Editorial: When Things Go Wrong in Installation Art: Problems with Art Management / Johny ML
Post Capitalist liberalism helps contemporary thinking to reduce everything either into a spectacle or into art, in the worst case spectacular art. That’s why a cleverly ‘abandoned’ pair of spectacles causes so much of an aesthetical interest among the audience, says JohnyML, editor in chief of Art Tehelka.
One bad thing about post capitalist liberalism is that it reduces everything either into a spectacle or into art. In the worst case, anything that is turned into a spectacle could be art too and vice versa. That means people these days, even if they are not collecting art, are looking for either spectacles or art, or together. Difficult times pose difficult propositions and formulations so forgive me if I sound jaded. Spectacularization of anything depends on/happens when the object in itself fails to communicate a comprehensive meaning, instead it generates a series of associative memories so that a meaning could be eked out from within these chain of memories or relationships, leaving the meaning a bit lifted or detached from the spectacular object itself. It is almost like a mango fruit juice advertisement package insists on the memories of a ripe mango eaten in abandon from a beautiful orchard, plucked directly from the tree, in front of the beloved and eaten for a wider audience (via selfie) and underlines the warning that it ‘does not contain any fruit pulp’.
We live in such a socio-cultural situation where over communication has almost become under communication or no communication. Each object/event/person in the society needs to carry warning to remind the viewers that he or she is not what they think. A tramp could be impeccably dressed and be passed off as a gentleman (the possibility that Chaplin had exaggerated in his films in the last century), a scientist could be taken for an occultist. A rational thinker could be projected as a social offender therefore he could be bumped off easily. The times come with constant warnings. In the case of art, the time has finally come when the art organizations/organizers have to tell the viewers what in display is art and what is not. A fire extinguisher even with a note saying ‘fire extinguisher’ could be wondered at as a spectacular piece of art if it is found in an inconspicuous corner of a gallery or museum that is famous for presenting extremely strange works of art including installations and performance art. The young day wagers doing internship in the museums as ‘live guards’ in the halls may be taken for ‘performance artists’ with an aesthetic purpose.
‘Confusion has made its masterpiece’, Shakespeare expresses the assassination of King Duncan at the dungeon of Macbeth with this line uttered by Macduff. Transporting the same idea to our times, I would say that installation art has finally created confusion as masterpieces. In fact, I do not accuse the artists who create these confusions accidentally, subconsciously or deliberately because the postmodern liberalism had given them all the freedom to experiment with mediums and methods and also to transcend meaning and the temporal monetary values embedded in a work of art. The transitory aspect of installation art, in the beginning was really confusing even for the art establishments all over the world therefore they had to invent methods to accommodate these impermanent acts of aesthetical rebellion within the monetary logic of the market. The co-optation and the later transition was rather easier because installation art could produce not only a set of new artists with daring attitudes but also an audience which could in fact approach art with some sense of frivolity and if need be with all due seriousness.
As we know museums are the ritualistic spaces of culture. The moment a work of art or any object in that case enters the threshold of museum it assumes the quality of a work of art commanding some sort of revered attention from the audience. That’s why the recent prank done by a teenager in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco by placing a pair of spectacles on the wooden floor of one of the galleries in the museum. An abandoned parcel in a public place immediately evokes the idea of ‘explosion or bomb’ in the public mind because the socio-cultural and political discourses have taught us to think so by showing us the examples of explosions and the patterns in various parts of the world. It is quite Pavlovian that even an innocent gift packet accidentally left by someone in a park bench or a metro station could cause a major security exercise in the area. Similar was the response of the people who came to the museum in San Francisco. They all started taking pictures, wondering at the beauty of it, almost writing critical reviews in mind, posing for selfies and so on until the boy appeared, apologized and took away his spectacles.
Now, what is it that makes the audience take a mundane object like a pair of spectacles for a piece of high art worthy of a museum display? It is just a Pavlovian response to habit? Or is it the negative fallout of the post capitalist liberalness in art which helps anything to pass off as art whether artistic craft and intelligent conception of it are involved or not? Shall we blame Duchamp for all these confusions? If so, how long are we going to see everything in the Duchampian framework? Duchamp’s was reiterating the fact that it is the signature of the artist that creates value to a work of art. Today, we could take that signature as a Duchampian metaphor for the monetising aspect of art rather than the stylistic distinctions that an artist was capable of creating. Duchamp’s critique was not leveled at the lack of talent of the artists but the lack of understanding of the people who had been monetising the work of art. Duchamp in a clever fashion stated that a commercially produced urinal also could be monetised provided the ‘mythical’ signature of an artist is etched on it. Duchamp was not wrong either.
In the case of the abandoned pair of spectacles the Duchampian cleverness does not come into play. It is the poetic justice of the audience that makes even the poetry ridiculous. In poetry there is a willing suspension of disbelief; here in the case of the spectacle on a museum floor the audience were not even willingly suspending their disbelief, on the contrary they were shamelessly expressing their belief in a ‘work of art’, which was impermanent and ephemeral therefore an ‘installation’. So who could be blamed for this blind faith of the audience? I would say the whole of the art establishment is still working around the clock to fool the people with such ephemerals. It happened with the Turner Prize in 2004 when it was given to Martin Creed for presenting a light bulb going off and on in a gallery corridor. People were offended and they did not know such a work existed. When the award was declared the gallery going public was demoralized and many of them said that they did not think it was a work of art but in vain. The process had already been on with the Young British Art movement. The Great British art establishment hand in gloves with the Euro-American art establishments had justified pickled animals, sharks, recreation of bed rooms, stitching the names of the sleeping partners on a tent etc, with sheer money power and made the world believe that new art has arrived.
Intelligent installations were there in the world already but immediately after high modernism the sheer stillness of such installations was difficult to comprehend as they did have some spectacularness but just did not have that ‘pleasing’ aesthetics. Richard Wilson’s 20:50 was a path breaking installation using used oil in a huge hall creating the effects of minimal aesthetics via a temporal work of art. A very weak version of it came to India in 1991 when Vivan Sundaram did ‘Land Shift’ immediately after the first Gulf War. Till the internet revolution India always got watered down versions of the western art both in modernism and post-modernism, without acknowledgement or people knowing the real sources. Today too Indian installation art is much indebted to the western world but the sources are immediately found, as the open sources are available on internet domains. However, the Indian audience remained by and large skeptical to the installation art practices, especially to the ones that are done for the sake of installations. But our art establishments, both the public and private ones have been fooling the Indian audience with tall claims of installation art. No one so far has intelligently explained why the Indian audience should ‘like’ the installations of Raqs Media Group and also nobody has told us why the last installation of Sudarshan Shetty was so great that it needed a National Gallery of Modern Art exposition.
In India, there was a time when gallerists hated installation art. It was in early 1990s. Vivan Sundaram with his missionary zeal was trying to convert Indian youngsters to his religion of installation art and the new converts were overdoing their new faith. The galleries were still saying ‘you can do installation art but the medium should be oil on canvas’. But lo and behold, the things changed by the boom time and after. The erstwhile apologists for oil on canvases now speak like Vivan Sundaram’s new converts who spoke of their new faith in those good old days. Kochi Muziris Biennale (Edition 1 in 2012) was instrumental in getting the word ‘installation’ into the local Malayalee parlance. Journalists in their enthusiasm to celebrate what they did not understand used the word installation to the level of making it so much of a farce that even the local pubs and toddy shops started using the word for anything and everything. For example, for a small or large (60 ml or 90 ml) drink, they started saying ‘small installation or large installation’. Some clever ones put signboards at waste dumps saying ‘It is not an Installation’, a la Rene Magritte.
I am not against installation art, in fact I am for it to certain extent. In 2002 I had argued ‘for’ installation in a seminar held at the India Habitat Centre (http://artindia.net/johny/art5.html) where I contested (with prior agreement) the arguments forwarded by the veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon ‘against’ the installation art. My problem here is the way the audience are brainwashed and swayed, and even fooled to make them believe certain art practices are good and ask them give preference to looking at such art. The same apologists will not tell the audience that in Britain where it all started there is a huge soul searching happening regarding the aesthetic permissibility of the YBA kind of art. Interestingly Damien Hirst is one of the much maligned artists there and nothing much is heard of him these days. Sadly, we are neither looking at installations nor looking at traditional kind of works of art. We are simply confused and this confusion is caused by the gallerists who had taken up promoting installation art in India without really understanding its aesthetical, sociological and political, and even monetary values.