Vanishing Act Ephemeral Installation Artists Part I

Stephanie Cristello

How to: get a space
deal with an audience
be ok with not being around forever.



Lately, I’ve been talking to installation artists about their choices in site-specificity, and how they respond to spaces. Although the medium of installation is temporal by nature, not all the work is about being transitory. Ephemeral artists (while their practices may include a variety of forms, including installation) address the concept of impermanence as a part of their response in creating a piece. It is important to note that site-specific installation does not equal ephemeral art, although these next ephemeral works rely heavily on their installation. In fact, without the photographic documentation, or written history acting as a support to prove it happened, these next examples (like most examples) of ephemeral art cease to exist. Hailing from backgrounds such as mural art, and outdoor birdseed installation, we can feel the expectation that our interaction with the works is fleeting.

But first I want to talk about the artists’ choice of space, and the tension between an installation and the audience – especially with the public knowledge that the piece itself, and not just its installation, is temporary. When talking about these next artists, whose works are derived from traditional routes such as painting and drawing, the artists’ responses to their environment are what really make them cook.

But first you need to get a space before anybody can really see the thing.

How to get them to say “yes” to a piece that doesn’t exist yet

Jeff Zimmerman, who just recently had a solo painting installation at the Chicago Cultural Center, sees his designated installation work as a more liberating practice, which is understandable coming from the public installation background of mural painting. “Public work has multiple levels of people weighing in with their concerns. If politicians are involved the work really can’t be about anything…you gotta jump through hoops, sell your vision, assuage their fears, totally draining and in the end – expect to compromise.” Unlike Zimmerman’s outdoor work, The God Particle at the CCC didn’t provide such barriers, “they pretty much said I could show up and do whatever I wanted. Not even a mention of tone down politics, controversy or sexuality – nada. I explained The God Particle theme to them a couple months before I started simply so they could have some verbiage for press release etc.”

Jessica Witte, famous for her birdseed installations, has had similar experiences during the process of applying for a space. Much like Zimmerman, a lot of the ways that Witte goes about acquisitioning a gallery or public institution for ephemeral work is to show them past documentation of similar pieces “clearly stating that the proposed work is created on site and will be altered in response to a particular space.” For both artists, however different their practices may be, the visualization of the space becomes much more design-oriented and specific in the beginning stages; much like mapping unchartered territories, it can sometimes be hard to find your bearings: “just to help with the visualization of the floor plan, I usually create a foam core model of the gallery or render a model on Sweet Home 3D.”

How does the space influence your design?

“The space dictates the design for sure,” explains Zimmerman on his process of creating the installation, “I have ideas, then I have a space, and it all gets laid out from there. It becomes a design project for a while. And when there’s more than one wall, like the CCC or a gallery, it becomes 3D,” which is inarguable if you look at Zimmerman’s paintings; not only does he possess supreme rendering skills, the composition of his paintings against the space creates an interior architecture that alters and breaks up the planes. You feel like you are walking in to an entirely different environment, and the audience becomes a citizen of this high-pop, powered-charged, electric color storm.

Much of the tactile consideration, and decisions made before the install are equally as influential in designating the space once it is finally installed and open to the public; “I need to be able to begin the drawing or installing as soon as possible to capitalize on the available time,” explains Witte. Witte’s process is intimate, and interactive with the space, especially when it comes to her birdseed doilies. “My doilies require drawing directly on the ground with the seed. With my interior pieces, I am particularly interested in features of the gallery floor- electrical outlets, how rough a wood floor may be, etc.” Since seed is her only material, and essentially the only additive to the space, the floor becomes the focal point of the show.

On the Temporality of Painting and Drawing



Most pieces of ephemeral art are altered by time; very rarely will you visit an ephemeral piece twice and have it look the same. The temporality of Zimmerman’s work is something that I find both fascinating and peculiar, simply because he’s a painter and it’s unexpected. Painters are rarely pegged as “temporary” artists. However, once the installation’s time is up, his paintings literally get white washed, wiped clean: the only pieces of evidence are the photographs. With respect to The God Particle, the exhibition stayed up through the duration of the show, without any change – which is more than most of his murals can say. “I’m used to it and understand the “mural” work is inherently temporal, my installations are the same,” says Zimmerman. “You can look at it a different way and say that I have a permanent piece at the MCA. You can’t see it of course. But it’s more fun for me to simply say to people I have a permanent piece there.”

Similarly to Zimmerman’s relationship to painting, the fragility and vulnerability of Witte’s drawings encompass a different standpoint on the history of the drawing medium. Instead of standing at the doorway to look at Witte’s installation, the drawings expect you to enter the space; the presence of a body, while it is essential to the full experience of the piece, is usually the start of its undoing. “In the beginning of making the seed drawings, I was pained to see the work disturbed- but I never roped off floor works to protect them, since their fragile nature was why they were unfixed,” says Witte. “As part of For a Limited Time Only, at The Art Center curated by Olga Stephan, she urged me to encourage audience participation instead of just letting it happen.  This change in approach made the works much more interesting to watch over the course of time,” muses Witte, whose last solo show proved to challenge the gallery. Having covered the whole floor in birdseed, the audience had no choice but to walk on some of the drawings, “The work was essentially destroyed (at least 80%) by the end of the two-hour opening reception.  Explaining the “empty” gallery over the month and a half-run of the show proved a challenge to those who did not see the installation in its pristine form.”

Read Kathryn’s review of For a Limited Time Only on Artslant, Art is not Eternal.

On the Issue of Immersion

The act of “entering a space” brings up the ever-prominent issue of immersion, a topic of debate for installation art from the very beginning, which I will tackle with Pt. II. I will be talking with two different artists, studio mates Annie Heckman and Elise Goldstein.