December 15, 2016
Art installations are not a new concept in the art world. In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp set the roots for future artists to create site-specific pieces that made viewers redefine what they know. For instance, in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism he hung several hundreds of feet of twine throughout the exhibition space, creating a weblike veil between that separated the viewer from the artworks hung on the walls.
Some critics claimed it symbolised the difficulties of trying to understand surrealist art, but Duchamp stated that there was no such intention, and that the focus of the piece was on its functionality. Duchamp, who was fascinated by how we look at art, challenged and changed the roll of the audience by creating obstacles within the space; he activated the viewer within the piece, which inspired other artists to explore how visitors could be part of an art installation.
Art lovers will always go to museums and galleries to see their favorite artists and pieces. However, many people still think that going to see art is usually a boring experience. Artists like Miguel Chevalier, Yayoi Kusama, Lucas Samaras, and many more are changing this with their installations. Today, immersive installations have become a huge attraction for people all over the world. For instance, more than two million people went to spend forty-five seconds in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life” during the two years it toured in Central and South America.
So what makes them so sought after? The answer to that is simple. As humans, we have an inherent desire to escape from the confines of our reality. Every form of art, be it literary or visual, could be an example of our escapism. If you’ve ever seen the infamous Disney movie, Mary Poppins, you would remember the scene in which Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane, and Michael all jump into the sidewalk chalk paintings. Immersive art embodies that fantastic ideal. It creates a physical alternative reality which allows the participant to transcend known perceptions of reality and experience a completely new and unknown environment. Gallery, museum, and art fair visitors are no longer viewers; they are activated within the piece and through interactaction, they become immersed.
Being surrounded by an installation is one thing, but what separates this genre from any other type of arti is what the artist does to activate the individual and make them completely engaged. In Lucas Samaras’s “Room No. 2” (1966), one walks into a space that is covered in mirrors. The room has concrete, finite limitations, but it is completely transformed into endless reflections, forcing the viewer to redefine their perceptions of space. Artist Yayoi Kusama, like Sumaras, uses mirrors to create her surreal installation “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins.” She inserts her well known, psychedelic pumpkins into the space and they, along with the participant, expand into an endless vision.
“Dear World…Yours, Cambridge” (2015), by Miguel Chevalier, is another example of an installation that challenges the perception of space. It took place in the historic King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, and was commissioned to commemorate some of Cambridge’s renowned alumni. Chevalier filled the chapel with projected images linked to specific alumni. For instance, he used images of vast galaxies and black holes to honor Stephen Hawkins. People walked into what they knew to be a chapel and were transported into a space that was an awe-inspiring visual experience. The manipulation of the known chapel created an aesthetic environment which reconstructed a different reality.
In 2012, Random International –a collaborative experimental studio based in London- created an immersive environment entitled “Rain Room”, where water is continually falling, like rain, but pauses over an individual as they walk through the space. It completely challenges the human experience of being caught in the rain, and that is what makes the installation immersive.
In 2015, Japanese art collective teamLab created an installation that was also based on people’s movement through the exhibition. In the piece, entitled “Floating Flower Garden”, 2,300 flowers hang from the ceiling and whimsically recess as individuals walked through. This surreal environment entices the participants’ senses and uses their bodies as the interface by having the environment react to them. Such unrealistic physically experiences make visitors respond in new ways before an artwork and, in a way, their reaction becomes the actual piece of art.
It may be fair to say that the popularity of these immersive installations stems from the idea that, though we don’t know what to completely expect, we know that we will be experiencing something completely different from any other aspect of our life. Our perceptions are challenged in ways that create emotions of wonder and awe; we are thrown into an abstract reality like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk painting.
December 2, 2016
A Feast of Astonishments: Charlotte Moorman and the Avant-Garde, 1960s–1980s is currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University’s fine art museum. The exhibit was drawn from the Charlotte Moorman Archive housed at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. With more than 300 items on view, ranging from film clips, performance props, musical scores, photographs, audio recordings, and vintage posters, this marks the first major exhibition devoted to a groundbreaking, yet under-recognized figure in the post-war avant-garde.
Along with works by Moorman, the exhibition includes pieces by some of her frequent collaborators, including Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, Jim McWilliams, Joseph Beuys, and Giuseppe Chiari, many of whom created works for Moorman to perform. While she is often remembered as Paik’s muse, Moorman -or the “topless cellist,” as she was known- was dedicated to both performing and promoting the innovative work she and her colleagues would create. Moorman later remarked: “With all of my formal training at Juilliard, I feel I know the rules. That’s something that is very important if you are going to break them.”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1933, Moorman began her career as a classically trained musician. After earning an MA in music from the University of Texas at Austin, she moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School of Music while building a career as a freelance classical musician. After attending a concert by fellow Juilliard student Kenji Kobayashi in spring 1961, in which Kobayashi played Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player –a “non-musical” score with sounds of the performer’s choosing-, Moorman began to shift focus. Kobayashi introduced Moorman to the downtown avant-garde arts scene, where composer La Monte Young, artist Yoko Ono, choreographer Simone Forti, and others were experimenting with new interdisciplinary art forms.
Moorman went on to organize fifteen avant-garde festivals from 1963 to 1980 (which are also documented in the show), where she was able to cultivate a strong community of hundreds of artists, filmmakers, dancers, poets, musicians, and festival goers who wanted freedom from the constraints of concert halls, galleries, and museums. Over the years, these festivals migrated from traditional performance venues to public spaces, setting a precedent for future large scale multimedia festivals of this kind.
A typical performance could include playing a cello made from a practice bomb (i.e. non-explosive), frying an egg or mushrooms, drinking Coke, letting air out of a balloon, breaking glass, or reading passages ranging from a newspaper article on the Watergate scandal to instructions on a box of tampons. Combining classical training with pop culture, Moorman once pointed out: “I don’t feel that I’m destroying any tradition. I feel that I’m creating something new.”
As an artist, Charlotte Moorman subverted traditional notions of beauty and society’s obsession with the female form by referencing the very sources from which these notions began. It is nearly impossible to look at images of Moorman performing and not be reminded of classical paintings of inexplicably nude women lying in repose in scenic landscapes.
One of the many highlights of the show is a video of Moorman performing Yoko Ono’s iconic “Cut Piece” in 1982. The artist sits before a large crowd gathered at the roof of her Manhattan loft. The guest, good-spirited and a little drunk, really give the party life. But the occasion is marked by a solemn tone. It takes place only a few days before she was to have a lump in her breast biopsied, three years after having a mastectomy to remove the other breast.
As each guest approaches to cut a piece from her gown, Moorman exhibits her characteristic stoic sensibility and poise, traits that distinguish her as a master of her craft. Barbara Moore, an art historian and friend of Moorman’s, noted that the artist kept all the remaining scraps of clothing from her numerous performances of this work “packed into heaps of shopping bags, the ultimate dossier,” epitomizing her endless dedication to her work. “Don’t throw anything out” were Moorman’s dying words as she succumbed to her illness in 1991 at the age of 57. The result, the Charlotte Moorman Archive, allows us to trace the prolific career of one of the most provocative artists of the 20th century.
A Feast of Astonishments will be on view at the Grey Art Gallery until December 10.
Also on view: Don’t Throw Anything Out: Charlotte Moorman’s Archive, at The Fales Library, Tracey/Barry Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, Third Floor.