Art History

Capp Street and installation art -- still crazy after all these years

Since it was founded in 1983, the Capp Street Project has often been home to elaborate art installations. In particular, the project's residency program has given installation artists the time, space, and funding to go out on limbs. Some of the most memorable results include Approach, Glen Seator's indoor re-creation of a city street (which required 150 tons of cement and asphalt to complete) and Ann Hamilton's Privation and Excesses, in which she used 700,000 pennies to create a molten sea on the floor and caged three sheep in a nearby room. None of the pieces showcased in the “Capp Street Project: 20th Anniversary Exhibition” is quite as complicated, but, like Seator and Hamilton, the featured artists seek to push the boundaries of the installation art form.

Although installation art has become one of the fastest-growing genres in contemporary art, even experts may not know how to define the term. “I have to confess that I was confronted by an unfortunate realization: namely, that I had no idea what installation art is,” writes Ralph Rugoff, the director of the California College of Arts and Crafts' Wattis Institute, in the introductory essay to the exhibition catalog. Used to describe anything from a video projection to a site-specific piece of sculpture, the expression has become so general that it's almost meaningless, but as Rugoff explains, the defining characteristic of installation art is that it must be experienced firsthand.

A sequence of 40 photographs of the same short strip of river in central London, Roni Horn's Some Thames simulates the experience of walking alongside the tributary. Ann Veronica Janssens' light-projection installation Subjective Fields is — as its title suggests — an individual experience. In Fields, a series of bright lights is beamed onto a wall in a dark room, with each exposure lasting for one minute. During intervals, when the room becomes totally dark, viewers can expect to see colors appear before their eyes — or not. It's the hit-or-miss quality of the optical illusions that makes each viewing unique.

In Mike Kelley's architectural installation Light (Time)-Space Modulator, a 21-foot-long spiral staircase spins sideways above the gallery floor. Projectors attached to the structure screen three separate slide shows: The first depicts a Hispanic family of the 1970s in its home; the second shows the same house in a current incarnation; and the third presents paired shots from each series slowly dissolving into one another. A haunted house comes to mind, as the historical Hispanic family appears to inhabit the modern-day home.

Mike Nelson's The Pumpkin Place uses junkyard finds to create something that is simultaneously familiar and exotic: the exterior of a gutted 1952 Green Tortoise Adventure Travel bus, redecorated to look like a hospital bus used by the Red Crescent (that is, the Islamic version of the Red Cross). The piece alludes to America's impact on Muslim nations, but as with any installation art, what we read into it, and experience, is open for interpretation.

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