Understanding Installation Art
Understanding Installation Art

Understanding Installation Art

Author: Sangeeta Thapa

Originally published in NuktaArt, Vol 1, Two, October 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Sumaya Durrani and images taken from Karkhana

Installation art can be defined as an artistic tryst between time and space, in which the five senses are aroused in the minimalist narration, poetic or un-poetic duplication of real-time experiences. An installation artist has to conceptualize how her/his presentation can impact all the five senses. These real-time experiences can be experienced holistically through the placing and arrangement of certain found objects, video documentation or performance. The placing of these objects, whether eclectic or random, preconceived or abstract – whether in the gallery space or beyond – compels the observer to re-look at the conspicuous or inconspicuous, at issues or non-issues. Installation art skilfully incorporates multimedia and performance into their presentation. The challenges that an installation artist faces go beyond the direct visual narration of a painter, who works on paper or canvas.

Manuj Babu Mishra, an eminent Nepali artist and writer feels that “installation art is a natural composition and that Art is an installation of nature.” Another senior Nepali artist and writer Mukesh Malla is of the view that “installation art is a holistic expression that leads to the migration of the environment.”

To appreciate installation art, it is significant that we honor the legacy of two American artists Kaprow and Cage, who continue to inspire artists keen to break out of the bind of traditional art forms. Installation art as a practiced art form made its way into Nepal quite late, considering that the American artists Allan Kaprow and John Cage were at the vanguard of an anti-establishment in the 1950s, which espoused the philosophy of “unart“. This meant that Kaprow sought to create “art which cannot be art.” Perhaps the statement sheds light on how installation art evolved:

Allan Kaprow began his career as an Abstract Expressionist and was influenced by the action paintings of Jackson Pollock. However, as he painted, the confines of the conventional canvas began to lose its appeal and he started painting what he called “many leveled paintings”, which had multiple dimensions. By 1958, he began to paint monumental works, which were so large that “they ceased to become paintings and became environments.” A few years later Kaprow began to make “action collages” in which objects of every sort became materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies and a thousand other things. Kaprow became known as an “Assemblagist” and “Creator of Happenings”.

Meanwhile Allan Kaprow’s contemporary, the artist John Cage, began to create environmental works that demanded audience participation. Though Cage’s works were assemblages too, he looked towards theater for inspiration and believed that “chance, design and interdependency were valid means of aesthetic organization and disorganization”. This belief lies at the crux of assemblage art and installation art.

Gopal Kalapremi, Black Mask
Hair Warp, 2002

As a “Creator of Happenings” Kaprow succeeded in taking art out of the traditional gallery and museum space. Kaprow encouraged his audience to walk around his assemblages and treat his installation as duplications of real life events. By doing so, the audience become performers who are reacting to a “full aesthetic operation and a preordained structure that suggests symbolic and universally basic themes and meanings.” He arranged his happenings and assemblages in lofts, empty parking lots, stores, streets, classrooms and train stations. Though Kaprow organized over two hundred “happenings”, it is important to note that they were non-verbal theatrical productions that abandoned the formal stage-audience structure. Instead Kaprow was concerned with the overall design of his “found environment” in which timing, sound, color and light played an important role. The events in these happenings were not casually arrived at, accidental or spontaneous but were kinesthetically involved.

Installation art gained momentum in Nepal with the input of Jyoti Duwadi, a US based Nepali artist. In 1993, Jyoti presented the first multi-media installation in Nepal titled Myth of the Nagas and the Kathmandu Valley Watershed. It was conceived as a collaborative effort with the public’s participation in preserving nature and culture. Jyoti combined art and myth as a means to revive environmental awareness and cultural identities. He articulated: “For their very survival, the early peoples of Nepal maintained an intimate and respectful relationship with nature. These values are reflected in their myths and rituals. Nepal’s legends and majestic artworks revive the respect for land, water and air that existed in traditional culture. It reflects the universal connection of serpents to water, forests and fertility, which is so important for life in the Kathmandu Valley. These legends are the foundation to revive the consciousness of contemporary society with regards to the current environmental crisis. Serpents symbolize regeneration”.

Video Sculpture
Rainbow Serpent by Brisbane artists Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal

The installation also made reference to the Aboriginal myth of the Rainbow Serpent. Both Nepali and Aboriginal myth and art share a parallel concern for the environment. This unlikely commonality provided the inspiration in making “an ecological artwork that would highlight the similarities between the nagas and the rainbow serpent as they relate to the revitalization of nature and culture.” Photographs of the Rainbow Serpent by Brisbane artists Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal were exhibited alongside photo installations of Naga images found in Kathmandu and Patan.

By the 1990s, a handful of young Nepali artists began to experiment with installation art. This quest for new expression was to lead to several collaborations between like-minded artists. The artists who stand out during this period are Sudarshan Rana, Gopal Kalapremi, Sunita Rana, Kirti Keshar Joshi, Shoba Wagley and the late Prashant Shrestha. It is interesting to note that in 1993, NAFA rejected Gopal Kalapremi’s installation as an unacceptable art form. Despite the lack of response from the government academies towards installation art, the search for new forms of expression became pronounced. Three notable site-specific installations were made in the early 1990s at Lumle-Pokhara, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu by visiting foreign artists from Bangladesh and France in collaboration with artists from Nepal.

Between 1993 and 2002, Jyoti Duwadi returned each year to make several meaningful installations in Nepal. In 1993, Jyoti participated in a group exhibition titled Winter Lights, which was organized by the Siddhartha Art Gallery at the Nepal Association of Fine Art. Here Jyoti interpreted contemporary and ancient aspects of physical and spiritual illumination. Using native materials such as bamboo and Nepali paper, he constructed modern pole lamps that resembled sentinels guarding the dimly lit space beyond. In 1994, his installation, For the People of Nepal, at the Siddhartha Art Gallery, was “inspired by the small shrines in public and private courtyards in the towns and villages of Nepal… and was created to reflect upon the loss of traditional architecture”…combined with the disregard for local materials and the lack of maintenance of traditional public chowks or “commons” in Nepal. By November 1999, Jyoti’s installations had begun to draw a lot of curious viewers and his installation Rato Mato-Red Earth proved to be inspirational for many.

Asmina Ranjit returned from the University of Tasmania, Australia, and held her debut show Cultural Body at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in 1999. This mixed-media installation focused on the unique layering of culture, adornment, clothing and the human body. Ranjit wrote that culture was like a “tattoo” which could not be separated from an individual: “One may adopt a new culture but what one has had from birth will always be within, layering and intermingling”.

Her second installation made powerful statements: Hair Warp combined drawings, installation and a video presentation in which Ranjit used hair as a physical metaphor to connect the sky, universe and earth.  Hair was associated with sweat, pleasure, pain and motion. Sensual connotations were juxtaposed against the cultural gender constructs of femininity and widowhood. In 2000, Sujan Chitrakar and Binod Shrestha collaborated on a powerful installation, titled Confluence, at the Nepal Art Council Gallery. In 2001, global and national politics prompted a small group of bold Nepali artists to cast aside their canvases and use installation art to express their bewilderment, outrage and sadness over the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March, the Royal Massacre in June and the bombings of the World Trade Center in September, which left a deep impact on the psyche of the Nepali people.

Basantapur Hanuman Dhoka, 2001
Bamiyan Buddha Installation, 2004

Some of these emotions were reflected in the installation titled Ghatana (Incident) by Sudarshan Rana, showcasing thirteen funeral pyres representing the funeral pyres of the massacred royal family. A cathartic performance by the rock band Nepathaya made a deep impression on the viewers.

The escalation of the Maoist violence and the Royal massacre also meant that a gun-culture was rapidly making its own stamp on Nepali politics. In November 2001, Jyoti Duwadi returned to make a very important conceptual installation in a public space – Basantapur Square – Kathmandu. In this poignant installation, titled Value: Visualizing the Cost of Violence, he compared how much rice could be purchased with the same amount of money that it costs to buy a rifle. To visualize this measurement, a pyramid of dhan (husk rice) was created with the replica of a rifle placed on top of the mound.

Value was conceived in response to all conflicts where firearms were used to settle disputes.  It dramatized how precious resources were diverted from society and drew attention to the emotional toll of violence in communities around the world.  It was conceived by Duwadi as a memorial to the victims and a means to stimulate dialogue towards the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The recent tragedy of the Royal family demonstrates how gun-related violence has reached all strata of the Nepali society.

In Value, dhan was used as a metaphor for peace and regeneration.  In remembrance, the names of those who died were exhibited on the mound of dhan to initiate the healing process. Visitors were encouraged to publicly express personal and collective grief through lighting oil lamps and burning incense.

In the second phase of this installation, the dhan was put into jute sacks of various sizes and marked with the names of other countries torn apart by armed struggle.  The sacks were then stacked to create a new, commemorative mound. This time, the replica rifle was laid on the side of the mound to symbolize the end of violence.

This artwork was inspired by the poetry of Duwadi’s grandfather, Dharani Dhar Koirala, who anguished over Nepal’s destiny fifty years ago:

Nepal your smiling face

Would I see it or die without

This is the worry that aches my heart

Towards hope or despair.

Jyoti’s installation in Basantapur Square proved to be a significant landmark in installation art. Most of the installations thereafter, addressed the issues of politics and peace. A few months later Ashmina Ranjit used the same venue for her installation, performance and art workshop titled Bichalit Bartaman or “disturbed present”. Once again the names of the dead were recounted and more added. Butter lamps paid homage to the dead…

In 2002, Jyoti Duwadi returned again to execute another powerful installation in collaboration with the Siddhartha Art Gallery, titled Shanti ko Samjhana (Remembering Peace) which moved beyond installation art and became a community art project. The installation of saplings was conceived with the concept of establishing peace groves in Rani Pokhari and Pharping.

In March 2004, Chirag Bandel and the Dutch artist Wimq Vanderlind jointly presented a multi-media installation titled Series Red, which focused on the loss of innocence and a nation getting slowly immersed in blood. The installation forced viewers to experience the color red beyond the religious and cultural associations that the color holds for the Nepali people.

Value: Visualizing the Cost of Violence, Basantapur Square, 2001
Remembering Peace, Installation at Siddhartha Art Gallery

Sujan Chitrakar and Binod Shrestha collaborated on a powerful installation called Confluence. Some time later, Binod Shrestha presented a solo installation titled Pandora’s Box. In May 2004, Sujan Chitrakar presented his first solo installation, Utopian Introspection – Random Expression within a Defined Periphery. This installation dealt with spirituality, power and the seven deadly sins. Chitrakar believes: “I feel my art will come alive only when the viewers can relate their own inner self with the presentation.” However, by 2004, Chitrakar began to use experimental installations to also “mourn my psychological death with the death of all my countrymen.”

On February 1, 2005, Nepal was to witness another turn of political events – the political takeover by King Gyanendra. With this came the arrests of politicians, intellectuals and members of the media and the subsequent limiting of press freedom, which was to have ramifications in the art field. Civil society, intellectuals, writers, journalists and writers began to rally for the restoration of democracy and the right to free expression. Ashmina Ranjit responded with two powerful installations.

A reporter from the Nepal Tourism Magazine wrote: “Tamas examines the present national scenario suspended between hope and despair, light and darkness. The performance raised important questions about the credibility of our national values and characteristics such as honesty, trustworthiness and simplicity. It provoked troubling questions concerning the status of the subject and a citizen in a modern national state.”

As demonstrations on the street intensify and the seven political parties, Maoists and King remain locked in a three-pronged struggle, the plight of ordinary Nepali citizens in the villages and on the battlefronts has become grimmer. This feeling of bewilderment and pathos elicits in the installations of Jyoti Duwadi, Sudarshan Rana, Ashmina Ranjit Gopal Kalapremi, Sujan Chitrakar and Chirag Bangdel. Their powerful artistic expressions have been conceptualized to shock the viewer, calling for reconciliation and a halt of the carnage that has cost thirteen thousand lives.

Despite the power, poignancy and success that installation art now enjoys, many viewers and patrons have reservations about it. Traditional painters may feel that it is “the devaluation of art.” Taking this bias into account, the Sutra Group has organized many workshops where experimental art has been discussed and made at Tapoban and various locales. Visiting foreign artists have added to the dynamics of the search for new expressions. In December 2005, Sutra Art Centre organized a talk program titled Echoes of Tomorrow, the aim of which was to “address many issues relating to new forms of art – from installations to video-art, performance and happening art.”

Only time will tell whether or not such programs have managed to dispel “the confusion and perplexity between different trends…the misinterpretation and disbelief between offbeat and established art practitioners…this unwelcome syndrome of disbelief has also been one of the primal drawbacks in the development of Nepali art.” Installation art can appear to be deceptively simple. The German artist Joseph Bueys said, “Everything is art and everybody is an artist.” It will take time for the ordinary viewer to understand the philosophy of “unart” and the raison d’etre of replicating real time experiences in the form of impermanent assemblages or installations in our impermanent lives.

The article was written just before the popular movement against the brutal regime of King Gyanendra forced him to bow to the demands for a restoration of parliamentary democracy in Nepal in April this year. NuktaArt

Images courtesy: Sangeeta Thapa

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