Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Installation?

Salley Knight
Group 2 – research paper
Professor Hannah Barrett
April, 2010

Why installation?

Why would I ever want to create an installation? After the second meeting with my mentor, she commented on my hesitancy to go forward. The uncertainty came out of my discomfort with the changing form of my work.

I had come to AIB creating twodimensional artwork and now I was starting to make what promised to be an installation. It would take days and months to create this piece I was envisioning. I could understand putting that much labor into something that would be mounted on the wall and viewed over and over. However, how could I come to terms with an installation made of hand-dyed silk that might be in a gallery for perhaps a week? In this era of fast paced media, it just seemed an anachronism to spend so much time making something static that might be viewed briefly. My concerns about relevancy were only heightened by Michiko Kakutani’s March 21, 2010, New York Times article entitled “Text Without Context” in which she commented on the effects of instant messaging, e-mail, Twitter and You Tube which have served to make velocity all important and to make people unwilling to linger long enough to finish reading or looking at a total piece of work (Arts 1).

The first inkling of an answer to the question of the value of installation for me came in Maya Lin’s book Systemic Landscapes. John Beardsley, in his essay, “Hidden in Plain View: the Land Art of Maya Lin”, describes a term, ma, a Japanese concept which includes both space and time. Ma was first introduced to western viewers in Arata Isozaki’s 1978 show at the Paris Musee des Artes Decoratifs (Isozaki 95). He used steppingstones and also chanting as forms which demonstrated ma, which he defined as the “natural pause or interval between two or more phenomena occurring continuously” (Beardsley, 89). In the example of the steppingstones, ma would be the space between the stones as well as the time it took to take the step. Ma included both perception and action.

Suddenly, I could see how my intention to create an installation made sense. In Maya Lin’s piece, Wave Field, she had built a continuous series of waves. In my silk piece, I was creating a seascape out of repeated spirals that I intended to lay out in such a way that there were continuous intervals of open space. The option to walk through the piece, to feel the time it took to travel from one open space to the next would be integral to the work. This installation would include the concept of ma, an experience of human movement time in contrast to the fast pace of media.

Excited by my new understanding, I decided to further investigate traditional Japanese aesthetics. I hoped to find more ideas as support for my installation. Certainly, I had grown up in an environment where nature was revered, which I understood to be a core principle of Japanese aesthetics; my art was based on nature so perhaps the way that the Japanese expressed their respect for nature would give depth to and help shape my ideas.

To my surprise, I learned in Donald Richie’s book, A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, that there was no word in Japanese for aesthetic until the late 1800’s when Hegel’s asthetik needed to be translated (20). The lack of a distinct word could indicate insignificance or just the opposite, as was true in Japan. Simple elegance was integral to every part of Japanese life. Art was not considered separate and, as in the western view derived from Kant, valuable in itself. Art was subjectively experienced in such ways as placement of stones, arrangement with a single stem, exposure of the grain of the wood, or “the perfect judo throw” (31).

It was this stance of subjectivity that further intrigued me. Just as I understood the brush stroke in painting to show individual artistry, so could the placement of each of my silk spirals form distinct shapes and group together to form distinct spaces. Furthermore, individual viewers could participate in the serenity of the ma experience by the rhythm of the spaces created, similar to Maya Lin’s Wave Field. There was the potential for perception and action, much like in a garden.

In fact gardens and art have a deep connection in traditional Japanese aesthetics.

Teiji Itoh traces that history in Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden. He notes the16th century introduction to Japan of a Chinese book on painting called the “Mustard Seed Planting Manual” which offered instructions for painting rocks, trees and mountains. Whereas western artists learned by painting the nude, Japanese were challenged to paint rocks. The book listed “sixteen techniques for painting groups of rocks, and these, it is interesting to note, are all surprisingly similar to arranging rocks in Japanese gardens” (48). The book highlights the close connection between painters and gardeners in Japan.

This connection dates from the Heian era (794-1105 AD) in Japan when it was not uncommon for “the painter himself (to be) both a garden designer and a leader in the construction of gardens.” Itoh names several of these painters who established well known gardens: Kose no Kanaoka, his great grandson Hirotaka, and the Buddhist priest, En’en (Itoh 49-50). According to Itoh,

(t)hus in the Heian period, when the fundamental style of the traditional Japanese garden was established, the yamato-e painters played an important role in garden making. This fact in itself is clear evidence of the intimate relationship in Japan between the art of painting and the art of garden design. (50)

The value for me in thinking of my installation metaphorically as a garden stems from my high regard for the art behind the traditional Japanese garden. Several of the concepts that informed their design I found useful for thinking about in my installation: the concept of sky or emptiness, the importance of the good view, and the value of the unfixed gaze.

In Japanese writing, sky and emptiness are the same character. Both sky and open spaces were considered empty and integral to the whole. In the garden and in Japanese painting, the composition of the placement of emptiness was the most important (Itoh 51). I see this concept of emptiness directly addressing installation, which, by nature, is apart from the frame and often the wall, and addresses open space itself. Sky is all around. In fact, this concept helped me see the connection, or rather, interconnection between the piece and the space around it; therefore, including openings internally connects it externally.

The second concept I mentioned is called “to command a good view”. In a traditional Japanese garden, the view from the garden was considered a key element in its design (Itoh 18-21). A good view made a garden exceptional; by contrast it was sad when a “garden depended (only) upon it’s own intrinsic beauty and nothing more” (21). I found this idea of a good view of interest because it takes into consideration what is actually in the space beyond the garden or art piece. In the show at Carroll and Sons with the wife who had sculptural clay pieces on pedestals, the “view” included her husbands painting on the wall. The piece I am creating is set against the wall and I am using the scrim against the wall as a backdrop to indicate a sense of vastness. I am considering still how I much I might want to create for the views from other angles.

A third intriguing aspect of traditional Japanese gardens is “the gaze”. European gardens were designed for one point perspective, or a series of them. By contrast, according to Arata Isozaki in his book Japan-ness in Architecture :”the gaze of the Japanese … garden just as consistently refuses the fixation of any axis in space.” (286) The viewer was assumed to be moving. Similarly, in my installation piece, there is no single point for viewing. It can be viewed from any angle for 270 degrees as well as from within. The endless possibilities encourage the viewer to move around.

I have now committed much time to my installation piece. Although it is not a Japanese garden, the guiding principles of that aesthetic have lifted the resistance I once felt to this new (to me) art form. Traditional Japanese aesthetics not only has given me reason to believe in what I am creating and enriched my appreciation for the possibilities of the form, but inspired me to think even further, to include the space beyond the piece itself in my perception of what I create.

Works Cited

Itoh, Teiji. Space and Illusion in the Japanese Garden. New York: Weatherhill/Tankosha. 1973. Print.

Isozaki, Arata. Japan-ness in Architecture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2006.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Texts Without Context”. New York Times 21 March 2010: Arts 1. Print.

Lin, Maya. Systemic Landscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Richie, Donald. A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. Berkeley: StoneBridge Press. 2007. Print.

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