Visual Arts Programme
The Concourse Installation 2000
Introduction to Concourse Installation 2000
The Secret to Installation Art
This year's installation programme at the Dun Laoghaire / Rathdown County Council offices offered a further glimpse at the richness and the diversity of approaches possible within this contemporary art form. It appears however that such work, even when executed to the high standards now synonymous with this venue, continues to prove baffling to many. The underlying reason for this state of affairs was, it seemed to me, succinctly captured by a complaint in the visitors comment book. In short, installation artists were there charged with indulging in 'deliberate obscurantism'. This is an important, and thought provoking suggestion that cuts to the very heart of the purpose of installation art and, as such, it demands serious consideration.
When we say that something is 'obscure,' we mean that it is concealed, or not clearly expressed and, or, that it is difficult to understand. When we further say that this obscurity is deliberate, we suggest that somebody is deliberately preventing 'the full facts or real meaning' of a situation from becoming known to us. In complaining about such obscurantism, we point to our suspicions that we are being wantonly deceived. I, for one, am less than accommodating where I suspect this to be the case.
I am not at all sure however, that installation art, or art of any other type, can be 'deliberately obscurant.' My problem here is that I cannot imagine a situation in which an artist from any period in history could give me 'the full facts or real meaning' of a piece of their work. It is not a failure of imagination or memory that makes such a report seem impossible. Such a report is in principle impossible because there is no 'real meaning,' in the sense of no single definitive meaning, for any work of art - be it the Mona Lisa or a contemporary installation piece. Even knowing what a piece of art is or was intended to be 'about' will be no help here. Say for example I am looking at a piece of sculpture and an archaeologist comes along and tells me that it is Greek. He then tells me enough about ancient Greek culture and religion for me to understand that this particular piece of sculpture was made to depict a particular god. Will this piece of sculpture be any better because I now know this? On the other hand, was it a completely meaningless, or insignificant lump of rock before I knew what the artist intended it to be about? The point here is that whilst the intention of an artist may be of interest to us, a piece of their work can, and will, mean different things to different people depending upon when they live, and upon their culture, race, gender, religion and personal experiences to date. It is only because this is true that we can appreciate - bring meaning to the art of long dead cultures and peoples.
The appreciation of art is not therefore a passive activity. We are not obliged to find meaning in it in the way that say we might attempt to solve a crossword puzzle. Meaning is rather the product of an artist's intention insofar as they make one thing rather than another, and of the feelings, memories and associations that their work stirs in us. As such, a work of art has a unique meaning for each of us because 'its meaning' is brought as well as found. It is precisely because we bring meaning to a work of art in this way, that it can have no final definitive meaning. As such, there is no 'real meaning' to be deliberately obscured, no Holy Grail of truth available only to the blessed few, no deception and, on this account, no grounds for hostile suspicion.
The following essays on Going Dutch, Interior Designs, and The Mirror of the Sea claim neither to be exhaustive descriptions nor, needless to say, to be definitive interpretations. So rich were these installations in terms of thematic associations, symbolic references and metaphorical imagery that very much indeed has been left unsaid. It has been left unsaid in part, because, in their provision of complete environments capable of engaging all of our senses, these artists have attempted to maximise the interpretative activities unique to each of us. The fact that the work itself accrues meaning only through such engagement demonstrates that each individual visitor to an installation is as essential to the meaningful life of that work as the very materials from which it is constructed. To grasp this is to grasp the 'secret' to installation art.