Installations are the Biggest Deal in the contemporary art world. In terms of both influence and prestige, they’ve arguably outstripped old standbys like painting and sculpture (and it really wouldn’t be much of an argument), while lending an entirely new air to the galleries, museums, plazas and public spaces they populate, each piece a bigger question mark, an eyebrow raised ever higher in the direction of the age-old capitalist institution of buying and selling art.
So why then, are some of the least visceral, least human, and most conceptually dense works of the past quarter century or more installations themselves? Artists like Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons (just as Robert Morris and Frank Stella did before them) shamelessly exploit the Western upper-class need for over-intellectualized art that also doesn’t need to be explained- any rich collector or institutional representative can look at the work, understand it (based on intense theoretical explanation, naturally), and then forget all about it; it has been digested, understood.
With its roots deep in the reactionary politics of the Cold War era, Conceptualism has decreed that the process is the only thing that truly matters when evaluating art, since process is the only artistic element free of the capitalist model- one doesn’t require paint or clay or a studio to think, does one?- and thereby the only element off of which one could theoretically base a non-capitalist art world. Unsurprisingly, the Conceptualists might be the movement most mired in capitalist excess themselves, with their own works and public feuds only illustrating and embellishing the unbridgeable wealth gap that exists between the famous and the less so, taking massive payouts from morally dubious sources (Rockefeller Foundation, anyone?) in order to present art that is itself a mirror for the moral bankruptcy of the (post)modern world. And so on and on it goes, both the exploitation and ‘sign systems’ growing ever more macro… Meanwhile in the galleries, Marcel Broodthaers nomadic museum brought out the Zeitgeist with greater verve than anyone and remained unpurchased, while Jeff Koons’ metallic balloon dog sold for $58 million.
All this gave me a distaste for much Conceptual art, at least in the forms in which I’d encountered it previously. Coming to Auroville changed all that, however. I realized my distaste stemmed from a feeling of disconnection that accompanied most of the works I had seen or experienced, a feeling it seemed the artist(s) had gone to great lengths to create and amplify in order to make a statement, whether political, social, or simply as a comment on the fragmented nature of consciousness. In Supriya Pava’s work I found a different and particular kind of installation, a Conceptualism greatly aided by its surroundings in making its point.
Supriya’s installation for Aurinoco is a many-faceted work that still manages to stand unified. Built largely from plastic waste, the toxic material is used here in a completely different way than her installation at Solar Kitchen. There, the trash had changed form totally, it was reborn as a completely different material, with the warm earth tones of the Thermocol bricks suggesting a return to nature for even the most unnatural and man-made of materials. Here, that unnatural quality is on full display.
My very first impression was of an old illustration of the Tower of Babel; it’s chaotic and there are several languages being spoken at once, yet there is undeniably something happening, something moving forward, a progression. The centerpieces are two huge faces confronting each other, one male and one female, constructed in a skeletal fashion from welded metals and coloured with an astonishing range of waste material. Cellophane and polypropylene wrappers, woven industrial plastics, single-use bags, old string- all of it is present, and what’s more, it is used. This is the critical point here, for in these particular environmental/social ventures, ‘art for art’s sake’ can take somewhat of a heavy aesthetic toll. But Pava demonstrates a very big eye indeed, as she worked through the tangles of waste with amazing dexterity, both emotional and physical. The integration is quite seamless, particularly in her use of checkered weaving techniques that create an evenness of surface that’s balanced out by the more wayward materials. The colour scheme and the way it differs in the two faces is also notable, with silver and reds at the ‘center’ of both, a range of blues highlighting the male face and yellows accenting the female one.
The centerpieces on their own are not the whole work, however, and the accompanying elements have an equal role in the creation of the installation. On each side of the heads is a large painting (although they don’t act much like paintings in context; more like flat sculptures). Painted on waste plastic as well, they depict black stick figures on bright, torn backgrounds full of indefinable shapes. While the style first brings to mind the great Basquiat, this is too easy an association, based on a superficial similarity- the real question here is “who is the primitive?”. The one who paints strange, joyous images on bits of waste plastic, or the one who throws away all that precious material without a second glance?
Right in between the two faces, acting as a sort of moderator, is the last piece of the puzzle. A sheet of plastic, the top three-quarters of which are covered with coloured squares, L’s, and arrows, while the bottom quarter is a chess board. What a chase! Back to modernist symbolism we go, and isn’t it wonderful? Arrows, letters, shapes pointing in all directions- what else but the confusion of contemporary life, with its material and emotional surpluses driving back all forces of reason? At the bottom of it all, the great chess-board, where everything must be spilled out sooner or later, to be either kept or discarded. And on each side, an archetypal force, brimful of memories and associations but also quite naked, self-aware yet animated by the unconscious as if by ancient runes.
This is an installation, and it is meant to be absolutely present; it is made of trash, after all, and coming within a meter or so of it your nose will tell you as much. And, sitting outside in the elements, it’s naturally expected to have a shelf-life of sorts as well. But, unlike so much of the art that falls under these categories, Supriya’s creation for Aurinoco strives to exist on several planes at once. It is a form of protest- as Conceptual and environmental art often are- but her usage and manipulation of space, the psychological implications of her work, and its stubborn refusal to be tied to either Matter or the self-consciously temporary stylings of many of her peers, entitles her installation to a unique position- that of something that can live on, if it only wishes to.
By Dhani Muniz
(Photos by Piero Cefaloni)