Art is a powerful tool for interpreting our historic architecture, and it is increasingly common to see an installation highlighting the events diaries of many of the UK’s high profile heritage buildings and landscapes. Why do artists create site-specific installations in historic environments? And why are they so effective?
Every historic building has a story to tell, and it is the work of an artist to narrate in ways that words alone cannot. Descriptions told in material, tactility, colour and mass, instead of text and speech, force me to react in a deeper way to the messages; more visceral than cognitive. For me an installation in a historic environment can re-invent those spaces anew, regardless of the many times I have visited or my familiarity with their layouts and eccentricities.
It’s clear to see why architects are drawn to the process. It offers a freedom and fancy that is often just one step beyond reach in the everyday practice of building design or conservation. It allows interpretation to be more intuitive, response to be more reflexive, and encourages liveliness and audacity in place of consideration and re-iteration.
Effective subversions are those that achieve the most moving reaction with the least intervention. Simplicity. Christo and Jean-Claude’s ‘wrapping’ of the Berlin Reichstag could probably lay a fair claim to being the most famous and important installation in a historic environment in the last 20 years. The effortlessness of the concept didn’t just re-invent the Reichstag, it challenged all historic landmarks, and politically it questioned the idea of memory in a city where people don’t often ask questions of memory.
Art like this is about bigger ideas than can be contained within buildings, and the pieces become an architecture of themselves. The use of the historic landmark as a backdrop to these installations allows the work to directly address our customs. Whether the piece is a joyful celebration or an uncomfortable interrogation, the building itself is reduced to a symbol of our culture, summarising the lineage of our society to date.
The final and most confrontational iteration is the destruction of architecture by the installation of art, inflicting an intervention so severe that it cannot be removed or undone, and physically damages the structure forever. The effect is so strongly linked in the human psyche to devastation, chaos and threat, that the emotive reaction of the viewer can be deeply unsettling. These installations (or ‘de-stallations’?) were explored in the 1970s works of Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Wilson’s famous ‘Turning the place over’, that revolved over Liverpool city centre in 2007, disorienting members of the public, and playfully disregarding how architecture should behave itself. Just don’t expect to see this type of art in your local National Trust property anytime soon!
Christo & Jeanne-Claude