Visual Arts

Installment Plan

Every so often you overhear someone in an art museum or gallery wishing, "If only the art could talk." Yet when contemporary art--thanks to electronic media--does pipe up, it often sounds like the cranky woman in Tony Oursler's installation work Don't Look at Me.

Included in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's current exhibition, "Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969-1996," the woman in the work takes the form of stuffed clothes and a pillow pinned to the floor by an overturned easy chair. A video projection on her head brings her to life to mutter obscenities and nag, "What are you looking at?"

The question has dogged installation art ever since it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a new way to baffle the art establishment. As the show's title suggests, it's a hybrid medium that often blurs boundaries between old art forms, such as painting and sculpture, and new approaches and electronic media. Its vagueness and intellectual sprawl have made it a favorite of academics and art students, whose campus "installations" sometimes have the look of spring cleaning around the studio.

In the past 40 years, installation artists have filled galleries and museums with accumulations of materials as varied as water, earth and Monday morning's load of trash. They've made works out of piles of junk, bales of hay, tea bags (wet and dry), and mounds of chicken parts. They've piled up magazines, newspapers and immense clumps of string and bundles of lint and woven grass. They've propped up manikins and filled dark spaces with video projections and other high-tech images--often using the resulting settings as occasions for performances. It's all part of a push to capture the spirit of an age enthralled with revolutionizing the communication of ideas.

"Blurring the Boundaries" is not a large exhibition. It has 19 works--all from the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. They cover the field's range of experimentation, strengths and weaknesses.

A few works are real gems. Yet most are fairly literal. The themes are the usual left-leaning ones of the art crowd: World powers are squeezing or threatening to snuff out the little guys.

Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, made with 50,000 nickels holding wooden match tips, is a Dr. Strangelove jab at the European standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The nickels and matches exemplify how you can build some real money and madness out of items that don't add up to much individually.

Alfredo Jaar's Gold in the Morning is a yawner about the exploitation of the men who work in Brazil's open-pit gold mines. It's made up of five illuminated portraits of mud- and sweat-stained miners and a floor spread with nails. James Luna's A.A. Meeting/Art History is a dreary rant about boozing and related topics.

There's an assumption in most of these works that ambiguity holds the seeds of great meaning; that its secrets, symbols and riddles are worth the effort to crack them. Yet the epiphanies in these works are relatively shallow.

Ann Hamilton's Linings is a good example. The American representative at this year's Venice Biennale, Hamilton is known for creating compelling environmental installations. But this isn't one of them.

It consists of a mound of boot linings piled up outside a small roofless building. The structure's outside walls are lined with woolen blankets. Its insides are covered with paper, filled with water-blurred lines of writing by the environmentalist John Muir. A small video screen on one wall shows water being poured into an open mouth. The floors are squares of clear Plexiglass over matted wild grass.

You could connect the dots of significance in the various materials and symbols Hamilton uses, and quibble with yourself about whether she placed the boot linings there to comfort the sole or soul. You could also cook up a connection between Muir's efforts to protect one form of nature and what the video image of a drowning voice says about the state of human nature and the need to express.

But this sort of literalism--without being told, you wouldn't know the illegible writing was Muir's--feels more like homework than art.

By comparison, Bill Viola's extraordinary video work Heaven and Earth and James Turrell's light installations Stuck Red and Stuck Blue are gems of clarity.

Turrell's are housed in a small room the shape of half an octagon. The room is dark. Its walls hold two glowing vertical rectangles, one red, one blue. Both appear at first to be resting flat on the wall. But walking closer, you can see through the vivid fogs of color the faint dimensions of the small rooms Turrell built behind the rectangles. The rectangles, it turns out, aren't flat at all. They're windows.

It's fairly easy to lean your head through the openings and determine how Turrell engineered the effects. But understanding his technique doesn't fully explain the sensual power of the light, which weighs on your skin as much as on your mind.

Turrell's works are about basic visual perception. As with Viola's work, the installation isn't ideal. The works are sandwiched between Oursler's nag and another work that blares an endless techno-screech. Turrell's also suffers from distractions of ambient light reflecting off the struts and conduits in the open ceiling. But these are relatively small annoyances.

One of the key illusions in the works is the knife-thin edge around their openings. It minimizes the shadow that otherwise would reveal the true space and source of the light. As a result, the colors appear to hover. They can play other tricks on your eyes, too. When I moved from the red rectangle to the blue, a small reddish-lavender blob persisted as an after-image, floating up through the blue light. It may not have been "real." But it was true--as transcendental as the concentrated colors that stream through the stained-glass of great cathedral windows.

Viola's piece is just as serene, but deeply existential. Like Turrell's, it takes place in a darkened room. In it, Viola suspended one television screen a few inches above another about four feet off the ground. The two screens are face to face in the middle of a square wooden column that rises from floor to ceiling. The upper screen shows a slow-motion video of an old woman--barely moving--in bed with a breathing tube plugged into her neck. The lower screen runs a slow-motion loop of a newborn infant--eyes open, tongue working in and out of his mouth and head turning from side to side.

The woman's face reflects as a ghostly image on the glass of the screen holding the animated features of the baby's face. Her image comes and goes with the shifting highlights on the infant's cheeks--brightening against dark backgrounds, fading against light.

The woman is Viola's mother on the day she died; the infant is his son on the day he was born. But one doesn't need to know those things to feel the poignancy of the narrow gap separating life and death. Or to sense that the work represents more than that duality and its accompanying contradictions of time.

It is an eerie subject, and made even more so by Viola's use of technology to distance these intimate moments of being. He filmed the scenes, then ran the film on screens positioned to communicate with each other, rather than with viewers. In a sense, we're on the outside, looking in.

Many installationists rely on high-tech wizardry. New technologies provide quick ways to layer and mediate experiences. Yet few artists have Viola's gift for bringing that technology alive, and making it a tool of meditation.

What's apparent, and compelling, about Turrell's and Viola's works is that they could not have taken any other form. A film or a painting, sculpture, photograph or book wouldn't have brought them so vividly to life. Their eloquence and beauty convey all you need to know about why installation art exists and why this show shouldn't be missed.

"Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969-1996" runs through September 5 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale. For more information call 480-994-2787. Tuesdays are free.