Vitamin 3D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation, Phaidon, 2009, 352 pp., $75.
Notes for the stage set of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot specified that it should be “lieu vague [nothing in particular], a location which should not be particularized.” Godot was a starting point for the Theater of the Absurd, wherein vague pointless characters wander about equally vague and pointless stage sets. Playwrights who fancy this genre will find Vitamin 3D useful for nothing in particular.
Billed as “an up-to-the-minute survey of current global developments in contemporary sculpture, and its close relative, installation,” the book includes works by 117 artists from 27 countries, including Thea Djordjadze, Geoffrey Farmer, Roger Hiorns, Christian Holstad, Daniel Joglar and Eva Rothschild, whose installations are rather difficult to distinguish from each other. Works by Michael Beutler, Gelitin, David Renggli, Oscar Tuazon, Ai Weiwei and Thomas Zipp, on the other hand, seem to hail from Burning Man, the harebrained Black Rock Desert festival known for the efforts of zany amateurs who build for a final-night bonfire.
Vitamin 3D is the final installment of the pithy “Vitamin” books from Phaidon, and follows vitamins P, D, and Ph, surveys of painting, drawing and photography. It comes fast on the heels of a prior Phaidon sculpture survey, titled Sculpture Now, which was large and well-received and arrived only last year. However, as the firm seems to be surveying everything in sight, it managed to find room for this new book, which is mostly about installation art.
Installation art is a theatrical set without a stage play to give it meaning. The more accomplished people in this subculture tend to have theatrical training. Cai Guo-Qiang, for example, studied set design for six years at Shanghai Drama Institute and Tsukuba University in Japan. Robert Wilson took an architecture degree from Pratt and then continued with formal studies in painting. Either of these artists can produce an installation that, in the absence of a text, contains the semiotic intersection we call metaphor. Neither is included in this book, and those who are — set designers, really — seem to have no clue as to what they are doing.
The task of contextualizing this feral art fell to Anne Ellegood, who gamely types away in “Motley Efforts,” the preface to this book. And though Ellegood labors to supply art historical heft by citing Rosalind Krauss’ 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” she misses the point. Krauss showed she could find structure in the sculpture of the 1970s through the same diagrammatic thinking used in Klein-group mathematics; but searching for structure in the Vitamin 3D debris field is analogous to listening for diatonic passing sevenths as Lady Gaga buzzes through Poker Face. The noise is the sell, and if there is no structure, why cite a 30-year-old essay about revealed structure in after-modern sculpture?
Most of the installation artists included in this volume suffer from the same fallacy: that the laziness of bizarre images will be somehow mistaken for the psychological craft of surrealism, straw for brick. It is not. These installations have all the resonance of a Geddan dancer — Geddan is a dance craze based on the jerky movement of Nintendo characters when the cartridge isn’t inserted properly — flitting through a yard sale, hoping that an episteme will gather like fog on the lawn. It does not. Co-locating unrelated objects will not cause profound undiscovered insight into the true nature of things, a disinterested observer can apprehend the work only as a desire for that to be true; this is what is on display, the unrequited desire to make art. The massiveness of these installations is the camouflage: Can’t manage an étude, better do a symphony. Can’t draw, ratchet it up it to 60 colors. Sonnets won’t flow, words clutter and gunk? Then rewrite the Odyssey! Here’s to Nikos Kazantzakis, the Ulysses-loving Greek writer!
“If you keep digging, your archaeological investigation will reveal stratum upon stratum of historical references,” implores Ellegood. I hope that’s an anagram for “stratum upon stratum of Dennis Oppenheim.” I couldn’t find that artist’s name printed in the book, but I found imitations of his work everywhere. I bumped into Oppenheim at last year’s Armory Show after I benched myself with Black Forest thoughts of dasein gone awry. Meanwhile, Dennis sauntered over with his Cheshire grin. “Everything looks good to me,” he beamed. I’m sure, since so much of it looked derived from his Dionysian career. I never entirely warmed up to Oppenheim’s five-decade-long oeuvre — although he is one of the few artists who was named in the aforementioned Krauss essay — but those two generations hence certainly did, and his work is being repeated everywhere.
There are some bright moments in the book: Tara Donovan starts with a single element, a Styrofoam cup — foes of esthetics take note: a single element — and repeats that humble element thousands of times into a wondrous bridal-white undulation of erotic shades, arte povera into arte luminaria, the sunset of the Hesperides. Berlinde De Bruyckere extends the dark organic forms favored by Louise Bourgeois in a pensive melancholy of animal parts whose darkness is as compelling as the subject.
Simon Starling, the 2005 Turner prize winner, nails it with his jabberwocky Autoxyloprocycloboros, wherein two sailors saw apart a 19th-century steam-powered lapstrake dory in which they are sailing across an English bay, putting both of them into the water in a cacophony of steam and bubbles. The madcap self-destruction in this hysterical performance is the perfect metaphor for today’s rudderless political parties: saw apart the social vehicle so we all drown.
The publisher did its job in presenting the widest possible survey of contemporary installation art: the dozens of included artists were recommended by dozens of curators who were themselves recommended, though it is unclear by whom — recommenders who themselves were recommended? All the better not to be particularized.
JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor.