On the Installation Shots of Contemporary Art Exhibitions

This essay appeared in the accompanying publication to Thing, Aura, Metadata. A Poem on Making. at The Museum of Contemporary Photography of Ireland in Dublin (July 5-28, 2019).

Since 2008, Contemporary Art Daily has been regularly publishing high-quality documentation materials from exhibitions in a range of different venues across the art world. To visit the website, no matter how shortly, has become a habitual task of many artists and art professionals wherever they are based. Although operated by a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, the website and its sister online projects are mainly funded by advertising partnerships and annual sponsorships forged with an international (mostly North Western) batch of commercial galleries listed in their directory or featured in the larger banners on their homepage. It cannot be denied that CAD [Contemporary Art Daily] does not exactly represent (as in document) the art world, but in fact projects a particular configuration of what an art world can be. I am not claiming that there is no outside to the contemporary art world as pictured by CAD, but it seems like a curious act to analyze its interiors and study the production and operation of an image that carries a particular promise of an art world.

The CAD universe of projects, initiatives, and nonprofits is involved in a certain degree of worldmaking, which demands a careful look at the particularity of certain visual elements that are at the center stage of how this world is realized in its own image. This most importantly includes the installation shots of contemporary art exhibitions that are produced and consumed in various parts of this world. To better understand and tentatively describe the visual protocols, operational standards, or the metrics and aesthetics of this world, a certain task of pattern recognition needs to be performed on the kind of installation shots that can be found on CAD, among other similar websites. This task is predicated upon the typical and generic features that not only identify installation shots but also potentially manifest the larger set of conditions that underlie their production and circulation. Pattern recognition is therefore intended in the expanded sense of detecting abstract schemes running through various elements and materials of an apparatus that sets certain relations into action and blocks certain others. In this sense, it stands in a historical lineage with other studies that share similar concerns.

In his 1976 essay, the artist and writer Brian O’Doherty draws a parallel between the evolutionary history of the interior content of paintings and the history of their exterior conditioning when hung on the wall, a relationship that tied the picture plane to the white cube. The myth of the picture plane and its systems of illusion were long dominated by the easel picture and its rule of perspective and conventions of framing. “The discovery of perspective coincides with the rise of the easel picture, and the easel picture in turn, confirms the promise of illusionism inherent in painting.”By holding a totally insulated space within itself, the easel picture stood as a self-sufficient entity, carrying the interior space across the exteriors. It was a window onto a world that was only there when looked at through the window frame. The frame of the image, the size of which often followed the conditions of portability, acted as a means of setting boundaries in the space, but also facilitated certain vectors of movement through and across layers of spatial configuration. The tendency toward boundaries went on to define a dominant 19th century sentiment, which also left a lasting impact on the design of museums and art spaces as heightened and detached chambers. As O’Doherty writes, “the frame of the easel picture is as much a psychological container for the artist as the room in which the viewer stands is for him or her.”2

In fact, when the surface that was once lent to illusion was distanced from the wall and received a certain delineation, in the move from murals to easel painting, the picture plane got tangled in an inter-dimensional tension. The tendency to extend toward the outside space put pressure on the frame that defined the territory of depth. Illusionism and its dependence on the sense of depth was forced to face the flatness of the picture plane and reconcile with its outward extensions. This tension was brought to surface by the modernist objecthood of the late 19th and early 20th century. But the attention to the opacity of the picture plane did not entirely replace the desire for illusion. Illusionism was in fact “literalized,” writes O’Doherty, narrating the “transformation of literary myths into literal myths.” 3 A “technology of aesthetic flatness” was established. The trajectory of O’Doherty’s narrative follows the history of how this technology, as manifest in many visual experiments conducted by the late 1960s, moves onto a wide-ranging set of dimensions in the space and employs a variety of surfaces.

While illusion, hitherto confined to the extents of the frame, permeates the space, the installation shot, technically a subcategory of documentary photography, appears as the image that conventionally puts a frame around the space for the experience of art, the space that is the experience of art. Installation shot, as an imprint of a space amalgamated with myth and illusion, replaces the easel painting, floating across an unprecedented number of surfaces, layers, dimensions, and interfaces. So the processes of visual and material literalization, ushered in by modernist encounters with the picture plane, advance a visual membrane thin enough to transmit the illusion and thick enough to hold itself together, grounded in the space it would in turn try to dematerialize, to turn into a space of virtual embodiment and mythical figures. “As the vessel of content becomes shallower and shallower [following the techniques of flatness], composition and subject matter and metaphysics all overflow across the edge until, as Gertrude Stein said about Picasso, the emptying out is complete.”The space turns into a myth of the matter, in a limbo between raw and processed, natural and manmade, and ultimately human and nonhuman. The installation shot is a metaphorical paradox of modern visual cognition, as O’Doherty writes:

The space offers the thought that while eyes and minds are welcome, space-occupying bodies are not or are tolerated only as kinesthetic mannekins [sic] for further study. This Cartesian paradox is reinforced by one of the icons of our visual culture: the installation shot, sans figures. Here at last the spectator, oneself, is eliminated. You are there without being there –– one of the major services provided for art by its old antagonist, photography, the installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space. In it an ideal is fulfilled as strongly as in a salon painting of the 1830s.5

In a 2013 essay, the curator Sohrab Mohebbi identifies a similar Cartesian complex, although considering the frequent appearance of figures in installation shots. His focus is on certain patterns that recur in one image after another, postures that take on a role again and again, the role of the contemplative viewer in the detached space of art. “In this way thinking becomes a performative act with identifiable formal properties — similar to Rodin’s man with one hand curled back, resting under his chin. My acquaintances [in installation shots] are transformed into nonhuman, inanimate accessories to the works of art in front or around them. Or perhaps the onlooker’s act of watching is meant to represent looking without seeing, contemplation void of thinking, the performance of theory without discourse, the demise of the Cartesian figure who thinks and therefore is.”6 And while O’Doherty sees the installation shot simultaneously as a “service” provided by photography, a spatial (literalized) metaphor, and the bearer of certain ideal qualities of the easel painting, Mohebbi brings it full circle by suggesting that “one can consider exhibition-as-medium one of the forefathers of photography, and draw an analogy between a photograph’s approach to its subject and a display’s relationship to its content. As such, in an installation shot, the two media come together in an almost tautological manner.”7

However, the politics of temporality as figured in installation shots is as consequential as the ways in which spatial relations are reworked by these images. The structural chronotopes of an installation shot can be traced back to how the myth of the white cube, as O’Doherty shows, served as a chamber where “an illusion of eternal presence was to be protected from the flow of time,”8 an attempt to preserve the status quo of social and aesthetic values in a state of timelessness. Similarly, Mohebbi argues that “there’s a difference between documentation and installation shots, where the former—a byproduct of performance art—represents art as an event, and the latter shows art as eternity… We document happenings, events, and performances to show that something took place somewhere, at some point in time, as art, whereas in the token installation shot of works in a white cube, nothing ever happened, nor is anything ever going to.”9 There are instances, however, where these two types of image blend, one atemporal and the other attached to a particular moment in time.

Shortly after the proposition of bringing the royal collection into public view at the Grande Galerie, Hubert Robert was appointed Garde du Muséum in 1778 while a resident artist at the Louvre. The landscape and architectural painter assumed all the tasks classically associated with a curator’s function: inventory of the collection, acquisitions, supervision of restoration, and participation in the refurbishment of the building — which is reflected in his pictures of the exhibition spaces he lived in and worked on.

His two paintings from 1796, both exhibited at the Salon of the same year, can be seen as early formations of today’s ubiquitous installation shots, and what makes them even more interesting is how they reveal the temporalities that such images engender. Refurbishment Project of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre displays the gallery interiors in a resolutely sharp perspective, paintings hung frame to frame and skied from floor to ceiling, statues on pedestals or in dedicated niches, the public dwarfed by the monumental scale of the space, walking around and pointing at art works, and a handful of copyists in front of masterpieces — among whom is pictured Robert himself, carefully studying Raphael’s Holy Family. This picture, although recalling the legacies of Renaissance illusionism and its representational precision, is not an actual view of what the painter could have really been looking at while making sketches. Carrying an evocative title borrowed from architectural language, the picture is Robert’s proposal for renovating the gallery that was at the time a long hallway with neither divisions nor decor, dimly lit by narrow windows. It was a call for the prospective division of the gallery into several bays by a system of niches surrounded by ionic pilasters, heavy architraves, and a coffered, vaulted skylight. A pendant to this painting was Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins, which depicts, from a slightly different point of view, the same hallway with the same propositional details in place but in a state of ruin — the sky and other natural forces having intruded and replaced the artworks. Here, again, Robert has pictured himself, but while making a drawing of the Apollo Belvedere.

Both of these pictures are stylistically similar, and are both (art) historical materials through which one can track the life of an institution along hectic moments of social and political change. Their artist, however, is driven by forces of speculation, positing spaces of experience in relation to near and far futures. His picturesque style, pertaining to pseudo-antique scenes that brought him the nickname Robert of Ruins, simultaneously marks an end to centuries of institutional development and projects another beginning upon the ruins. It is in this nascent moment that Robert makes a typical Renaissance statement on art historical ancestrality and the formation of artist-subjects, by turning away from modern masterpieces toward ancient classics. He imagines himself outlining the future of his practice by resorting to the few remaining originary forms and figures, and not by attending to the reality of the future he has envisioned. The space opened up between these two picture planes addresses the future as if it is given, bound to eternal retrospection. An understanding of history and the conditions of progress are held up by the constant reincarnation of classical ideals.

Fast forward to the contemporary time and the standard computer-generated architectural rendering can function just like a documentary photograph. The super-realism of these post-photographic documents supersedes historical illusionism and reaches a state of flattened temporality. Modeling softwares are also used when planning exhibition spaces, and, in the hands of the curator, they come to serve as more than a tool for trying to figure out where to put what. Even the writer who is commissioned to write the customary exhibition essay deals with certain visual materials that seem to involve a certain degree of “futures trading,” as the critic Jennifer Allen once put it. Speaking of her role as an art writer, she points out how exhibition views and installation shots function as part of a forensic orchestration around documentational images and the words they accompany or are accompanied by, be it a caption, a short description, a review, or a catalogue essay. However, there is a distinction to be made: “Whereas the exhibition review is oriented towards the topical present before becoming an archival document, the catalogue essay is a foray into science fiction –– not only anticipating the future, but also treating what’s to come as if it has already taken place.”10 The writer who is commissioned to write for an exhibition hardly ever gets to see or experience that which others would conventionally read her essay as an immediate companion of. She would nonetheless have to rely on “a wide array of visuals that attempt to prefigure the exhibition,”11 including maquettes, stitched-up JPEGs with no sense of scale, architectural plans, crude SketchUps with silhouette figures, and hasty hand-drawings on a piece of napkin or the back of a matchbox.

While they appear only temporarily, installation shots are the teleological archetype of all visual materials that approach a look at contemporary art. An installation shot, as a particular kind of photographic material, has decisive visual features in common with a phantasmic post-photographic rendering. Not exclusively a matter of documentation but a model based on a set of typical or generic criteria, the average installation shot does not only serve as an imprint of some experiential setting preceding it, namely an instance of contemporary art incarnate. Each installation shot itself can also serve as a blueprint for simulating that which will or could be identified as contemporary art. In this sense, the distinction between reviews that are written in retrospect and essays that are written in anticipation in fact stems from a singular state of trans-temporality that is embodied within the model of installation shots, whether captured or generated, as capable of mediating both past and future experiences.

The spectres of a globalised contemporary art can be identified by a particular temporal tendency for constant transition from being retrospective to being prospective, from documentation to projection, and back again. The contemporary idea of originary forms is caught in the arrival of installation shots from the future and their ensuing perpetuation in the transit lounges of exhibitions: Spaces of experience, exemplifying a contemporary sense of transience, are required merely for ensuring an abundance of installation shots, and for facilitating the automatised reincarnation of what has already been thrown into the future as the projection of an upcoming project. What happens between each departure and every landing is similar to the undergoing of a morphing technique, a recombinant pattern laid across the soupy shades of grey that open up, like decimal gates, deeper and deeper in between every white and every black and only find sharpness and contrast in the temporary teleology of an installation shot. The shape of contemporary art practice, the formation of its syntactic geometry, seems to be best traceable not in the general and wildly omnipresent use of the word “project” but in the exercise of specific variations of prōicere, its Latin root: to stretch out or extend, to throw away or give up, to defer or delay, all ever until further notice.   

  1. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: Lapis Press, 1986), 14.
  2. O’Doherty, 18.
  3. O’Doherty, 23.
  4. O’Doherty, 22.
  5. O’Doherty, 15.
  6. Sohrab Mohebbi, “Caught Watching,” Red Hook Journal (February 2013). [https://ccs.bard.edu/redhook/caught-watching/index.html]
  7. Mohebbi.
  8. O’Doherty, 8.
  9. Mohebbi.
  10. Jennifer Allen, “Futures Trading,” Frieze 126 (October 2009). [https://frieze.com/article/futures-trading]
  11. Allen.