Rebecca Belmore represented Canada in the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. She presented an installation which was of interest because of its faithfulness to Claire Bishop’s description of installation art as differing from “traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video)” because it “addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space’ (Bishop 2005: 6). Bishop argues that installation art “presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision.” (Bishop 2005: 6) [emphasis added]. Belmore’s cheekily entitled Fountain, with its reference to Marcel Duchamp’s deconstruction of traditional sculpture (Coulter-Smith 2007), becomes a concrete example whereby we can address the veracity of Bishop’s claim that installation art is intrinsically more aesthetically immersive and immediate than any other form of visual art. To begin with I think the answer is no, but at the same time the use of theatrical devices designed to involve the viewer more deeply in the picture remains interesting.
Like most good ideas, Belmore’s Fountain is quite simple, and no one else has done it as far as I know: she projected video onto an artificial waterfall, or “water screen”. You can see the result here (VIDEO). One has the usual intimacy of the “black cube” effect typical of video installation; but, in addition to this, the floor is wet, this is real water, and although there is a soundtrack with the video, the sound of the water is real. So does this result in the “embodied” interaction with the work of which Bishop speaks? It does and it does not, because what is real is simultaneously theatrical, in the same sense that Olafur Eliasson’s re-creations of weather are theatrical.
Rather than saying that a work such as Fountain is intrinsically more advanced than painting and sculpture, we should speak more in terms of an expansion of materials: the expansion of the sculptural vocabulary. Such an expansion can lead to new aesthetico-sensory encounters–as in Belmore’s Fountain–but what is also important is the concomitant reinforcement and proliferation of associations in the mind of the viewer. One is still looking at a screen but the screen has become a material feature in itself: it has become a signifier. And as soon as I say that this sheet of water is a signifier I point to the artificiality of the materiality that Bishop puts forward as the basis for stating that installation art is more advanced than other forms of art. Installation does not bring us closer to reality, as Bishop argues; but its expanded palette of materials and its theatricality can enhance our imaginative engagement.
At one point in the video a fire suddenly bursts into life providing an elemental contrast to the drenching water, the fire dissolve fades into a person, a woman up to her waist in actual and videographic water and engrossed in a futile attempt to bail herself out of the deluge with a bucket. It is a labour of Sisyphus.
So, is one’s presence in the expanded materiality of this installation a more “embodied” experience than looking at a painting or sculpture? It is, but only in a trivial sense, because what is most important, and what is most engaging ultimately about this installation is its symbolic, narrative dimension.
One can remember Jacques Derrida here when in Of Grammatology he notes that the ‘indefinite process of supplementarity’ which is fundamental to signification ‘has always already infiltrated presence, always already inscribed there the space of repetition and the splitting of the self.’; which is to say that even the most immediate sensation of direct presence with material reality is interpenetrated with signification, even self is sign (cf. Lacan ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’). Derrida continues: ‘Representation in the abyss of presence is not an accident of presence; the desire of presence is, on the contrary, born from the abyss (the indefinite multiplication) of representation, from the representation of representation, etc.’ (1976: 163).
Bishop, Claire. 2005. Installation art: a critical history. Tate:
Derrida, J. 1976. Of Grammatology. Translated by G. C. Spivak. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.