Installation Photography and the Transformation of the Viewer

The heart of installation art is immersion. Installations rely on the gestalt—the entirety of the vision—to create a greater response in a viewer than a more conventional exhibition. Perhaps more importantly, they aim for transformation by immersion; the viewer becomes not simply audience, but participant in the art. As one enters or engages with an installation, one is transported to a fictional space that bends time, distorts reality, and reimagines the parameters of artistic creation.

Shadow Gardens (installed 2004 at Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), cyanotype and van dyke on silk organza. Courtesy of the artist Sally Ayre.

Contemporary art has seen a flourishing of art installations, with some, like the works of Christo and Jean-Claude or Rebecca Horn, on a scale never before imagined. Installation art theory has flourished along with it. Critics and historians have sought to understand installations in the context of art history, placing them alongside precedents such as religious architecture and iconography, and contrasting them with more static exhibition aesthetics. Nonetheless, contemporary photography has yet to find its footing within the world of installation art, nor has it put forward comparable installation stars like Christo and Jean-Claude.

Commentators typically draw attention to two primary features of installation works. The first is immersion. As University of London professor Harriet Hawkins observes, “installations create space to which you take your whole body,” and lead to “intimacies of encounter” made possible only through an immersion in the artwork. That intimacy highlights the second feature of installation art, which is its dialogic character. Installations demand a kind of dialogue between audience and work simply because the audience becomes part of the art experience. The audience member transforms from, in Hawkins’s words, “not one looking at or into a frame, but rather being within that frame.” As such, the work becomes, in Katarzyna Kosmala’s terms, “engaged practice” whereby the artist and the participant fully embrace dialogue as a central feature of the work. Kosmala, a curator and professor of visual media at the University of West Scotland, finds this engaged practice as one of the defining characteristic of installation art.

The photograph, with its representational qualities, asks viewers for a different kind of engagement than other visual arts, one akin to the practice Kosmala describes. Photographs are ubiquitous in our culture, and their popularity rests on their ability to “capture reality.” The power of photography as an art form is its ability to challenge the line between representation and expression. It holds that power because audience expectation of what constitutes a “photograph” is deeply embedded in society through the pervasiveness of the camera. Because photography has a rich history of broad (even democratic) use, it offers a particularly powerful way to connect with personal histories and the wider world. Installations promise even greater capacity for that connection.

Among recent artists creating installations is John Brill, whose work explicitly weds the personal with the unexpected to challenge audience expectations about place and memory. Entirely self-taught, Brill is loathe to self-identify as an “installation artist.” Instead, he imagines himself an obsessive seeker of new photographic processes. He is fascinated with the details of photography—the subtle differences between types of paper, the layers of processing that give birth to unexpected images, and the history of materials that has changed as digital expression has made so much of darkroom alchemy obsolete and unattainable.

Every Boy’s Dream, (installed 2014 Outsider Art Fair). Courtesy of the artist John Brill and Kent Fine Art.

In 2002, Brill was given an opportunity to create an installation by Kent Fine Art in New York, and the success of that work led to a second installation in 2006, and a third in 2013. At the 2015 Outsider Art Fair, Kent exhibited a portion of one of Brill’s installations, drawing significant attention from attendees. The OAF exhibit excerpted a portion of Brill’s 2013 “Every Boy’s Dream” installation, which originally occupied an entire room. A small desk and two side consoles were littered with photographs, as though someone had been interrupted while compiling a photo album. Scattered across the desktop next to candlesticks, dolls, and lamps, the photographs invited viewers to come close and pick them up, just as you would if you had been invited into a friend’s room. The images, however, challenge the familiarity of the scene. Faces in portraits melt away to become unrecognizable shadows; waxy surfaces betray ghostly images beneath them. If these were family histories, they were dark memories and distorted lives.

Brill is keenly aware of the theater he creates. Installations provide him with a medium through which he can engage an audience in a new way: “What I gain mostly is the opportunity to play with and ultimately subvert the expectations set up by the seemingly familiar personal tableaux.” He does so by combining the autobiographical with the whimsical to create a purely fictional reality. The familiar scene of a cluttered room, strewn with photographs, invites viewers to physically join in the process of seeing the photographs in new ways. Picking them up, setting them down in different places, placing some alongside others, the viewer becomes participant, shaping the imagined history of that room, that place, and the people who populate its images. The family photo album is completely reimagined, and the impact of the room is dependent on what the viewer brings to it. Brill comments that this dialogue is “like a big Rorschach.”

Brill’s installations, then, function in two directions. On the one hand, the individual small photographs across the tops of the desks and consoles invite viewers to engage with the photographs. On the other hand, the entire installation welcomes audiences to a familiar world: an everyman’s room, if a somewhat eccentric everyman. These invitations forge connection between the artist and the photographic work, transforming viewers the minute they choose to engage with the installation. That Brill’s images, many haunting and ethereal, might unsettle anyone is almost beyond the point. The fact that the viewer has experienced their eerie stories by stepping into that world means that a new creation has come from their immersion in the scene.

One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (installed 2004 at Jack Shainman Gallery), 1998-2002 photograph, silver emulsion on 288 aluminum plates, steel cabinet, and lamp ©Deborah Luster. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Of course, personal engagement is the hallmark of many photographers. Deborah Luster’s series One Big Self, for example, was exhibited in a cabinet so that viewers would open drawers to discover her tintypes of inmates in Louisiana’s infamous prisons. The act of opening and then cradling in one’s hand the image of a prisoner humanized the subjects, creating a connection that fosters dialogue about the nature of crime and punishment. Similarly, Sally Ayre creates installations whose tactile qualities connect layers of personal history with the transitory nature of memory. Challenging notions of certainty, Ayre’s work bridges entire room installations like Brill’s and the single artifact installation like Luster’s, yet it relies on the same immersion that animates the others’ art.

Ayre has built her artistic reputation on cyanotype and Van Dyke brown printing. Most of her work comes through scanning physical objects, usually natural ones like flowers or stones, in a difficult process that captures the intricacies of the object. From these scans, she creates cyanotypes and, more recently, screen prints. She prints each image on a very fine silk organza and hangs several one in front of another with a small space between. The base image, typically on a thicker silk fabric and printed with the Van Dyke process, provides a foundation and grounds the images on top of it. The layers of images floating above the base provide depth, such that the viewer gets the sensation of looking into something, not simply at something. Each piece of the installation, often hung from the ceiling by a fine, virtually invisible nylon line, hangs freely, and as people move toward or past the installation, small currents of air in the room lift and shift the fabric and the images. As the air in the room circulates, the installation changes, even if each image individually never does.

That shifting quality embodies the indeterminate nature of memory. Ayre sees both the layering of the images and the quiet, airy movement of each piece of fabric as representing our own way of recollecting our past. Memories build up in the mind, each one influencing others, and trying to pinpoint the absolute base or the absolute truth of any particular memory is impossible. “Objects turn into my memory” she says, “and they transform into a visual cue that other people can access with their own memories.” In this way, the viewer and the artist become linked, joined together with a shared experience and visual vocabulary.

Photography as Installation (installed 2014 at Oxford House). Courtesy of Oxford House, London and the artists Peter Ainsworth, Marcello Simeone, Ian Rudgewick-Brown, Ella Bryant.

Ayre’s work, unlike Brill’s, does not typically occupy an entire room, and yet it offers a similar intimacy. Even Luster’s work illustrates that intimacy, existing only when an installation invites a viewer to participate in the moment that has been created. This engagement through immersion is the promise of installation art for photographers. The form seems to be growing in popularity. Last year, London’s Oxford House held an exhibition of installation photography, and recent scholarly articles on the social and political impact of installation photography testifies to a growing movement to redefine the boundaries of photographic expression. As with photography’s history more broadly, those boundaries will challenge conceptions of creator and receiver of art, and if work like Brill’s demonstrates anything, it is that photography as an art form finds its strongest and most lasting expression when the artist deliberately uses photographic media to blur the lines between creator, audience, and reality.

This article first appeared in Issue 5.

Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues, and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides on Long Island, New York, where he is a Professor at Stony Brook University.