English Synopsis of PhD thesis by Sotirios Bahtsetzis (original text in german)

The work is an overview of the art historical antecedents to installation art and the impact of situational activation of space and spectator on contemporary conceptions of art. The study does not treat the entire history of the phenomenon in the 20th Century, but focuses on specific aspects, which illustrate the transgression from one level of development to the next. Concentrating on the re-contextualization and appropriation of given practices of fine art (like painting or sculpture) during this era reveals the emergence of installation.

Refined from experimental art practice of the late 1960s to the main art form of the late 1980s and 1990s, installation art still undergoes major changes both in form and content. Now a historically established art form, it is time to review this main developing period of installation as a distinct research field of historical fact. In these terms one must point out the well used terms ‘situational’ or “installation-oriented’ art which are often employed in present studies. These broader concepts categorizes and combine not only installations of the late 20th Century but also specific artworks and practices of the historical and Neo Avant-gardes (1955-1975).

The concept of mix-media use in modern art, which since Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement has become a main category of art production, bridged the traditional medium specific definitions common to the fine arts. Even until the late 1980’s artist work still faced medium specific categorization at the fault of an antiquated art historical debate. Fortunately, this art historical categorization was never relevant for the artists themselves. The work of the historical Avant-gardes had already smoothed the way for a new perspective on 20th century art works now termed ‘installative’.

At the same time a transition of image space to real space played an important role for the advancement of installation-oriented works, as documented both theoretically and formally in the work of Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky and pointed out in the seminal essays of Brian O’Doherty (Inside the White Cube, 1973). These facts enabled a new interpretation of modern art, not from the perspective of formal production, but from the perspective of the aesthetic effect presented to viewer. The art-theoretical debates of the 1920s, which were resumed and further developed during the 1960s, actually concentrate on a profound anti-objectivistic process to make aesthetic experience autonomous. These debates helped shape the emerging and conflicting definitions of spectatorship at that time.

In Art and Objecthood, 1967, for example, Michael Fried argued against the minimal object stating it was merely “theatrical”. However, this theatricality represents a positive quality, as it implies the spectator has been put in the fore. This appreciation of the spectator’s role is in manifest opposition to Modernity, which defined art as self-contained and complete.

Taking the minimal object as a precursor to installation, it is clear that installation-oriented art, pieces specifically produced and perceived in the -primarily American- context of Minimal, Conceptual and post-Minimal art, addressed this modernistic development in a nearly exemplary way.

Installation generally describes work produced at the exhibition site. Additional they adjust to the discursive site of the artwork, modify various forms of art display and thematize structures of the reception of the work of art. The aim is to contextually extend the production paradigm away from the affirmation of the aesthetic object and towards the affirmation of the aesthetic experience. From the first proto-Futurist proclamations “to bring the viewer inside the picture” and Duchamp’s dictum, “that the viewer is the one who makes the artwork”, modern art has been greatly shifted towards this new approach. However, Minimalist abstraction in the 1960s pronounced this transition, stretching the shift from a purely self-reflexive empiricism to a phenomenologically defined perception. With this focused goal, the most crucial requirement of installation has been, to arrange experience-conditioned situations for the viewer, and in doing so to incorporate the actual viewer into the structure of each work. It is clear that in those terms the medium-specificity of the work (painting, sculpture, etc.) becomes irrelevant as the main focuses shifts towards a phenomenologically determined interrelation of space and spectator.

This study describes and interprets installation art with a focus on public participation, as its essence is spectator participation. Installation re-negotiates the status of the artwork and the role of the viewer within a long and complex system of representational traditions. A contemplative focus on the painted or sculptural image is no longer the method for understanding installation work. Instead, reception occurs through total immersion of the senses and the modification of “action references”. This is made within a framework of a phenomenologically defined space.

Installations are often based on the preparation of mechanisms or spatial settings, which confront the viewer/participant with ‘unanticipated spaces’ and environments in which are visual and representational habits are challenged or disrupted. In those terms this spaces can be seen as specific visual scenarios, which can be enacted by the viewer. These scenarios however can be minimal and limit themselves just to the allegedly self-evident passing of the viewer through the arranged space. For example, passing through an installation of Ilya Kabakov means to perceive an almost limitless series of “installation”-views. This ‘performative enactment’ should not be understood as a form of play that would falsely lead to the conclusion that installation is another variant of action art.

It is clear that keeping the attention of the viewer within a spatially fixed ensemble, which can never be perceived as a whole but only in a spatio-temporal succession, remains the crucial characteristic of an installation-orientated artwork. Modification of architectural features, arrangement of the materials, and site specific or performative interventions within an installation always have the purpose to support this quasi virtual enactment of pre-given scenarios. A series of theoretical texts from very heterogeneous artists, such as Robert Morris, Alan Kaprow, Bruce Nauman and Ilya Kabakov have pointed out how the viewer’s attention had to be controlled within a given and pre-arranged space in order to explain the structural specificity of their work.

Produced by means of tempo-spatial representation, the designed experience and unfolding narrative of installation work resembles the cinematic perception. Thus our ability to pursue cinematic space from frame to frame, from adjustment to adjustment, helps immerse us into the represented sites and follow manifold narrative strands. Without the use of the editing techniques, these narratives would not appear coherent. Theories of the cinematic ‘apparatus’ by Jean Louis Baudry (The Apparatus, 1975), and of ‘automatism’ by Stanley Cavell (The World Viewed, 1971) explore this process orientated unfolding of perceptual experience. This work reviews various installations in light of such theories.

This thematic was further developed into two independent sections, a) an analysis of key characteristics, strategies and practices of Installation as they emerged during the Neo-Avant-gardes (1955-1975) and b) a historical account of key precedents during the historical Avant-gardes.

The first section begins with a historical account of how installation art was institutionalized during the Neo-Avant-gardes. This process took place in museum’s project spaces (such as the exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ held 1957 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London) and in international survey-type event (such as the exhibition ‘Ambiente Arte’ 1976 during the Venice Biennale). This was the first exhibition of both contemporary artists and pioneers of modernism who worked on a room-size scale.

After that the analysis focuses on generic characteristics of installation on the basis of selected artworks of the Neo-Avant-garde period such as:

* the emergence of site- and situation specific installations (Robert Morris, Michael Serra, Robert Smithson),
* artist’s interventions that form a situation (Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein)
* active spectator participation in environments (Alan Kaprow),
* critique of the institutional and discursive framework of the site (Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers)
* perceptual and behavior modifying arrangements (Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham)

The second section concentrates on the analysis of major, room-size scale works of Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. These proto-installations have been analyzed in five monographically oriented chapters. Although there have always been attempts to both historicize installation and to point out that important precedents to installation were made by artists who figure among the most significant pioneers of modernism (Reiss 1999; Oliveira 1994; Celant 1975), there has never been an attempt to describe why the stylistic development toward room-size scale work did actually take place. Furthermore these artists have not been compared within a common theoretical and methodological framework. This section reviews these works in relationship to the generic characteristics of installation discussed in the first section. It explains for which reasons and in which theoretical and institutional context the emergence of installation occurred.

The first chapter explores how the spatial concepts of the 19th Century Modernist exhibition have been developed to an organized environment. Through the use of panorama techniques and the artful re-arrangement of traditional 19th Century intérieur Decorations, Claude Monet developed in his Orangerie (1927) a closed space that focuses on the activation of a viewer. The viewer is made a participator, who perpetually moves in the manipulated space.

The second chapter focuses on Piet Mondrian’s studio arrangements in Paris (Rue de Départ 1921-1936) as well as his interior design for Ida Bienert in Dresden (1926). This section explores the differences between the De Stijl painted abstract environments (such as Theo Van Doesburg’s Café Aubette) and Mondrian’s chromatic and structural arrangements of space. These arrangements come to such a degree of optical and volumetric ‘levitation’ that the resulting three-dimensional environment functions as a continuum encompassing the viewer’s body. The study focuses on early uses of photographic documentation as ‘installation view’. In this way it proves that specific spatial arrangements had been used by Mondrian as motifs for his paintings.

The third chapter concentrates on El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923) an early environment that established continuity between space and pictures, made an entire room into an autonomous, constructivist work. Proun Room made use of the modernist exhibition design, which that has been developed through the 1920s, in order to accentuate the involvement of the viewer. The analysis makes explicit reference to the application of cinematic techniques on space as key strategy of installation.

The forth chapter focuses on Kurt Schwitter’s interventions in his studio and adjacent spaces in his house in Hanover, known as Merzbau (1923-1936/37). It examines how both architecture and the technique of collage had been used in order to create an all-encompassing, ever-expanding, mix-media environment. The analysis concentrates on the issue of installation as temporary work-in-progress, produced at the exhibition site. It also makes reference to the understanding of the Merzbau as cabinet de curiosité invested with private meanings or as an organic museum of stiles undergoing continual transformation.

The fifth and last chapter examines extensively the work of Marcel Duchamp focusing on the following subjects:

* the development of ready-mades such as Trébuchet (around 1917) and Porte 11 Rue Larrey (1927)) into site specific installations. In this case is has been pointed out that ready-mades emerged in closed link with considerations both about space as well as cinematic perception.
* the interpretation of Large Glass (1915-1923) as optical appliance. Through the use of this ‘glass painting’ the spectator is incorporated into the existing space. By using the spectator’s body as interlinking between object and space, this incorporation accomplishes the iconographical program of the Large Glass.
* the development of installations as spaces of sensory irritation and multiple dis-orienting, as ‘psychophysical’ environments. During both the first international exhibition of Surrealism in Paris (1938) as well as the first seminal presentation of Surrealist Art to the American public 1942 in new York, surrealism created mix-media spaces that embodied subjective ideologies. The analysis focuses on how Marcel Duchamp developed the concepts of site specificity and viewer participation in major installations.
* the development of dioptric environment Étant donnés:… (Given) (1946-1966) as not only Duchamp’s apex of researches on visual perception but also as a final commentary on Western traditions of representation.

The research makes reference to other seminal works of the historical Avant-garde such as; the studio arrangements of Constantin Brancusi, the models of exhibition and display of Frederik Kiesler, the murals of Oskar Schlemmer, the environments Ambiente Spazialle of Lucio Fontana, the architectural environments of Theo Van Doesburg, the exhibition settings of Vladimir Tatlin and those of Kasimir Malewitsch.

This research seeks to fill a void in the study of modern art: namely the study of the origins of Installation art. Considering installation art the major art form of the 1990s up to the present my work seeks to justify and support the thesis, that art historical antecedents to installation art can be found in the 1920s avant-garde. By means of art historical research the work gives an overview of the impact of these works on contemporary conceptions of art.