Modern Art Oxford
South East England

I have selected to analyse a contemporary installation piece by German artist Michael Sailstorfer. The piece was on display at Modern Art Oxford, UK. The entrance to MAO differs from other galleries and museums I have visited, as it has what can only be best described as a car garage opening leading from the street to the doors of the gallery. MAO has labelled this area as ‘The Yard’ and it is here, in this approximately 8 metre long, slightly inclining entrance, that Sailstorfer has chosen as the site for his installation Clouds.

In this analysis I plan to deliberate on Michael Sailstorfer’s artwork by examining the composition of the piece, the space, and materials used. Also, I intend to look into themes addressed, and most importantly the definition of installation art.

To begin analyzing this piece it is first necessary to define and understand the meaning of installation art and its development over the past few decades. In the early 1960s, ‘installation’ was not a label used for a genre of art as it is today. The term installation was used to describe the way an exhibition was hung. What we know today at installation art was known as ‘environment art’, which was first applied by Alan Kaprow to his multi-media works on display at the Hansa Gallery, New York in 1958. Throughout the 1960s the terms ‘assemblage art’, ‘project art’ and ‘temporary art’ were used to define the act of artists bringing materials together in order to fill a given space.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that artists began to refer to installation as a defined and separate genre of art. As Dr. Reiss mentions in her book From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, the term being defined as a

…term which came into vogue during the 1970s for an assemblage or environment constructed in the gallery specifically for a particular exhibition (Reiss 1999, p. xii).

Examining the artwork’s site or placement, can help to further refine installation art. Artwork can either be categorized as indoor or outdoor art, which is referred to as site-specification. Personally, I believe the significant difference between the two is that; art placed indoors regards the entire space as a single situation as it reflects external events or objects. Whereas artwork placed outdoors highlights a single situation and uses this as the layout for the audience to view the surrounding space, as they would scrutinize paintings in a gallery. The positioning of artwork plays a vital role in the way it is interpreted, whether that is inside the walls of a gallery or outside in the public, in sequence or in solitude, juxtaposing or complementing.

During the development of art in the 1960s, artists and critics believed that ‘environment art’ was and could not be simply looked at, but was to be inhabited thoroughly as one inhabits the world. Artists in the 1960s and 1970s were in the height of the Vietnam War along with a number of smaller wars. As a result of world wide demonstrations, artists became more involved in antiwar activities, and felt the need to join forces and Women Artists in Revolution (W.A.R.), the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), Art Workers’ Coalition and groups of the like were inaugurated. In an interview with Jeanne Siegel, Carl Andre expresses his approval of artists taking on a political view in their artwork.

It seems to be a moment in history when the artist, after twenty-five years of withdrawal, is once again thinking about himself in close relationship to society with the same demands and desires as other human beings (Andre, 2005 p.56).

In this time of upheaval in the United States and cities around the world, artists readily received installation art. This was due to the fact that artists felt the need for art that would bring volatility to the viewer-artwork relationship and break the rules of conventional gallery etiquette. The phrase ‘painting is dead’ became the mantra that was proudly sung by artists the world over as a new era of art swept through the art world. Art movements such as Pop art, the Happenings, Fluxus, Minimalism, Land art and many others emerged as artists continued their ‘rebellion’ against traditional painting. Artist also carried out protest on museums and other cultural institutions; consequently as a form of disapproval and strike, artists began to create artwork that could be exhibited outside of the gallery system, further embracing the conception of installation art. Nearing the end of the 1970s, many museums and galleries surrendered to artist protests and the new era in installation art, and began to exhibit installation works.

In conjunction with positioning, another fundamental element of installation art is, as indicated in the above quotation, viewer involvement. I believe this can be regarded as the most intriguing distinction between installation art compared to traditional framed paintings; the breaking down of the barrier that stands between the artwork and audience. There is no longer a ‘viewer’ but the spectator becomes part of the work, on account that ‘spectator’ interaction is vital to the life of the piece and its interpretation. Despite this fact, the line defining audience participation can be at times less distinct than others. Furthermore, the amount of participation required does vary from one piece to another. At times it is demanded of the spectator to jump onto, climb into or put on an object, while other times it may require the spectator to walk around the piece and consent their mind and heart to be beguiled and transported on a journey the artist has set before them.

In a talk given by Marcel Duchamp in 1957 The Creative Act, Duchamp expresses that by himself an artist cannot perform the ‘creative act’ but requires the participation and critique of the spectator in order to be completed. When was questioned about expected reactions to his artwork from spectators, Duchamp responded that the work was “..ready to be accepted by anybody or to be interpreted by the different temperaments of all the spectators.” Jacques Rancière also shares this view on the interpretation of art where he states the following in his published text

It will be said that, for their part, artists do not wish to instruct the spectator…they simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy for action. (Rancière 2009, p.14)

Upon entering The Yard at Modern Art Oxford, the spectator’s sense of smell and sight is instantly awakened by the pungent smell of rubber and the invasive sight of enormous intertwined, dusty, black tubes suspended from the ceiling. After a couple moments, the viewer becomes adjusted to this peculiar sight of tubes hanging from the ceiling and notices that the walls are made from wooden panels and not the expected concrete slabs. Utilizing the opportunity to connect with a diversity of people, Michael Sailstorfer presents each spectator a portal for their mind to be taken on a journey to a variety of places they are intimately acquainted with; places from their individual memories.

In Sailstorfer’s work, there appears to be two underlying themes; the relationship between natural and synthetic materials, and place. The first theme I will explore in depth will be the theme of place. In their book Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, McDaniel and Robertson put across the idea that in a gallery, site-specific installations “melds with the surrounding architecture” and are not merely on display within the structure but “the building’s walls and spaces become part of the art.” This is evident in Sailstorfer’s work as the wooden panels, texture of the floor and the sounds that drift from the street into the space, intermix to create a piece of work that has a substantially greater influence on the spectator, compared to the ‘clouds’ being placed in a glass box and exhibited inside the silence of the gallery. As I walked around the exhibition space and surveyed the artwork, my mind was taken to a series of places from my past; midday in an open field with storm clouds overhead, a dusty tire shop, and a street corner in the afternoon with dark clouds threatening the downpour of rain. I was struck with an abundance of images with such instantaneity, that it felt as if I had travelled through time to each location and carried a fragment of each place back to the moment I stood examining the artwork in The Yard of MAO. McDaniel and Robertson described this experience with the following statement.

An installation provides an intensified version of our encounters with actual places in the world. … In creating a simulate place, an artist is engaged in an unusual quest: …as viewers we feel ourselves transported into another realm brought magically to life within the borders of art (McDaniel, Robertson 2005. pp 77, 87, 88).

In examining closer I discovered that the rubber, inner tubes that constructed the ‘clouds’ was covered in dust with finger marks haphazardly scattered on the surface of the work. Initially I was unnerved and felt concerned that the artist, the gallery and audience had neglected the artwork. However after some thought, I took into account that the build up of dust could have been anticipated by the artist, deliberated ‘overlooked’ by the gallery staff, and placed at a level that the audience could leave their mark and become involved with the piece.

The next question I began to ponder was Sailstorfer’s choice of colour for the ‘clouds’. Why did the artist choose black? The use of black for in the installation can be interpreted as a salute to the ending of winter. This can be assumed as a result of the piece being exhibited in the course of the city transitioning from winter to spring. As I stepped out of The Yard at MAO and into the daylight, I felt as if I was symbolically stepping out of winter into spring and a fresh beginning.

The final theme I will examine is the relationship between the natural and synthetic materials the artist used. In an interview regarding his work posted by, Michael Sailstorfer disclosed that inspiration for his artwork comes from the city “the materials I use…are taken from urban life context, like streetlight, city buses, cars, airplanes…” had also stated that he would completely alter their function and would literally destroy the objects “before they become part of a sculpture”. One of the distinctions that stood out in the exhibition area at MAO was the complementing materials, the rubber of the installation and the wooden panels. There seemed to be a correlating theme of natural and synthetic materials. Referring to the above quote by the artist, we understand that he is very keen in destroying the intended purpose of objects and creating new applications for them. With this in mind, I noticed the synthetic composition of the rubber inner tubes have been integrated and manipulated to look like a natural substance, clouds. Conversely, the walls in the exhibition area made of natural wood panels being used as a substitute of the man made material, concrete. This use of juxtaposing materials can be seen as a representation of the frame that surrounds and defines a painting.

In conclusion of my analysis of the installation Clouds, I feel compelled to applaud Sailstorfer in creating a piece of art filled with an complex assemblage of elements and themes in such a minimalistic and simple manner. This piece by Sailstorfer’s was initially exhibited in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the Galeria Fortes Viaca as Knoten Wie Wolken (Knots Like Clouds), in which he had the inner tubes displayed along with a 16-mm film and several aluminium sculptures shaped as knots. I do presume exhibiting the installation at Modern Art Oxford without the other elements required a great deal of arranging and reinventing by the artist. Nevertheless, without having experienced the previous exhibition of the piece in Brazil, I am persuaded to believe that the installation as it is displayed at MAO grants the spectator freedom in personalizing their experience and interpretation when viewing the piece. I do believe that following the outstanding execution of this piece, Michael Sailstorfer will become a name in the art world that individuals the world over will applaud, and anticipate his next great achievement.