It is my pleasure to welcome guest contributor Dr Gillian Turner who has written an article about an art genre that polarizes opinion like no other and challenges traditional ideas about the meaning of art – ‘installation’. Here Gillian discusses the development of this relatively new category of artistic endeavour and explores an installation by Irish artist Patricia McKenna. A special thanks to Gillian for her informative post.
Installation: [re]imagining spaces by Dr Gillian Turner
In this short article, I will outline briefly the possible origins of contemporary installation, its early manifestations, and continuing influence into 21st century arts practices, focussing on a work by Irish installation artist Patricia McKenna. Her site-specific work Between the Lines was presented in one of Dublin’s contemporary art spaces thisisnotashop in 2007.
Arguably, the seeds of installation and the complex relationship of the observer in a total experience embracing painting, writing and musical performance can be seen in 1849 when Richard Wagner, inspired by Greek theatre, brought those art forms together in his seminal operatic works. Yet installation is far more than this rather tenuous gathering.
Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. His use of a ready-made, found object questions assigned meaning – no longer a urinal, Duchamps repositions and re-imagines it in a new space as a giver of water, a fountain.
Early transformations of interior spaces by artists such as Allan Kaprow in 1958, were referred to as ‘Environments’. The first documented use of the term installation in association with art was in 1969. Unlike framed reference points on a traditional gallery wall, installation / environmental art offers broader sensory experience.
Media used in installation practice is wide ranging, including the more evocatively charged possibilities of video, sound, performance and virtual reality. Not until the 1980s was installation seen as a separate visual arts discipline, while continuing to acknowledge its roots in the 1960s Conceptual Art movement.
Patricia McKenna is a Dublin-based installation artist whose work is generally process and time based, and often takes place in site specific, non art spaces. Her work includes Marking the Land, which included the Grey House (Cavan 1993, 1994), Soil (Cavan and Dun Laoghaire, 1996/97), True North (West Coast Arts Centre, 2005) and Seachange (Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Commission 2008).
Her work Between The Lines (2007) was devised as a temporary, site-specific installation for a Dublin contemporary art space. Thisisnotashop is described by Jessamyn Fiore as: a small shop – front gallery of a particular size and shape – not a lot of room, a crooked ceiling, crooked walls – large windows outside of which the LUAS tram stops every few minutes delivering a carriage load of people looking in at you for 15 seconds until they’re whisked away again. 1
McKenna uses wisteria vines to create a dynamic drawing that subverts the dominance of solid walls. Puncturing and punctuating the space, the vines challenge both visually and physically. Visitors to the gallery encounter linear ‘intruders’ and are compelled to navigate a path through the piece; a journey of transformation in which actuality and shadow become inseparable, where nature intrudes almost menacingly, and the usual slow meander becomes a voyage of discovery.
Use of light and shadow add a further dimension to the space through multiple lines, and the moving shadows of viewers. There is a sense of unreality, of the unfamiliar being beyond familiar and entering realms of the super real, dreamlike, even carrying connotations of imprisonment. The cast shadows create almost web-like areas that confront while becoming compelling floating forms.
In response to a question about her practice, Patricia McKenna suggests that Installation is all about Space – and the Viewer. Within a particular space, a range of different objects, materials, media are brought together to heighten the idea or concept, to work together to impact and extend an idea. Space and the viewer interact and heighten the senses … it becomes an embodied Space; one needs the other to work. 2
McKenna’s Between the lines can be seen as a dialogue between space and movement through and within that space, and the intention of the artist is paramount in installation work. There is also an intense exploration of the way fragments of objects are re-assembled generating something new. [Re]imagining a familiar space offers a challenging bodily experience by creating the need to move around parts, look into or through objects. The normality of the comfortable rectangular traditional exhibition space is subverted.
Installation can be seen as multi-dimensional, multi-sensory; an exploratory practice that continues to subvert traditional notions of the framed and the permanent. Challenging in its expectation of physical involvement by the viewer, installation works, temporary, permanent, site-specific or museum-based, continue to offer new ways of thinking about and interacting with visual arts.
1. Jessamyn Fiore, ‘Between the lines’ , catalogue notes. 2007
2. Discussion with the artist, January 2013.
• Internet sources – wikipedia, Tate Modern, www.patriciamckenna.ie,
• Gillian Tyas/Turner, Transformations: Realisation of Landscape in Recent Australian Fiction, PhD. Thesis, Deakin University, 1996. Chapter 8.
• Special thanks to Patricia McKenna for supplying images of her work Between the lines.
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