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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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Installation Art

In many respects, the motivating factors behind installation art could be interpreted as a means of putting Whitehead’s ideas into practice. Installation art begins with the intrinsic relatedness of objects to their environment in the production of a total space, one in which the space and the art become a singular totality into which the viewer physically enters (Bishop 2005: 6). This factor — the spatio-temporal relation established with the viewer, for whom the place of viewing is inseparable from the experience of viewing — is perhaps the most significant for installation art. Key typological indicators of this model are theatricality, immersion and embodiment, with stress laid upon the experiential or phenomenological, described by Nagel as a shift from the optical to the haptic (2012: 259). Distance from the work is virtually eliminated, the time of viewing is extended such that the work cannot be experienced all at once, and the space through which the subject moves is itself part of the medium of the work, resulting in a ‘mutual imbrication’ of subject, object and context (Bishop 2005: 128). This key characteristic of installation art — the embodiment of the viewer and the deployment of all their senses in the experience — means that first-hand experience is essential, extending even to the viewer’s self-awareness within the constellation of elements. This makes installation art a remarkably reflexive art in which, in Brian O’Doherty’s words, we find ourselves ‘looking at ourselves looking’ (1986: 61). As a consequence, it is often orientated around the production of a subject of, or for, the work. The difference between the perception of an object and one’s awareness of that object’s indivisible relation to an architectural space is that with the former, ‘one occupies a separate space — one’s own space’, but with the latter, ‘one’s own space is not separate but co-existent with what is perceived’ (Morris 1993: 182). The barrier that separates viewer and artwork, and more broadly the context in which they meet, is, to some extent, rendered permeable, allowing meaning or the content of the work ‘to seep into its surroundings’ (Oliveira et al. 1994: 13). Increasingly museums and galleries have ceased to be exhibition spaces and have sought to become total environments to be shaped by the work or works of art. More fundamentally, the gallery no longer sees itself as a repository of objects, but becomes ‘a place to experience experience’ (Oliveira et al. 1994: 29). This is not to suggest that the object itself disappears; quite the contrary. But the relationship between the object and the space has changed. One must, for example, walk around the work or view it in relation to other works, in relation to other non-art types of objects and experiences, and in relation to its surroundings, in order to understand it in terms of art. Installation art dispels the illusion that works of art unfold in space but are fixed in time, a misperception that has dogged art, no matter how often it has been critiqued. Attention to the temporality of visual objects, to an experienced and inhabited time, is what is at stake here rather than an absorption in an image’s momentary fullness, for which Whitehead’s emphasis on ‘presentational immediacy’ provides a philosophical cognate.2

There is, then, an important difference to be made between the installation of a work of art and installation art proper. The former is a general requirement of any work of art, which must be installed whenever an exhibition is mounted, whereas the latter is a form of art that develops a specific discursive relation with its context, which then becomes the subject matter, rather than merely the setting of the work, reflecting back upon the institution itself and/or the communities that inhabit it. Where commentators on installation art are keen to stress the differences between the two types of art, it is my contention that in an ecclesiastical space no such differentiation is possible. What the art gallery deliberately sets out to achieve, the cathedral does as a matter of course. It actuates a total immersive experience, the only difference being that, generally speaking, it doesn’t call it art. We are not talking here about the symbolic didacticism of the cathedral as visual theology, but its ineluctable influence upon the work of art, and vice versa, as a single object of encounter. A cathedral is singularly environmental in its relation to the art object; whether it is inconspicuously absorbed or conspicuously present, it cannot help but be in some form of situated dialogue with it. At stake here is what, according to Christopher Irvine, curators are now calling ‘recontextualising’ (2013: 11). This refers not only to rethinking an artwork’s art historical context or its present location, but also its wider spatial environment, ‘the other objects that will come into the viewer’s fields of vision as he or she looks at a painting or other work of art’ (2013: 11—12). This can give theological substance to effective installations:

if not in content, in form; that is, a created world in which every object and the space between them is connected to another. Installation art is the embodiment of an analogical worldview. It acknowledges that meaning is contingent and that it is contextual. Installation art regards each object as a part, a fragment, of the larger context.

(Siedell 2008: 101)

It is sometimes said that temples and churches are the antecedents of installation art, as an art not about individual objects, but ‘the sacralisation of a certain space’, that is, the distinction of designated regions of space, whether secular or sacred, in which everything within it automatically becomes art (Elkins and Morgan 2009: 164). Something like this resulted from a recent exhibition of five of Viola’s works in Berne Cathedral. It was described by a member of the organising body as a Gesamtkunstwerk, implying that art and church had achieved some unified whole, the environs of the church no less than the individual works on display all part of the art experience (Bucher et al. 2014: 7). Church art has always been a work of installation, even if it has not registered as art as such, but as a devotional or liturgical object. The object is venerated not for itself, but for what it represents, as part of a larger spiritual investment. Nevertheless, if installation art exploits art’s tendency to exceed its frame, to interrogate its borders, it is still constricted by certain accepted limitations. In a gallery or museum, boundaries may be set by the parameters of the gallery space itself or by a sanctioned space within the museum. Within a cathedral, even an isolated painting or sculpture becomes a form of installation, always already eclipsing its bounds. And yet the rhetoric surrounding art in churches, and the practices of curating, installing and policing art in churches, seems determined to resist any such idea.

The thesis recently set out by Nagel in Medieval Modern in part links installation art to the holistic cathedral experience with its emphasis on an environment for art rather than singular artworks exhibited as if in a gallery. The questions raised by installation — ‘What are the boundaries of the art work? Where does it start and where does it end?’ (Nagel 2012: 274) — must be equally raised by an artwork or series of works within the cathedral space itself. For this reason, the preference many Chapters show for the free-standing exhibition erected within, say, the convenient space offered by an empty transept can only be a distraction from that holistic experience rather than in any way adding to it. This is no judgement upon the quality of the art, but rather on the mode of display. The more important point to make is how Whitehead’s philosophy of the event informs our understanding of art’s conditions of possibility within the church. His ideas go much further than simply describing the perceptual organisation of experience, registered here in the comparison made between installation art and the cathedral environment. While his process perspective allows for the shift between a discrete artwork and its context to be theorised and understood, it also directly initiated a strand of theology aptly known as Process Theology. This is a theology that emphasises our participative experience in a world subject to constant processes of change or becoming, which Whitehead calls ‘creativity’ or ‘the principle of novelty’ (1969: 21). Within this process, sensuous, and indeed aesthetic, experience become vital to religious experience, opening the door to what F. David Martin calls ‘the inbreaking into awareness’ of the unconscious depths of reality habitually overlooked (1972: 238). Martin is one of the few to have developed a theory of aesthetic experience directly structured around Whitehead’s thought. What he invokes through Whitehead is an awareness of Being present in the depth dimension of beings, but only revealed through our ‘rapt or intransitive attention to a presented thing’ (1968: 17). In other words, participative experience and religious experience ‘spring from the same empirical grounds’ (1968: 24).

The clearest example is of course the liturgy as an occasion of experience, in Whitehead’s sense, that engenders a created unity of liturgical form, participant and ecclesiastical environment. But Martin makes the point that art too is a potential source for such participative experience.

 
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