24 January 2007

Installation and the Self-Consciousness of Sculpture

Caveat: Unless it’s Rachel Harrison (the woman who is not an art historian) or Franz West (the Austrian), it is almost impossible to figure out who is talking on this podcast. If only Handforth was more invested in his Britishness. If only Ellegood and Burton didn’t sound so similar. The chances of me misattributing a quote or paraphrase are excellent.

EllegoodBurton asked about the difference between installation and sculpture. And she made a distinction that I found intriguing. She categorized installation as viewer-focused, that it wants very much to make the viewer feel this way or that. Sculpture, on the other hand, stands alone. It can’t consider you (I think this is what Burton meant when she said it doesn’t need you) or how you feel, and this creates an antagonistic relationship between sculpture and viewer. I thought that making this distinction was quite insightful.

The artists didn’t really talk about this distinction very well in that moment, with that microphone. And I can understand. It’s hard to extemporaneously throw out a few clever words about how this works, because it’s complicated and subtle. Besides, I don’t know about the panelists, but I have never thought about my own work in these terms before.

But what the heck? I'm always game for a few paragraphs.

Sculpture is bounded--it has an inside and an outside, and you only have access to the outside. So relating to it is a lot like relating to a person. Charles Long went in this direction on the podcast, but digressed into how sculpture kills people. And that’s an interesting topic, but let’s get that original thought--the thought about the sculpture being like a body--back on track.

Both physically and emotionally, we have a tense relationship with the inside/outside dynamic of humans. Who doesn't pore over anatomy books? Intestines are cool. But your intestines? Maybe not so much. It's hard to think of yourself and your friends as fesh, as intestines. Isn’t it? It’s one of those things that we all know. You are not some homogenous sausage that can be sliced into slices that will all look the same. If I cut into you, all your different parts will become apparent. But we can’t seem to walk around with this in mind.

This is one of the most amazing things about being in shock because you’ve been wounded. It's a transcendent state in which your gore is completely acceptable.

Similarly, everyone wants to know about your emotional life and what you are thinking and feeling... except that they don’t. They don’t want to know at all. I find this problematic relationship between one’s emotional inside and outside much more interesting than the no-brainer revelation that your organs are both awful and fascinating.

We love confessions and seek them out because they create intimacy. But at the same time we have no idea what to do with that intimacy once we’ve got it. The only way I can think about this is to tell a story in which I fucked up:

I had a student who was being really disruptive and aggressive in a college class. I didn’t want it to escalate, so I went the intimacy route. I told her I was worried. I asked her to talk to me about what was going on. Let’s just say I got a lot more than I bargained for. She told me everything and I was left having to say that I am her teacher, and that I am concerned about her behavior in my classroom, and that she needs to the student health center. The remainder of the semester that knowledge of this student’s inside life hung over the classroom, made interactions difficult, made her question her grade, made everything all wrong. If only I had honored her fight to keep all that stuff inside and just asked for appropriate behavior!

I erred because we live in a world in which intimacy is supposed to be good (think Oprah and Dr. Phil) when in fact it is often terrifying and inappropriate. Putting your inside life on the outside is a defilement of structure. Your worries and woes, before they are anything else, are unsupported when you put them outside. That’s why we all walk around monitoring those boundaries between our inside and our outside life.

A sculpture is caught up in that kind of inside-outside problem. It’s not that it doesn’t need you, it’s that it has this inside life that may be like my student or it may be like your most cherished lover. And there is something very powerful in making an object that can offer up some, all, or none of that inside/outside relationship. One of the things I love about Tara Donovan’s work is its basic honesty. It is what it is--armatureless and homogenous. In a weird way, just stacking straws or piling toothpicks is a lot like getting away with wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Just as other people are not thinking about you (rather, they are totally engaged with their own internal dialogue and whether their pants look as bunchy as they feel), a sculpture is not thinking about you. Unlike a service-oriented installation, a sculpture is sitting there like every other asshole, figuring out how to hold itself together, completely engaged with its own relationship between its inside and its outside. Now that I have written a little bit about it... I would call this sculptural trait self-consciousness. And I think, to briefly touch Nick’s latest post, that this self-consciousness makes turning every installation into an Installation unnecessary.

I know this isn’t Rachel Harrison, Mark Handforth and Reality. I still don’t know what to say about Reality that hasn’t already been said last week. I’ll stop promising, and just say that the Next Stop could be:

Buddhism, Paradox and Gil Scot Heron: Why Charles Long Is My New Sculpture Boyfriend.


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