Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Displacements, furnishings, houses & museums: six motifs and three terms of connoisseurship

This essay was published in Erika Suderburg's Space, Site and Intervention; issues in installation and site-specific art,  University of Minnesota Press, 2000). It debuts some issues that would germinate later ...


... Consider MOCA’s Blueprints for Modern Living: history and legacy of the Case Study Houses, the first exhibition devoted to the program which, in the years immediately after the end of World War II, focused international attention on Los Angeles as a home of thoughtful, innovative and aesthetically refined domestic architecture. ...

As with any exhibition of architecture, the question is What to show? Besides photographs, drawings and models, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, the exhibit designers, built full-scale details of some of the structures under discussion. Museum patrons found themselves passing from conventional displays into, for example, a corner of the house Charles and Ray Eames built for themselves in the Pacific Palisades forty years ago. The handsome black steel structure was recreated in painted foamboard. Elsewhere, patrons passed through Ralph Rapson's Greenbelt House, a structure which, until then, had existed only as a drawing. Bisecting the pavilion were flat cut-outs of cacti and flowers. On the mezzanine, patrons found themselves inside a tableau which recreated not only a room of a famous Pierre Koenig hillside house, but the room as it appears in the famous photograph by Julius Shulman. In the museum, the glass room floated above the glittering light of incandescent TVs suspended in blackness. ...

A few weeks later, Blueprints was gone. Above the desk at the entrance hung an oversize photograph of Michael Heizer's Double Negative, the incisions into a Nevada mesa which, according to the identifying card, feature as an item in MOCA's permanent collection.

Young people tumbled out of Bruce Nauman's Green Light Corridor (on loan from Count Giuseppe Panza), through which they have squeezed on a dare. Some ran into a corridor blocked by Dan Flavin's glowing yellow and pink fluorescent tubes. Others hung out in rooms devised by James Turrell and Doug Wheeler; evacuated chambers where, with special lighting, the walls and floors seem to dissolve. The patron is overcome with vertigo, discovering the space impossible to negotiate—a sensation offered as euphoria. The diffused sense of distraction-as-entertainment contrasts strongly with the kind of distraction most adult viewers are required to maintain during the working day—it probably provides a degree of recuperation.

These artworks do not need to be read. Space is evacuated of the non-artistic, and so the patron assumes that the unspecified totality of whatever’s happening is the significance. Experiencing, consuming the artwork becomes its production. The only labor recognized is the act of consumption. This displaces not only the producer but the possibility of expression.

It is an experience like an encounter in real life. A juxtaposition of material which, for an earlier artistic generation, would have provided the motif for a photographic still life, is rendered accessible directly by the installation. Here and in other installations the happy accident of the street photographer becomes available without waiting or maintaining vigilance, and in the flesh. A mandate to facilitate access to these experiences finesses all obstacles.

The history of the work becomes an arbitrary notation. Material scattered on the floor is identified by a card as a work completed twenty years earlier. The gap revealed whenever the nowhere of the museum would refer to places outside of it which delighted Robert Smithson has become an aspect of works which promised to overcome it. In the installation, nature isn't dead, but domesticated—brought into the house--as part of the theater of objects.  And, as a theater, the stage becomes, not only the most ephemeral of artworks, but also the most coercive.

The erosion of the object's integrity is not merely an aspect of some styles of installation, but it is characteristic of all objects in the contemporary art context, as can be illustrated by consideration of the old-fashioned exhibition practice of skying. Until the beginning of the century it was common to display pictures crowded together one on top of another, often so that a wall was covered with as many as could fit. Nothing could be less like the contemporary practice of isolating works, surrounding them with wide margins of empty wall. The gallery patron is offered the opportunity to savor his or her encounters, and to rest and reflect, and to brace him or herself for more. Skying was possible because each picture was understood to comprise an entirely self-contained, independent and bounded unit: its location—as long as it was visible—was irrelevant.

But today, if two artworks are perceived to be within the same space, such a gesture is understood as either clumsy expediency or as an interpretive gesture on the part of the person responsible for the exhibition, the curator. The curator sets two artworks together, suggesting to connoisseurs that they are in the presence of an opportunity to exercise discrimination. But the foregrounding of the curator and of the exhibition context in institutional culture is increasingly apparent in situations which have nothing to do with pedagogy. Indeed Dan Flavin's observation that "art is shedding its vaunted mystery for a common sense of keenly realized decoration" is demonstrating unexpected applications. ...