Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: Unexpected Art, ed. by Jenny Moussa Spring

Cover of Unexpected Art, featuring an enormous, bright yellow rubber duck floating in a blue-green body of water with brick and steel buildings behind it.
UNEXPECTED ART, ed. by Jenny Moussa Spring, spotlights installations and site-specific works from around the world. Each piece appears alongside an artist’s or curator’s statement (depending, I assume, on whether or not the artist was comfortable writing in English), while two introductions usher readers into public context of installations in general and these pieces in specific.

Said pieces are by more than fifty artists, some of whom work in teams or collectives where not every member is named on the page. Of those I could identify through Google, thirty-four are men, twenty-seven are women, and one appears to be nonbinary. Forty-two of them live and work outside the United States. Twenty-two of them are people of colour.

So basically, the book is geographically diverse both in terms of the artists represented and the locations where the pieces were exhibited. It zips close to but fails to maintain gender parity, though, and I wish there’d been more POC represented.

Barring that, the book is fabulous. Not only did it push a large quantity of excellent art in front of my eyeballs, but it got me thinking about how much I love installations.

"I love installations" is the year’s biggest understatement, so I fear this ain’t really a review. It’s an excuse for me to waffle on about this most beloved of art forms.

Let’s start with a definition, because the number one rule of art is that you never assume everyone knows everything about it. (Actually, I made that up. I don’t think art has any defined rules.) An installation is (usually) a three-dimensional piece of art that aims to change the observer’s relationship with the space in which it is exhibited. Many installations are site-specific, to the point where they may never be exhibited again once they’ve been dismantled and removed from their original location. In this case, the installation was almost always created to enhance the context in which observer, space, and art simultaneously exist. If you move it, you shift it away from the artist’s intention and potentially rob the viewer of an essential component.

That’s not a hard and fast rule, though. Many installations do travel (Florentijn Hofman’s RUBBER DUCK is an excellent example), while others are traded between museums either as part of travelling exhibits or when they’re added to a permanent collection. And the artist’s intent is by no means of value to everyone who experiences a piece of art.

Installations are my favourite in large part because I find the artist's intention interesting but nonessential. I’m a devout postmodernist, by which I mean I believe meaning to lie with the individual observer, not the artist or the critic (except insofar as the artist and/or critic is themselves an observer and an individual). None of us come up against the exact same piece of art, and none of us can truly observe what the artist created.

Basically, we all bring our own experiences and our own biases to any piece of art. An installation (or a painting, a sculpture, a recording, a video, a book, etc. etc.) evokes a different emotional response in each of us based on who we are and how we’ve interacted with similar materials and concepts in the past.

And no one’s interpretation is wrong. Hell, even established iconographies with centuries of tradition behind them are only as important as we perceive them to be. The only way you can fuck up your response to a piece of art is if you fail to observe at it at all.

I say "observe" rather than "see" because we’ve gotta kill the notion that all art is visual and/or the exclusive preserve of sighted people. There are plenty of ways to interact with art. You can feel it. You can listen to it, if there’s an auditory component, or you can listen to a friend's description of it and thereby learn as much about them as you do about the piece. Hell, you can even stand there and smell it, if the materials emit an odor.


That’s another reason I love installations so much. Because so many of them are so very, very large, they’re often exhibited outside, or in other locations accessible to the public (like the lobbies of theatres or government buildings). You don’t have to pay a large fee or visit a potentially intimidating gallery space. You can mosey on up to the piece whenever you’re in its general vicinity, and you can interact with it in whatever way suits your needs.

That said, installations aren’t everyone’s thing. And that’s okay. I mean, I don’t even sort of understand it, but it’s okay.

Except I’ve gotta tell y’all a story. I have a degree in art history, and in one of my third year classes we took a tour of our city’s for-profit art galleries. Several of the spaces featured large-scale installations, and pretty well everyone else in my class disliked them because they weren't attractive.

"It’s not pretty" is a perfectly valid reason for disliking something, but it shocked me that my classmates were willing to dismiss so much artwork that I found compelling solely because it didn’t appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities.

None of them were wrong within their own contexts, but they were wrong within mine. I’m never going to turn away from an installation because it’s not pretty, though I may determine it ain’t for me after I’ve spent some time considering how it slots into my particular lived experience. (And I run the hell away from anything that incorporates avian taxidermy, since my lived experience has left me with a phobia.) That’s the beauty of art. Not every piece is for everyone, but every piece is for someone.

Fictional case study time! When I observe an installation, I like to come at it from a few different angles. I consider how it's situated within the display space. I observe the materials used and think of how the artist’s use of them may or may not differ from the norm. If the artist has covered a couch with unvarnished purple glitter, for example, my mind lights on the typical uses for couches, and for purple glitter, and I feel invited to explore the intersections between the two. If we cover a couch in purple glitter, surely the couch is no longer suitable for its intended use. Anyone who sits on this couch will come away covered in the world’s most difficult-to-banish substance. The artist has effectively rendered the couch attractive yet hostile territory; much as the couch in a well-worn living room may appear to the queer person who has always longed for acceptance but who has had to break free from their birth family and find a community elsewhere. They can never remove their own personal glitter, but neither can they coat themselves in whatever substance their family is selling. It would be a pernicious lie that would taint everything they touched and affect their ability to live on their own terms.

So for me, that glittery purple couch might represent family, queerness, and the pitfalls many people face as they negotiate between the two. But the next time I observed it, I might notice a stack of records propping up one of the couch’s rear legs, and I’d think of why the artist used music to support this domestic object no longer suitable for its original use, and I’d start thinking about how music bolsters me up and how that idea fits into a queer context. (I keep coming back to queer contexts here because purple glitter screams "queer!" to me, as it might not to you.)

Here’s the fabulous thing about art criticism: it’s subject to change, and IT IS ALL BULLSHIT. But it’s also true.

True, changeable bullshit is my favourite.

We’ve drifted away from UNEXPECTED ART, as I knew we would, so let’s end this screed with some illustrative quotes from the book. These are things the artists said about their work; and, like the fictional criticism above, it’s the truest sort of bullshit. You might agree with it. You might not. That’s the beauty of the system.

Suzan Drummen on her crystal floor installation in Sociale Verzekeringsbank in Amstelveen, Netherlands (2012):

From a distance, the design appears clear and orderly, yet upon closer inspection, the eyes become disoriented by the many details and visual stimuli. That moment, of being able to take it all in or not, is explored, time and time again. The visual perception is challenged, requisitioned, and intensified.


Florentijn Hofman on SLOW SLUGS (2012):

The slugs are ascending this steep staircase that leads up to a huge Catholic church, essentially signifying their slow crawl toward death. The work reminds us of religion mortality, natural decay, and the slow suffocation of commercialized societies.


Tomoko Konoike on MIRRORED WOLF (2011) :

I consider my body not as an object, but first and foremost as a "place" for internal experience. I think of my artwork, then, as a sort of tool for shifting myself from this inner world of my body to another world... In fact, the appreciation of art is for me, more than anything, that singularly unique event or chance happening that occurs when the artwork and the viewer are brought together.

OMG YES. Tomoko Konoike may not speak your truth, but she sure as hell speaks mine.

Regarding Paola Pivi’s "WHO TOLD YOU WHITE MEN CAN JUMP?" (2013):

Pivi is careful not to state the meaning of her pieces. The task of constructing symbolic importance is one that viewers self-assign, and to do so many recount anecdotes and draw on personal associations, indicating the specificity implicit in Pivi’s arrangements. These experiences cannot be adequately theorized in broad strokes.

Boom. Postmodernized.

I could keep going and going and going. There are so many great statements packed into this book, and so much great art. Some of it I love; some of it I’m indifferent to; some of it I agree with; some of it I would interpret differently from its creator(s).

It’ll be the same for you, I’m sure. If you’re a sighted person in the mood to drink in some installations without leaving your home, UNEXPECTED ART is a great pick.


  1. Really, in a way all art could be called installation art because your response to it depends on the environment.

  2. Oh how I love installation art! In 2009 when my mum and I went to England, Salisbury Cathedral was having a massive installation art festival thing, and it was just magical. This book looks great -- will have to see if my library can get it.

  3. The only way you can fuck up your response to a piece of art is if you fail to observe at it at all.