirrored walls, floor and ceiling. Darken this room, and then hang of strands of multicolored LED lights at one foot intervals down from the ceiling. As the viewer/participant enters this special room, the lights twinkle, dim and then change color. 

Moving through the space from baffled entrance to exit, observers feel they are standing, literally in the middle of the universe, as thousands of twinkling lights are reflected and re-reflected in the mirrored surfaces. Hard to imagine and even harder to take pictures of!  You only can be awed by this glimpse into the possible center of our universe.

Some folks are offended by installation art. They seem to be looking for rectangular canvases on a flat wall that represent something. As one person near me exclaimed, “I want a tree to look like a tree.” 

That’s OK.  It is their loss and my gain. I find that each time I view a piece I go deeper inside myself and learn something new.

Excuse me while I go take another turn at catching fireflies!

Photographs credit to Wikipedia and Phoenix Art Museum


About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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