DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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For another installation Iwai created a musical glass bead game similar in appearance to the Chinese game Go. Viewers are presented with a table on which there is a grid of holes in which they can move glass balls. The patterns thus formed are projected onto a wall and Iwai’s software turns the pattern into a diatonic, digital tonal soundscape. The table is scanned by a line of light as in a photocopier and this line of light represents the play head of the device.

Iwai’s approach is totally different to that of Starling. Whereas Starling is fundamentally concerned with being an artist and making ingenious objects for the informed viewer to admire, Iwai is concerned with involving the general public. And it should be mentioned here that like all digital interactive work his works can involve viewers in creative activities even within the maximum security environment of the art museum.

Iwai’s musical Go-board is not simply a sculpture it is something designed to be used, ideally by two people creating a collaborative composition. But the purpose of Iwai’s objects is creative play. Iwai’s work is more concerned with the viewer doing than ‘reading’. Which is to say his work is more embodied, a goal that fine art aspires to but seldom achieves.

Whereas Starling’s work is relatively difficult and therefore confers intellectual credibility not only on its creator but also on those who understand it, Iwai’s art is highly accessible. Indeed he has created a collection of his visual music games for the Japanese gaming company Nintendo (Electroplankton for the handheld DS game machine) and has recently invented a new digital musical instrument the Tenori-On, marketed by Yamaha in late 2006. Whereas fine art is limited to pre-industrial, pre-mass modes of production media art is not. Where fine art is the preserve of wealthy collectors, products such as Electroplankton and Tenori-On are available on the mass market. One could pose the question as to whether Iwai’s art entails a dumbing down of art? If we compare his work with Carsten Höller’s slide installation, Test Site, exhibited as fine art in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006 then we have to answer no. It is time that Iwai was recognised in the fine art world because his accessible interactive installations attain the goals outlined by Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics (2002) to a significantly greater extent than the artists dealt with in that book.

How to do things with Viewers: Andreas Slominksi

The final artist I would like to deal with in this chapter is Andreas Slominski. Unlike Starling or Pastor, Slominksi does take the viewer into consideration, but not in the relational aesthetic mode evident in Iwai’s work.  Slominski has created what might be termed anti-interactive installations that, from one viewpoint, serve to highlight the lack of concern for the viewer-reader that has become entrenched in the dominant discourse of deconstructive art. His work is playful, but it is also serious because of the issue of viewer exclusion that it raises.

We can begin with Slominski’s installation Bucket of Water, 1998. The basic aim of this work is simple, to place a bucket of water in an art museum’s shop. But Slominski goes about achieving this task in a most convoluted manner. He commissioned a plumber:

to come install a 15-meter long pipe from the nearest bathroom to the bucket. In no time the pipe, including a faucet, was installed and the artist was able to fill the bucket. After that was done the pipe was removed and all traces of the action were eliminated, leaving only the bucket full of water behind. It is important to mention that this action took place with no audience present. The only thing the audience was able to see later was the relic of the action, a bucket of water, sitting lost and seemingly forgotten in a museum shop as if the cleaning personnel had left it behind by accident. … the only documentation of the activity were photographs in the publication. (Hoffmann, 2003)

One’s immediate response is that the installation would have had much greater sculptural impact if the plumbing had been left. It would have constituted a surrealistic or dadaistic sculpture. But that is precisely why Slominski did not take this approach. It would have been too easy for the audience to understand and appreciate. Bucket of Water is certainly extremely puzzling, but as in Pastor’s The Perfect Ride, Slominski presents the viewer with a puzzle that is impossible to unravel.

In Bucket of Water what is not said, not seen, not known is more important than that which is in evidence. There are several levels to this work and at one level Slominski is playing with the notion of conceptual art—a subset of deconstructive art. In particular, he is showing the potential absurdity inherent in the minimal-conceptualist genre. One thinks here of Sol LeWitt’s famous neo-romanticist assertion: ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.’ (LeWitt 1969). The artist is so different from the ordinary person that he or she is akin to a ‘mystic’ a visionary, one who stands above the herd. One thinks also of the metaphysical absurdity of the blank canvas; or the empty gallery which, in spite of being a cliché by the turn of the millennium, won Martin Creed the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001 simply because he added a timer to the light switch in the gallery to make the lights go on and off (The Lights Going On and Off, 2001). In contrast to Creed, Slominski seems more aware of the total absurdity of a mode of art that rewards the artist for playing whimsical games that take absolutely no account of the general public but focus entirely on the art cognoscenti. This is not a new observation Jürgen Habermas has already made it on several occasions.

Where Creed’s sense of the playful accommodates itself to the Realpolitik of ‘art for the art institution’s sake’, Slominski’s approach is more genuinely deconstructive because he highlights the absurdism of institutionalised transgression and aesthetically conservative, neo-romantic appeals to the ‘mystic’ nature of creative process. In this sense his approach can be compared with deconstructive gestures such as Maurizio Cattelan’s The 6th Caribbean Biennial, 1999, discussed in the introduction.

Like Cattelan, Slominski’s principal deconstructive weapon is humour. As Freud observed (2001 orig. 1905) humour can be taken seriously. More to the point of this chapter we might say that the playfulness of the mind, in particular its capacity to wander from one idea to another and make nonlinear connections between ideas can and should be taken as seriously as its capacity to create coherent and functioning constructions. And after Hume and post-Humean advances in contemporary cognitive science we can confidently suggest that there is nothing mystic about creative process—apart from the ‘mystic’ that is in all of us: the miracle of consciousness which remains inexplicable by philosophy or science. By pointing to imagination and creativity as a fundamental mechanism of mind Hume’s philosophy helps democratise our notion of creativity. And by keeping the audience in the dark Slominski foregrounds the way in which fine art makes the ordinary extraordinary, he exhibits its strategy of mystification.

Another instance of Slominski’s deconstruction of the romantic concept of creativity is Self-Portrait with Sombrero, installed at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 1998. Patrick Frey reports:

Kunsthalle visitors were greeted only by a pair of photographs (one of the artist's face framed by the circular opening; the other, shot from the adjoining room, of his arm, camera in hand, poised to take the first picture) and the sombrero itself, the top and brim of which had been trimmed to allow the artist to position his face for the "portrait." The only additional clue to the elaborate procedure involved was the still visible holes at the top of the wall. (Frey 1998)

Compared to Bucket of Water the viewers to this Slominskian installation were afforded with a veritable plethora of clues. In this case we are most certainly speaking here of a puzzle that takes the viewer into consideration and which could be solved via some ingenious pondering. The only key prop that is missing is the ladder. The viewer-reader would need to use his or her imagination/intelligence to insert this vital missing fragment into the puzzle.

The narrative behind the work is simple: Slominski deciding to take a photographic portrait of himself wearing a sombrero. A seemingly simple goal, but Slominski made it considerably more complex by electing to take the photograph in the corner of the room at ceiling level while standing on a ladder. The fact that he was crammed into a corner necessitated cutting a hole in the wall to reveal his face on the other side. This in turn necessitated cutting a second hole for his arm to hold the camera. Additionally, the rim of the sombrero had to be cut to fit into the corner. Everything that Slominski performed for this occasion was functional. His construction of this apparatus forms a coherent whole. It is not even purposeless because the purpose is to take a self-portrait wearing a sombrero. The fundamental problem with this contraption is that it is unnecessary. But it very unnecessariness becomes a commentary on deconstructive art in the same way as does his total neglect of the viewer-reader in Bucket of Water

From the standpoint of an artist constructing an art puzzle that engages the viewer in a creative interaction, however, Self-Portrait with Sombrero is successful. It provides sufficient clues for the assiduous viewer to work out the eccentric narrative informing this work. The fact that the story is bizarre is necessary feature of the work because this challenges the viewer to juxtapose distant realities or connect the previously unconnected. When one puts the pieces of the puzzle together and says to oneself ‘he must have cut those holes in the wall to take the photograph of himself’ then one has to a certain extent entered into the creative spirit of Slominski’s art game. More particularly, one has stepped outside of the boundaries of common sense into the territory of imagination. One has entered a world of play in which silliness, accidents and mistakes are grist for the creative mill.

When we have examined a third work Cough Syrup Transport System, 1998, we will begin to see a nonlinear pattern, or system, in Slominski’s work. Cough Syrup Transport System entailed placing a spoon carrying a dose of cough syrup into a Cardan’s suspension apparatus used to keep mariner’s compasses horizontal. This was in turn placed within a Vibro-Shock safe which is designed to give substantial resistance to shocks and vibrations. The safe was placed in a van (an ambulance may have been better) and carried from one end of Berlin to the other, completing its journey in the Deutsche Guggenheim at Unter den Linden.

As in the case of Self-Portrait with Sombrero a simple action, transporting cough syrup to a destination (one usually transports it in the bottle!) is made extremely complex and elaborate. Like Bucket of Water this work is essentially the artist’s game, all the viewer sees is the spoonful of cough syrup. In Self Portrait with Sombrero the artist let the viewer become involved in the game by leaving clues that made the work a soluble puzzle. But in most cases he deliberately abuses his artistic license and keeps the viewer in the dark.

What then does this say about the artist’s game? In the case of Slominski we can forgive his abuse because unlike many other artists he seems highly aware of the absurdity of leaving the viewer in the dark. In fact this has become the essence of his installation art games. And it is good for us the viewer, because here at least is one artist who is drawing attention to the problem. In effect he is trying to provoke a response from the viewer such as the one I am offering here. But rather than being annoyed with Slominski I find that his work makes me more annoyed at the artists who do not seem to realise that they are ignoring the viewer. They appear to be clouded by a market-driven resurgence of conservative neo-romantic conventions at the turn of the millennium, in sharp contrast to Bourriaud’s claims for a renaissance of the goal of bringing art into life via  ‘relational aesthetics’.

Bucket of Water, Self-Portrait with Sombrero and Cough Syrup Transport System all possess the character of witticisms or jokes. But a joke provokes laugher whereas Slominski’s actions produce intellectual, and even politico-aesthetic contemplation. Yet the fact that we do not usually engage in intellectual dissections of jokes is largely due to convention. Similarly, it is also custom that places works of art in a framework that demands serious consideration and analysis such as is being carried out here. Place Slominski’s actions in the framework of a television show with a jaunty title such as ‘Let’s Do It the Hard Way!’ and we would have comedy where the main response would be laughter not intellectual consideration. As in the seminal instance of Duchamp’s urinal Fountain, 1917, we see that the significance of a work of art is defined not by what it is in itself but by its institutional framing.

As in the case of Self Portrait with Sombrero the complex procedures accompanying Cough Syrup Transport System are unnecessary. They serve no pragmatic purpose; but the work does possess aesthetic purposes. For example it points to the way in which doing things the right way is habituated, mechanical and fundamentally uninteresting. Slominski’s contrivances reveal that taking everyday actions apart and putting them back together in convoluted fashions not only makes them interesting it can also be used to construct a creative puzzle that might elicit creative engagement on the part of the viewer.

We can see from the instances cited here that the degree of viewer engagement depends upon the number of clues given to the viewer. I actually think that Self Portrait with Sombrero is more sophisticated, from a deconstructive aesthetic point of view, than the other works by Slominski we have considered, because it comes closer to the condition of the art game which was put forward in chapter three as an effective solution to the problematic disregard for the viewer evident in deconstructive art at the turn of the millennium.

In the following chapter I will continue to explore the concept of recombinatory strategies and their relevance to the relationship between the artist and the viewer-reader. But the focus will turn more towards the interconnection between authorship and narrative.

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Andreas Slominsky, Bucket of Water, 1998.

Andreas Slominski, Bucket of Water, 1998.

Andreas Slominsky, Bucket of Water, 1998.

Andreas Slominski, Bucket of Water, 1998.

 

Andreas Slominski, Cough Syrup Transport System, 1998. A van transports the spoonful of cough syrup to the Deutsche Guggenheim at Unter den Linden, Berlin.