Reincarnation and the Issue of Immersion
On the Reconstitution of Installation Art (Part II)

Stephanie Cristello

Most site-specific installations often expire in unison with their occupation of the space. In Installation Artists Working With Wood Pt. II, I elaborated on the fleeting role of the audience, and the expectation of the installation medium that includes the audience as a part of its ephemeral phenomena. Chances are if you didn’t see it while it was up, you’ll never see it again. By which I mean that re-installation entails reconstitution; the artist’s adaptation of the piece to a space often creates a new relationship between the audience and the space itself. Here is a continuation of the conversations I had with Elise Goldstein and Annie Heckman.

Reincarnation: adaptations of stored or dormant pieces

“I don’t see my work as ephemeral or temporal as much as it is an interesting storage and reconfiguring problem,” laughs Heckman “I preserve all the pieces of my installation work so that it can be re-orchestrated at any time. I don’t throw away any of the elements, I keep track of how things were originally constructed in case I need to adapt a piece for a new space in such a way that it may require additional parts.”

Although the deconstruction of the work alters its perception for both the audience and the artist, both Heckman and Goldstein see the charge of their pieces to be a matter of formatting, “I wouldn’t say that my pieces expire once the installation is taken down, I certainly hope not!” says Goldstein, “The context is different, of course, but I would say my pieces are just activated differently whether they are installed or not. But, to answer your question, yes. The objects are charged differently, but the essence is the same.”

Immersive Environments

Elise Goldstein, Restoration, 2009

Elise Goldstein, Restoration, 2009

This element of “charge” and “activation” of an artist’s work in a space is something that has been being brought up a lot in these past couple articles, particularly Part II of the Wood Installation Roundup, and again in Ephemeral Installation Artists Part I. Many of the questions being raised on the issue of immersion, especially in regards to the works I’ve been talking about in this series, deals partly with a certain skepticism towards an individual’s ability to create a separate “environment,” as well as the audience’s suspicion of how they are expected to react to a piece within a given setting. This may be an indication of why immersion has been such a topic of debate for installation art; the element of “immersion” insinuates the idea that any given audience member is walking into an environment which operates somewhat separately from the outside world. All these components serve to illustrate that part of the reason why immersion has become such a potent issue is precisely because there’s no proof as to whether or not it is even possible to create a secluded environment that is able to alter both a viewer’s perception of the material presented, as well as their significantly influence their interaction with a piece as a part of a space.

Elise Goldstein, 2009

Elise Goldstein, 2009

So how can we effectively talk about the work as a real experience, something we can walk through and delight in, without running into the roadblock of seriously questioning whether we are even walking “in” to something in the first place? In terms of this discussion, I think that the best way to resolve this issue would be by talking about the guidelines and rules, or rather the strategies, of creating an experience that operates differently within these designated settings – without bringing too much unwanted attention to the installation as being “separate,” or part of a different world.

It is also important to note that the installations works that I’ve been covering have not been site-specific in the strictest sense; most installation artists alter or tailor their proposals to their awarded space. While the stakes of creating an experience are raised (for the artist) and judging the experience is contingent on attending the space (for the viewer), the stakes are still part of the same reality; the fabrication of the space does not fabricate the experience, it merely allows the artist the choice to either heighten or suppress it.

“I think that art – or at least installation – can be this moment of suspension,” explains Goldstein, “There’s a sense of saturation in our lives that we all live with, and although entering a gallery doesn’t just make that saturation go away, it does – in a sense – mean that we can walk in and forget our responsibilities, and the roles that we play outside of that space, because we feel like we’re elsewhere.”

Annie Heckman, Airline to Heaven, Part II, 2010

Annie Heckman, Airline to Heaven, Part II, 2010

You thought that you were alone but I caught your bullet just in time, deals with this sense of displacement in a similar fashion. Perhaps our sense of self is heightened when we walk into Heckman’s installation of phosphorescent cut paper bones, because we literally feel as if we are walking into a house of cards. First exhibited at For a Limited Time only, curated by Olga Stefan at the Art Center Highland Park back in 2009, this is one example of Heckman’s installations that has been reconstituted and reinstalled on multiple occasions. “This same piece is taking shape again in February 2011, this time in Physiotasmagorical, a group show focusing on the unseen body, curated by Susan Sensemann at the Evanston Art Center,” says Heckman on her upcoming exhibition.

The collapsibility of Heckman’s piece is perhaps a perfect note to end this series on. Both fragile yet surrealistically present, their threat of falling is an appropriate metaphor for installations in general. They keep us on our toes. Exhilarated and expecting we walk into them, become a part of them, knowing that they won’t be around forever, but somehow knowing that we got to revel in their presence, even if for just a little while, is consoling.