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Austin Chronicle Viva la Revolution!

Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996

By Ben Willcott

MARCH 20, 2000:  Quick, can you name the American artist who famously stuffed himself into his campus locker and remained there for seven days?

If your answer is Chris Burden, then you know your modern artists. Burden pulled the locker stunt as his MFA thesis project and went on to stage many other similar conceptual/action art pieces (including shooting himself in the leg as a one-off performance piece) in the course of his long and colorful career. Burden belongs to a generation of earnest, loopy, brave, comical, and visionary artists who tried to change the way we look at art. In pursuit of this mission, Burden also created installations, one of which is included in "Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996," the new exhibition at the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. Burden's piece, titled The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, consists of 50,000 nickels with match tips glued to their faces lying in perfectly symmetrical rows on a platform just above the floor. It is a forceful image of order, power, and industry which rises up to fill the space and overwhelm the viewer. Up close, the nickels seem small, the explosive capabilities of the match heads comical. Paradoxically, from further away, their combined energy is cold and sinister. Using multiple perspectives to get at meaning and altering the way a viewer interacts with a work is typical of installation art. You cannot simply stand a short distance from the image and size it up as with a conventional medium like painting. To begin with, it is hard to know where to stand to really see the object. Instead, an installation requires that you cross the boundaries of a conventional art experience and become part of the work itself.

If you didn't know the answer to the question above, don't feel culturally illiterate. After all, it's not like we're talking about Eric Burdon. Chris Burden is not a rock star. In fact, he's not even a celebrity, at least not in the league of Jackson Pollock or Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol. The big visual arts genres of the Fifties and Sixties -- Pop Art and Expressionism -- fed into a market-driven star culture where artists were the cause celebre of the new liberal elite. But by the end of the 1960s, things were changing: Warhol's 15 minutes of fame was taking the form of "art works" such as Lee Lozano's announcement that she would not go to art parties anymore as an act of "total personal and public revolution," and Vito Acconci joining the Marines as a conscious exploration of the intersection of the public and the private. As art, these were hilariously narcissistic and silly gestures, but as with the actions of Duchamp and the Dadaists before them, they succeeded in changing the rules. Artists were no longer simply celebrity painters and sculptors, and works of art were no longer just commodities that could be easily bought and sold in galleries.

These protests were part of a revolution that forever changed the way we look at visual art: The artists behind them "broke the frame," bursting free of strictly material work (like painting) to embrace an ephemeral art of ideas. This late-Sixties explosion of radical experimentation eventually led to such creative sub-genres as conceptualism, performance art, body art, action art, feminist art, land art, and installation art. Of all these, installation art has been the most wide-ranging in scope and longest-lasting. In the spirit of the age in which it really came into its own, the Seventies, installation art is open-ended and overwhelmingly pluralistic. In fact, it has involved so many different approaches by so many different artists that it is difficult to generalize about the genre at all.

Still, enough of a consensus has developed around installation for the Encarta World Dictionary to include a definition. It reads: "an artwork assembled by the artist involving the arrangement of three-dimensional objects or the use of paint and other media directly on walls or floors." Not a bad attempt for such a wide-ranging art form, but we might add that it "creates rather than represents an experience for the viewer." Of all the pieces in the new Blanton exhibition, Ann Hamilton's Linings probably comes closest to these definitions. The piece is comprised of a pile of felt boot liners placed in front of a one-room house covered in stitched woolen hospital blankets. The interior of this padded room has a grass floor and panels of text on the ceiling and walls but is completely sealed in glass; the words are from a description of walking through the forest by John Muir. Lastly, there is a small television screen on the far wall which repeatedly plays an image of a woman's mouth filling up with water. As a work of art, Linings doesn't merely occupy space with a strong presence, it transforms it into something else entirely. The strands of meaning -- meditations on nature, isolation, comfort, travel, communication -- weave a complex fabric.

At the same time, for all the opaque seriousness of a piece like Hamilton's, "Blurring the Boundaries" doesn't feel pretentious. The installations are more like games which present elaborate visual puns and try to entice you into connecting some of the dots. However, it certainly doesn't hurt that the museum has provided small placards offering enlightening details alongside each work. From the explanation of Linings, for instance, we learn that the piece, which was created in 1990, was Hamilton's personal response to debates on censorship in the arts. The two meanings of the title -- buffers or protective linings, and the act of making lines or borders -- serve as organizational devices for the rest of the pieces of the puzzle.

A gaming, prankish spirit is perhaps most evident in Alexis Smith's 1985 piece Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses. In it, she combines Dorothy Parker's famous quip with an oversized Pop Art image of Marilyn Monroe in sunglasses. The frames of the glasses contain photos of football players, an eye exam chart, and lipstick traces. The title, a key to the riddle, is written in tiny script across the bottom. Other pieces, like Francesc Torres' 1986 piece The Dictatorship of Swiftness, similarly presents elaborate visual puns, but with a much darker flavor. In the piece, six video monitors mounted on clear plastic bases are arranged in a semi-circle around an enormous, mounted field gun; on the floor are buckets of water. Five of the televisions play looped images of a race car crashing while the sixth plays a tape of a soldier being shot; inside the clear base of each stand is a soldier's helmet and a toy race car. With its dramatic representations of human violence and broad assortment of time elements, the piece manages to be simultaneously direct and arcane.

If the nascent movements which produced installation art led to a no-rules, boundary-crossing sense of endless possibility, they also required that each piece operate according to its own unique logic. Drains, by Robert Gober, is a splendid example of this sort of inventive self-creation. His piece, which takes up about 30 square feet, is made up of a 33é4-inch cast pewter drain which is mounted into the wall facing outward at eye level. Upon first glance, Drains is forgettable nonsense. But after lingering for a moment, it casts a strange spell. By simply taking an ordinary household object out of its normal context, Gober forces us to pause and reevaluate our day-to-day routines. The image is so powerful that it creates an alternate reality, simultaneously triggering associations as different as the body, sewer tunnels, and surveillance technology.

Ultimately, this is what installation art is really about: brilliant visual metaphors which force a re-examination of the spaces we inhabit and the assumptions we make about living. All of the 22 works in "Blurring the Boundaries" communicate highly effectively in this way. Which cannot be said of every installation or of every installation exhibition. Many of the earliest experiments by Chris Burden, et al. reduced complex ideas to gimmicks which have not withstood the test of time. Robert Grosvenor's kinetic ocean sculpture from 1971, which involved putting aluminum tubing in the ocean and watching it bob in the waves, comes to mind. However, to look at pieces in the Blanton exhibition, most of which are from the last two decades, is to see installation art grown-up. There is no discrepancy between what a work can be said to have achieved and what it is actually like to view it. And the more recent work is a lot less self-indulgent than the original experiments. At the same time, looking around, it is hard not to smile at the heady days of absurd and obscene transgressions which began installation art. Long live the revolution.


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