One of my first memories of installation art, before I even knew there were genres, or sub-genres of art, was the Places with a Past exhibition in Charleston in the early 90’s. I remember much of the popular medias interpretations of the work by thesuper star lineup of artists; Christian Boltanski, Chris Burden, James Coleman, Houston Conwill, Estella Conwill Majozo, Joseph DePace, Kate Ericson, Mel Ziegler, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gwylene Gallimard, Jean-Marie Mauclet, Antony Gormley, Ann Hamilton, David Hammons, Ronald Jones, Narelle Jubelin, Liz Magor, Elizabeth Newman, Joyce Scott, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Alva Rogers, Barbara Steinmen.
Much of the criticisms and information that leaked down to the then 15 year old me is still some of the same sort of knee jerk reactions people have to art that does not meet their expectations of what art should do. One artist’s installation that seemed to draw a lot of flack was Antony Gormley’s work at The Old city Jail in Charleston. This past weekend I had the opportunity, along with some help from a few friends, to rouse the ghosts of Gormley and others who have haunted the city jail. One of the main components of his installation was the piece “Learning to Think”
Antony Gormley, Learning to Think, installed Old City Jail, Charleston SC, 1991
Although his temporary work occured 20 years ago there are permanent markers in the ceiling of the room that contained this work.
The room today is part of the American College of the Building Arts classroom space for exploring historic preservation. For me The Old City Jail will always be the place where Gormley installed his work. Above are some shots showing the cutouts in the ceiling where his pieces once hung 20 years ago.
Another element of Gormley’s installation was a version of his field.
Antony Gormley, Field, installed at the Old City Jail, Charleston 1991
I remember reading about how Gormley had not made the thousands of clay figures himself, but used a village in Mexico to make them. While this was seen as tacky and somehow unusual by the local paper, it was in fact a big part of what he was doing with this piece. I think somehow these earlier memories of what a temporary installation can do for a site still shape much of my desire to interact temporarily and directly with venues, spaces, and audiences.
Another crucial element from 20 years ago is my love of loud visceral rock n roll. Much of my teenage memories from Charleston involve, seeing, playing with and generally being around full volume music. Many bands practiced, performed and recorded together in the same warehouses in Charleston back then. An important factor for me is the lack of viable visual documentation of these moments. Although everyone had four track recorders to capture the audio efforts, hardly anyone was photographing, videoing or even writing about it(and certainly not with the ease and excess that we can today). In some ways this ability for the memory to remain large in lieu of proper visual documentation is very much what draws me to installation and site-responsive work. Because until 1999 I had only understood volume and dynamics in amplfied music or drumset playing as the way to engage a space or an audience directly. It was not until my first fully immersive installations in 2006 that “visual art” supplanted music as a possible means for engaging an audience in the same visceral way that amplified rock n roll does. This is not to say that the existence of one negates the other, quite the opposite. Much of my aesthetic and concept for the “Have Sticks Will Travel Tour” and related posters, and works, was directly influenced by my experiences as a failed indie rock musician. These days anything I do is ultimately part of the body of work I exhibit as a visual artist. So when the opportunity to do something, anything, at the city jail arose, I said yes before fully knowing what it was I wanted to do.
I had initially planned to bring some treated drums, vibrating coffee cups, and other toys for making an abstract soundtrack for a variety of projected imagery. The imagery I selected was a mixture of my own pictures, videos, early seminal performance videos by Richard Serra, clips of famous jail scenes in movies and of course videos and images of Gormley’s pieces from the city jail. The plan changed a bit when I was able to recruit another like minded musician/artist Philip Estes, and the infinitely talented video projectionist Alex Rosen. I have relied on Alex’s video skills in the past for the realization of “Projecting the Sky so it can See itself” at the McColl Center in 2010, so when both he and Philip committed I knew we would be able to do something that would excite my memory and reverance for that space and the spirit of charleston’s loud music from the 90’s.
Of course befitting my “memory supplanting the experience” philosophy my camera died halfway through the performance, at the very moment the music shifts from abstract soundtrack to 90’s style grunge/sludge rock. But in an almost predictable nod to todays streaming culture, by the time we had finished playing someone had posted a clip to youtube. fittingly enough this clip is silent.
below is the first 20 minutes of what was exactly 54minutes of sound and video.
I will now return to my regularly scheduled sculpture activities in preparation for what is shaping up to be a very exciting 2012 exhibition year. Thanks again to Philip Estes and Alex Rosen, for indulging my teenage fantasies, and to Andrew Walker of Entropy Ensemble and the Jailbreak festival for providing access to this significant installation site.