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Installation art in Australialocked

  • John R. Neeson

Installation art is a hybrid of visual art practices including photography, film, video, digital imagery, sound, light, performance, happenings, sculpture, architecture, and painted and drawn surfaces. An installation is essentially site specific, three-dimensional, and completed by the interaction of the observer/participant in real time and space. The point of contention with any definition concerns the site specificity, ephemerality, and consequently ‘collectability’ of the work itself. One view has it that the category installation is presupposed on the transitory and impermanent, the second that an installation can be collected and re-exhibited as a conventional work of art.

In either case installation had its genesis in the environments and happenings devised by artists in the 1950s in New York and Europe (Nouveau Réalisme in France, Arte Povera in Italy). These in turn had antecedents in the architectural/sculptural inventions such as the various Proun rooms of El Lissitzky and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters.

In Australia a connection to the Merzbau was the 1962 show by the Annandale Imitation Realists (Sydney artists Mike Brown, Ross Crothall (b 1934), and Colin Lanceley) at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. The exhibition included a site-specific environment constructed within the museum incorporating urban detritus and found objects similar to those used in the portable works of the exhibition, such as the infamous Mary Lou (first exhibited in 1962, subsequently modified on at least two occasions and re-named).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the further evolution of installation practice in Australia (also in keeping with precedents overseas) coincided with the rise of privately owned or artists’ co-operatives exhibition spaces occupying buildings minimally adapted from their original purpose, factories, warehouses, shop fronts, etc.

For his 1970 Melbourne exhibition, Brett Whiteley temporarily requisitioned an unused emporium in Smith Street, Collingwood. This was a rambling energetic installation of conventional paintings, sculptures, drawings, video, film, photographs, and writings, some in collaboration with friends.

Pinacotheca was founded by Bruce Pollard at its first location in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda in 1967. Throughout its history installation projects were completed at Pinacotheca by artists such as Dale Hickey, Domenico De Clario, Ti Parks (b 1939), C (b 1939), and later Mike Brown. These artists crossed over media boundaries into installation and back again. This traversing remains characteristic of the practice of many practitioners to the present day in Australia.

In Sydney in the early 1970s Mike Brown with Martin Sharp (1942–2013) and Garry Shead (b 1942) set up the artists’ space, Yellow House, while Mike Parr, Peter Kennedy, and Tim Johnson (b 1947) founded the diametrically and philosophically opposed artists’ co-operative gallery, Inhibodress. Installation continued to be part of the oeuvre of these three artists, with Parr incorporating drawing (Australian Biennale, 1988), Kennedy, neon and text (Melbourne International Biennale, 1999), and Johnson, two- and three-dimensional mixed media and indigenous Australian influences (9th Biennale of Sydney, 1993). One Central Street, Sydney (established 1996) was also known for work that experimented with media and space. Ken Unsworth (b 1931), also a consistent installation artist using light and mechanics (Biennale of Sydney, 2000), exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

Collectively these early artist-run or -centred venues provided opportunities for the development of visual arts practices that were alternative to mainstream painting, sculpture, printmaking, and ceramics, as did, to some extent, the commercial Watters Gallery, begun by Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge. There were also artists working within the parameters of installation in regional centres, such as Gary Willis (b 1949) in Canberra (e.g. Diary of a Dead Beat Modern Art Type 1972–1982, 2000).

Around the country, the ground initially established by private and co-operative enterprises was expanded by the first wave of public and institutionally funded venues such as the Ewing and George Paton Gallery, Melbourne University Union; the Tin Sheds, University of Sydney; the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide; and the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Throughout the 1970s the work of women artists, particularly the use of non-hierarchical materials and processes, opened up the possibility for an ephemeral practice such as installation to enter the mainstream. Women artists who fabricated installations included Elizabeth Gower (hangings of resin and acrylic impregnated paper and tissues, tulle, and sewn elements), Rosalie Norah Gascoigne (found materials, old wood, paper, feathers, fragments of linoleum, corrugated iron), Bonita Ely (b 1946) (constructed life-size tableaux and interior), and Mona Hessing (1933–2001) (installations of jute ropes).

As with their male contemporaries, these artists crossed back and forth from the conventions of established two- and three-dimensional practices into installation. Rosalie Gascoigne often utilized sections of reflective highway signs and the changes of light that occurred as the observer moved in relation to the surface (8th Biennale of Sydney, 1990). Elizabeth Gower coaxed varieties of paper into installations, including paper plates filigreed into geometric designs (Avant-Gardism for Children; Monash University Gallery, 2000).

During the 1980s a group of publicly funded alternative venues were established in each of the state capitals, including 200 Gertrude Street, Melbourne; Art Space, Sydney; Chameleon Contemporary Art Space, Hobart; Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide; Perth Institute of Contemporary Art; and Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Collectively these centres complemented the existing dealer gallery infrastructure by accommodating and encouraging proposals outside the parameters of conventional genre, which included installation.

In addition, a succession of artist-run spaces developed from the mid- to late 1970s in major metropolitan centres. For example, Art Projects, Melbourne, was set up by John Nixon (b 1949), where between 1979 and 1982, John Dunkley-Smith produced a series of multiple slide installations in which images were juxtaposed with their source.

Dunkley-Smith continued to work with multiple projected images (Some star to steer by, 1977–2000) until he retired from art practice in 2006. John Nixon has also consistently adhered to the practice of installation and the photo-documentation of exhibition/installations since the late 1960s. His works have comprised real objects, piano, chair, ladder, bucket, etc., in harmonious order with monochromatic canvases of various scale and surface and the emblematic painted cross which alludes to Malevich. His installations include the open-ended series Experimental Painting Workshop (EPW) that have been installed in major institutions in Australia, including the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2004; Tarrawarra Museum of Art, 2007; and internationally (Galerie Mark Müller, Zurich, 2013).

The first Biennale of Sydney, an international, museum-based, survey of works by invited artists, took place in 1975. By the third Biennale installations were common practice in the forum, including projects by artists representing Australia, including W. Thomas Arthur (b 1946), Rosalie Gascoigne, Elizabeth Gower, and Mike Parr. The succession of Biennales brought increasing numbers of overseas artists to Sydney, many of whom came specifically to make installations and to participate in panels and forums. Often these artists travelled to give lectures elsewhere in the country, spreading the culture of installation.

From 1981, in the years alternate to the Biennale, Perspecta (a similar review of Australian contemporary art) was staged at the Art Gallery of NSW and satellite venues. From its inception, Perspecta included installations, the first by artists already listed: Thomas Arthur, Bonita Ely, Peter Kennedy, Kevin Mortensen, Mike Parr, and Ken Unsworth, as well as Howard Arkley, Vivienne Binns, Marleen Creaser (b 1932), John Davis (1936–1999), Marr Grounds (b 1930), and Robert Owen (b 1937).

A number of these artists also continued to make contributions to the chronology of installation in this country: Howard Arkley, painting as installation (The Home Show; Venice Biennale, 1999); John Davis, fabrications of ‘natural’ materials by simple means (Herring Island; Melbourne, 1999); and Robert Owen, light, industrial materials, kinetics, construction, the nexus of technology and nature (Between Shadow and Light, 1999).

By 1997 Australian Perspecta had spread to eleven venues including the Art Gallery of NSW and installations featured prominently. These included works by a new generation of artists: Lauren Berkowitz (b 1965), Margaret Morgan (b 1958), Robyn Backen (b 1957), Simeon Nelson (b 1964), Simryn Gill, Steven Holland (b 1960), Tim Gruchy (b 1957), Rodney Berry (b 1963), Sue Pedley (b 1954), Anita Glesta (b 1958); and senior artists and mid-generation artists: Joan Brassil, Joan Grounds (b 1939), Sherre DeLys (b 1958), Elizabeth Gower, Lyndal Jones (b 1949), Anne Graham (b 1949), Richard Goodwin (b 1953), Janet Laurence (b 1949), Hossein Valamanesh (b 1949), and Michael Goldberg (b 1952).

Lyndal Jones has been known as a performance/installation artist since the 1970s. Her installations involve projections of film, video, still photography, and sound, their content representational and subtly didactic (Signs of Life; Melbourne International Biennale, 1999). Lyndal Jones represented Australia in the 2001 Venice Biennale. Janet Laurence utilized a variety of natural and industrial materials including specimens and aspects of museology (Artist in the Museum, 2000).

In addition, significant contributions have been made to the chronology of installation in Australia by many mid-generation artists including: Robert MacPherson (b 1937), Peter Cripps (b 1948) (Nameless, Act 2, Scene 2, 1988–9), Alex Danko (b 1950) (What are you doing boy?, 1991), Susan Norrie (b 1953) (Melbourne International Biennial, 1999), and Rosslynd Piggott (b 1958) (Suspended Breath, 1998).

Throughout the 1990s a younger generation of practitioners pushed the parameters of installation with works which came to prominence through established non-commercial venues, a new collection of artist-run spaces such as Grey Area, First Floor, and Store 5, Melbourne; CBD and First Draft, Sydney; Soap Box, Brisbane; and some commercial galleries and the exhibition venues attached to faculties of art practice at universities around the country.

From this generation of visual artists emerged individuals who have made significant national and international contributions to installation practice. These include Callum Morton (b 1965), one of three artists to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2007, his Grotto was included at the Fundament Foundation, Tilburg, the Netherlands, 2009. Natasha Johns-Messenger is an artist and film maker who was born in Australia, and worked in Melbourne and New York. In 2010 she created Recollection for the arts organization No Longer Empty at Governor’s Island, New York.

Melbourne-based Michael Graeve (b 1971) utilized time-spans of recorded and ‘played’ sound in installation and performance works, for example, Primavera, 2001. Sydney-based Mikala Dwyer (b 1959) fabricated environments and tableaux of three-dimensional objects and forms, such as Avant-Gardism for Children, 2000, from unexpected materials. Brisbane-based Gail Hastings (b 1965) employed three-dimensional arrangements of objects and constructions, colour and video, for example, Mission: Untitled (Blue), 2001.

The latest generation of Australian artists involved with the dialogue surrounding ‘installation’ are involved with activities that conform less to established conventions in the visual arts including installation. Often their practice is categorized as ‘intervention’ and is far less aestheticized than the practice of their immediate peers. Their number include Michael Georgetti (b 1984) and the environmentally active group Slow Art Collective.


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