The other day, someone said to me that he didn’t like Christmas because it was a time where an artificial sense of love was created. A time when one is forced to eat, to care for others and to be good. I, personally, think that that was a cynical take on the whole thing but, from a historical perspective, he might be right from the point of view of what this time of the year meant in the yearly spiritual procession of acceptance, repentance and love. From the point of view of the calendar, Xmas marks the beginning of that spiritual journey that ends up at Lent. A fundamental stop in this yearly trip of love and guilt has always been carnivals (in February) when people redefined love through its opposite, lust and excess. In other words, this time of the year is the time when we tend to remind that as human beings we are spiritual entities in the quest of meaning for life.
What contemporary art has to do with all this? I think today’s world aims at artificially concentrate experiences. If you want love go to match.com or get New Age, if you want discipline, train for a marathon, etc. Museums and galleries have, successfully, been presented as the places where the authentic resides. In other words, the art world, as they suggest, is a place of ‘presence’. If we think about it, this used to be the place of the Church and religion until very recently and, if you ask me, I think that is the reason why installations have been so successful in the past twenty years. They are the only art form that can only take place at a museum or gallery. It is very difficult to reproduce them at home or to dismember them. To exist they have to, ‘religiously’, be kept together. To conservate them for a museum, one needs a text and a series of ceremonies through which that original moment seems to be re-enacted.
Like religion, installational art is all about rituals and faith. Very recently I interviewed an Argentine artist about his installation of six bowls made with mud and gold which were delicately placed on a circular table. According to the artist, the first piece of information that the viewer had to have was that the amount of gold varied from one bowl to the other. The second was that, in general, bowls symbolised ‘life’ because they carry ‘water’. The third requirement was to be up to date with his whole body of work in order to put it in a context. The viewer/visitor had also to walk in a very specific direction in order to ‘read’ the ‘work’. It seems that we have rejected the authority of the Church to deposit it in this self appointed illuminati that claim a closer relationship with the ‘real’. There is something tribal going on there. It is as if we are trying to designate the new magicians of the tribe since we do not believe any more in priests, right?
I find this very interesting because the historical origin of installations was far more radical and spontaneous than that. Historically, installations as ephemeral and site-related art were created outside of the museum as a strategy to avoid commercial mechanisms of the art market and related institutions. In its origins, installations were anti-system or ‘pagan’ (to use a metaphor that is adequate for other discussion). Temporality and site-specificity were regarded as signs of a critical attitude. Yet, despite this attitude towards museums, in the late 1980s contemporary art was brought into the centre of museum activities. Museum started to embrace and acquire installations as a historical and contemporary phenomenon. Although many installations of the past are no longer existent, other have been conserved as part of museum or private collections. Some critics argue, however, that the institutionalisation and commercialisation of this art form are at the expense of the critical social dimension of the works. Accessioning such art works into museums collections would destroy the aspects that are considered crucial for their meaning, such as institutional critique, transition and play. Just a thought.