Art

Put in their place

While installation art expands the creative possibilities for the artist, it can be a challenge for collectors to display. Emma Crichton-Miller reports.

April 30 2011
Emma Crichton-Miller

“This room, when the children are at home, is stuffed full of scooters and coats and school-bags; it’s a complete tip, and no pot has ever been broken or knocked.” I am standing with collector Sarah Griffin in the doorway of a small room that runs like a corridor from the main hallway of the house to the back door into the garden. Light falls softly through the south-facing upper-half of the garden door and through the fanlight. But what could so easily have become dead space, a burial ground of unloved coats and outgrown boots, has instead become a work of art. Lining an entire wall, and running above the lintel of the door into the house, are rows and rows of exquisite pots, glazed in varying Celadon greys, blues and near whites. As the day breathes outside, so the pots change constantly, the shifting shadows altering their relationships with each other and with the corridor, which under their influence has become magical.

Each pot has been individually thrown by Edmund de Waal, the renowned potter, but altogether, lined up rhythmically on these shelves, they make up his most famous work – The Porcelain Room. First created for the Geffrye Museum in east London in 2002, it was de Waal’s first major installation. Besides this wall of pots, there were pots embedded in the floor and another work, Attic, inserted into a specially constructed space in the ceiling. Far more than the sum of its individual parts, the room impressed everyone who saw it as a poetic statement about how pots articulate space, how they converse with architecture, how they evoke history and memory and measure time. For Sarah, seeing this installation was a defining moment in her relationship with de Waal’s work: “That show had a massive impact. I couldn’t believe it. I had a few pots already but this really got me. This was an environment.”

The only problem was how to accommodate it. Installations are the artform of our age. They are not new: artists have been creating entire dreamscapes or theatrical assemblages since the early 20th century. It was in the 1960s and 1970s, however, that installation art as a medium in its own right gained a whole supporting edifice of critical theory. Since then, the term has leaked and spread to include many different kinds of work, involving different materials, sometimes even video and performance. What unites them is the artist’s creative intention not just to make work, but to place that work in space so that it creates a world. As such, they offer the artist the opportunity to expand his or her ideas beyond the narrow confines of the single object, to make concrete complex ideas or bring to life an imaginative universe. Plus, they invite the involvement of an audience – someone to enter into the scene or interact with the elements.

Just think of the crowd-drawing installations in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern or the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. As if in belated recognition of the significance of installation art, and of its popularity among both artists and audiences, this year the British representative at the Venice Biennale will for the first time be an installation artist, Mike Nelson.

But if installation art offers so much creatively to artists, it can prove a headache for private collectors. It is not just the sheer fact of having to accommodate so much stuff, it is the requirement to display the work according to often exacting rules. While the artist’s dominating, global vision may seem intriguing in the context of a gallery, it could seem obtrusive in your own home; just not quite polite.

The prominent British collector Anita Zabludowicz commented in an interview recently that buying two or three installations – by Wolfgang Tillmans and Keith Tyson – convinced her finally to open a gallery space. As she reflected further to me, “These larger works need a public platform, they really need to be shared interactively with an audience.” Since then, she has become ever more ambitious in buying and commissioning new installations, and they have become the focus of her collecting. There are, however, smaller works that can be lived with happily. In The Shape We’re In, the current exhibition at her Chalk Farm gallery, The Zabludowicz Collection at 176, there is a compact, colourful installation by Gary Webb, which incorporates sound, plastic tiles and other materials and was formerly in her home. “I had it in my husband’s office,” she says. “It was an amazing experience for him to live with it.”

For Griffin, what enabled her to take the plunge was the inspiration of the artists. Besides de Waal’s Porcelain Room, Griffin has three further installations by de Waal and a site-specific installation created by potter Julian Stair. “I find it quite difficult to buy things on such a large scale,” says Griffin. “It’s all down to the artists.” When she and her husband bought the house, Griffin invited de Waal and Stair to choose the places for their works even before the house had been fully decorated. Attic, located in a small landing space, required a great deal from Griffin’s builders. “We worked out how the pots would go, with very exact dimensions for the shelves. The order and arrangement is very specific.” she says. “We put a false ceiling in and we narrowed it; then we copied the cornice at a lower level so that the installation would be completely incorporated into the building.”

In bringing the installation from a gallery to a home, de Waal added a number of pots. “It’s a very personal piece. My response to it at the Geffrye Museum was that it was like your ancestors, it was your family,” remarks Griffin. “And the installation looks much better in a house; the accident of it being in a home, where there is so much other stuff.” Stair’s installation of clay plinths and pots in 10 colours, however, was specifically designed for its space – another landing, where it has a quiet but theatrical grandeur: “It’s lovely from all sides. Stair has always talked about volume, and it works for him as a 3-D space. It makes sense of everything else he has ever done.”

Griffin is extremely respectful of the needs and intentions of her artists, but she is also conscious that in choosing two ceramic artists she has chosen installations well-suited to a private home. “In the material and the vessel form, these pieces have their beginnings in function and so they are at home in a domestic environment.”

Sarah Elson, by contrast, has three installations by artists whose work owes nothing to the home. An art historian and art consultant, with collecting deep in both her own and her husband’s family cultures, Elson has bought what she loves – large photographic works by Isaac Julien, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Robin Rhode; a large fabric sculpture by Josh Faught; plus paintings, ceramics and glass works. As she puts it, “It was an occupational hazard that I would add things to our own collection, because the more you see, the more you learn what you like and what you want to live with. And so the house fills up.”

The first installation piece confronts you as you enter the house, an ascending arrangement of black resin balls fixed to the wall beside a curving staircase. “We met the artist, Tom Bell, in Madrid, 15 years ago,” she says. “He only makes sculpture for the wall, because that is his way of controlling the environment in which you see it. And so we bought this group of 20 resin balls. It was very important that he came and installed them.” In their previous house, Elson explains, “they were also installed by a staircase, but it had no turn. So in that space it was more about looking at it head on and the composition. Here I think you look almost more at the light and shadow, and the way it interacts with the architecture.

“We’ve had some inadvertent deinstallations with kids thinking it’s a climbing wall,” Elson admits, yet she feels that this is part of the work’s charm. “Installations invite you to participate. You engage with them in a different way from a photograph or a painting, which are much more autonomous. You have this almost physical relationship with an environment. That is why artists do installations.” This then requires more of the collector: “You have to enter into an artist’s intention more than you would have to when you buy a painting; you have to identify with it.”

At first you might overlook Elson’s second installation. As the centrepiece of her drawing room, Elson has put a work by the well-known South Korean artist Do-Ho Suh on a low plinth – and turned it into a table. The piece consists of hundreds of small figures, in many different earth colours, with their arms upraised to hold up the sheet of glass that covers them. “This piece is called Floor,” says Elson, “and it is meant to be on the floor; you are meant to walk on it. But I could not install it as he envisioned.” For a while Elson was troubled by this: “It does change the nature of what he intended. And for a while I tried to be respectful of that by putting nothing on it, not treating it too much like a table. But then I decided that it’s a surface, so I am going to start using it as one.”

In a way, putting things on the surface restores some of the uneasy meaning of the piece – partly a celebration of communal energy, partly a critique of those who ignore or disdain the many figures heroically straining to hold us or our objects up. And already the piece had become something different from its original incarnation – commissioned in 2000 for the Indianapolis Museum of Art and subsequently shown at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2002 – which filled an entire room. By allowing private collectors to buy the work in small pieces – a minimum of four 1m squares – Do-Ho Suh had already come some way to meeting collectors’ needs.

Out in their garden, Elson has a third installation, a water piece by Jeppe Hein, whose installations outside the Hayward Gallery in 2009 and in the Barbican’s Curve space in 2007 have given him world renown. “He’s a big artist now, so he just does big installations,” says Elson, aware that private collectors need to observe certain proprieties. “It would be pretentious to put some works in a domestic environment.” As a trustee of the Contemporary Art Society, which buys contemporary art works for public collections, she feels it is sometimes better for collectors interested in a particular artist’s work to help support their next project in a public museum, rather than buy for themselves.

But Elson already has a collection. Jeni Lofthouse has not yet reached this point. Still in the process, with her husband, of growing an art collection for their house in Kent, she recently bought her first installation: Necklace by Sarah Wood from gallerist Kate Werble at the new Art Dealers’ Alliance Art Fair in Miami. “I knew Kate would have good things,” she says, “and I had admired some of Sarah’s work the previous year.” This piece, a series of hanging bars with chains that pool on the floor, is proving a challenge for Lofthouse. “It is bigger than we thought! And Kate has sent me two pages of instructions from the artist describing how they are to be installed. Where we were going to hang it, the ceiling is too low. It needs to be seen on its own in a clean space.”

The last time we talk, Lofthouse has not yet made a final decision as to where this shall be. As she puts it, “It’s not massive, it’s not unwieldy, it just needs careful placement.” Once there, she is sure, it will, like all good installations, effect its own particular transformation, offering all comers entry to the charmed space of imagination.

See also

Installations