On March 25 2008 the Lucas Gallery at 185 Nassau Street debuted Jon Huddleson ’08’s installation visual arts thesis “Rigmarole – A Physical Representation of Space of Consciousness.” Between April 2 and April 4, spaces throughout 185 Nassau also displayed exhibits of the four-person advanced studio class in installation, VIS472.
Installation art evokes a cyclical arc of feelings: first, walking into a room of junk or seeing a bizarre box with a peephole: “This is retarded.” Then, once the initial assault wears off comes the feeling that maybe something complicated just happened. Depending on the particular piece, the final stage involves either the sense of satisfying complexity or the feeling that you have probably just seen another overly pretentious piece of modern art.
The esoteric art seems reserved for artists themselves, their friends, and the obscure hipster who has read up on it. Installation art is the “anti-art.” The skills involved are not the extreme hand-eye dexterity and motor skills of painting and drawing – the traditional visual arts. There is meticulous attention to detail, but most of the artistic value is cyclical. The reason an installation is art is because it is called art. Without the label, installations can literally be arranged junk. A spring, an abandoned pile of cigarettes, and maybe a soundtrack come together in an exhibit room and suddenly everyone is supposed to look at it with a pensive face and draw some kind of meaning from it.
Jon Huddleson’s Installation Thesis: “Rigmarole”-
A class of painters in VIS204, the introductory painting class, experienced varied first impressions upon walking into Jon Huddleson’s consciousness. “Well, it seems kind of simple. Bad on one side, good on the other,” said one girl, describing the contrast between the side of the room covered by many square feet of philosophy papers, stream of consciousness musings, and a stocked school desk, and the opposite side tacked with equal square footage of old beer boxes, liquor bottles, and pictures of friends. The center was more ambiguous: a mattress with antlers near the “bad” side and a large stuffed turtle on the “good.”
But a more perceptive observer found one particular artifact in the room that begs the observer to look deeper: an excerpt of Nagel’s “What is it like to be a Bat?”, an influential paper in philosophy that pinpoints the huge problem with consciousness: one cannot possibly know the essence of any other creature or individual. That paper in this room is a disclaimer: we should give the benefit of the doubt to this individual consciousness and not ignore each meticulously planned artifact.
Indeed, the room was filled with little, intelligent glimpses into a soul. A small hole in the room dedicated to the philosophy of being, “holism,” moral dilemmas. Another panel contained the definition of qualia, a piece of philosophical jargon that describes the way things on the outside seem to us. Perhaps the fact that most of this side had philosophical jargon was not just a nod to an “intellectual” side but rather Huddleson’s tendency to frame his experience of the world through this ‘other’ thesis and his academic tract – philosophy.
The best gem in the room was a little black notebook on the desk that, among other things, details the plans to make the room itself. A ripped up sheet reads: “Fakey? . . Contrived? . . . Not convinced; trying to be rebellious,” all possible reactions to his work. Huddleson knew exactly the limitations of his artwork. In the space of his consciousness, he made sure to leave a note that he knew exactly what others might think.
A pullover draped on the desk chair suggested that he was actually in the room; we were inside his head but so was he. We were the intruders. Bits like this were everywhere. Some of the musings seemed non-sequiturs, random bits of himself: “I hate when people tell me I remind them of someone else.” Others reflected on the room itself: “Where to start . . . Will I finish in time?” A tiny little corner held the messages, “Most people will spend their time looking at photos in the opposite corner . . . They’ll probably look at the bike for a while too,” as if he knew nobody really cared about anything except for the spectacle. Ironically, anyone in that corner was not looking at the bike at all but prying his virtual-brain for secrets.
Even more meta-reflections recorded plans to write about the room itself; each plan or scribbled “to-do” added a new self-aware layer to the entire space. This was the biggest strength of the exhibit, to capture that ever-backward-creeping thought about thought, that we can never stop self-reflecting because telling ourselves so would be a self-reflection. Rigmarole contained an awareness of awareness, probably more layers than one could find in just a cursory visit.
Suddenly the mattress in the middle of the floor did not signify a modern artist reaching for elusive mystery. The antlers and the turtle were not random; they were pieces of Huddleson, pieces we were not allowed to understand. They are his symbols. The only sure fact was that he probably thought about every little piece. One of the writings on the paper-covered floor was his reflection on installation artist Phoebe Washburn, who describes installation as always “[a deliberate] selection of materials.” Her thought lay among other papers comparing installation to the traditional arts.
VIS472’s “The Time Factor”: Four Student Exhibits
On April 2, “The Time Factor” exhibit went up, which featured four installations completed by students of VIS472. The pieces will be up again later in the year in the final installation show.
The main goal of the four-person class’ show was to “explore issues of time, duration, and change.” While drawings and paintings both utilize two-dimensional spaces and cover them with lines, colors, and shadows, installation art transforms spaces – often spaces that are taken for granted. The students were allowed to express the theme in any way they wanted, a broadness reflected in the many media they chose: sound-bites, woodwork, Styrofoam sculpture, and piles of cigarette butts to name a few. Each of the works creates a life-sized world that the audience is asked to enter and examine.
Saba McCoy ‘10’s DIN puts the observer inside a unique space: her own stomach. Walking into the installation, comprised entirely of sound, gave the impression of entering a cave. The white wall-speakers uttered sounds reminiscent of spelunkers dropping to the bottom of a cave, inspiring that familiar “Wait, this is art?” reaction. But then suddenly you are on the inside of something you interact with only superficially every day. You get hungry; you eat; you get full. The sounds are too weird to believe they come from inside us; it takes this bizarre exhibit to put you inside.
Untitled (Honey) by Anna Miller ‘10 featured an 8’x3’x6’7” wooden chamber with a fake door, three pitchers filled with honey, and a little peephole that played a video on loop of the artist dousing her face with the whole pitcher of honey. The exhibit seems to encourage some kind of surreal voyeurism or at least contains some metaphors about excess, gluttony, ridiculous experience. The weirdness and sheer size of the wooden box provoked an initial wonder, though I’m unsure of how much thought it inspired in the moments afterward.
Nicholas Slavin ‘11’s “Journeyman” was an upside-down, arrow-speared red Styrofoam man suspended upside-down from the ceiling. The artist’s description depicted the piece as a commentary on art and a humorous interpretation of art history – another example of how installations are cyclical artwork. He is satirizing art and what has become of it, but he has found a way to accomplish this objective with modern art.
“No Vacancy” by Sam Stewart-Halevy ’08 took up a sizeable space in the Lucas Gallery, a life-sized model of an abandoned lot on Monmouth Street in Trenton that he wanted to treat as anything but abandoned. The process of the installation includes three projects: setting up a grid and observing each separate piece of the lot, setting up a live feed of a sheet blowing in the wind, and collecting little bits of the place and setting them on a scale: branches from trees, cigarette butts, garbage. Stewart- Halevy has occupied an abandoned lot and forces us to un-abandon it by sticking us inside it. The sheet blowing in the wind inspires the installation’s ideas, and as such they can be a bit reminiscent of American Beauty’s bag-in-the-breeze scene. While the garbage was not as thought-provoking as it may have been intended, the piece does accomplish the goal of confronting the audience with some dregs of modernity in this abandoned lot by using various kinds of media – sculpture, photo, film – to capture the movement of time.
Installation art is an acquired taste; some modern artists disregard all of it. There exists a discrepancy between a piece that becomes art just by having the name and the piece that is art because it is obviously similar to a painting or a piece of literature. Whether installation is the anti-art or a new wave of ‘real’ art for the modern age or just a tiny blip in art history, its movement at Princeton is growing. “Rigmarole” has already been replaced by the next visual art major’s thesis show, begging us to ask again how it can be art if it’s gone in a couple of days. Despite that now it is just a few papers and books, beer boxes, and a set of antlers, it is probably a truer, deeper portrait of the inside – of a place in consciousness-time – than any painted self-portrait that we can stare at for years to come.