Sarah Roberts: on the challenges of installation art

The Albatross of the Installation Artist //Doesn’t Everyone Dream of Making Small Work??

It’s 7.30am and I’m waiting for the loading bay to open at Victoria House for the setup of Saatchi New Sensations in a pair of dungarees with an entourage of STUFF that’s just plain embarrassing bursting out of my [successful] friend’s landrover. I see someone handing over a small painting and leaving with a coffee still steaming hot, job done, outfit clean, and I wonder how in hells name I got here…

“The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewers field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer aesthetic. It is in some way more reflexive, because one’s awareness of oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work’ [Robert Morris, 1966, Notes on Sculpture, Part 2, Artforum, Vol 5, No.2]

I left university having made a piece of work that sprawled itself across a room- an assemblage comprising 100 [+] components all ‘made’ for the event in plaster, metal, glitter, foam, Perspex…

Here in the excess was my best stab to date at creating a sculptural interlude less subject to objectification, and more about a present encounter with these new reflexive ‘things’. With a show already in the pipeline for which I was to reproduce this ‘aesthetic’ there seemed to be no turning back, I was shackled with the albatross of logistics that hangs around the neck of the installation artist.

From the off my series of fortunes and hardships[?] seemed inextricably entwined…

So here are a few notes, for others that bear this beautiful burden of excess on how I’ve [almost] survived so far …

PROs

  1. EACH SHOW CREATES A NEW WORK
  2. LABOUR INTENSIVE [making]
  3. MATERIAL RICH
  4. ALLOWS CURATORIAL INVOLVEMENT/CONTROL IN SHOWS

CONs

  1. DIFFICULT TO APPLY TO OPPORTUNITIES WHEN WORKS/WORKS DON’T EXIST YET
  2. LABOUR INTENSIVE [timescales]
  3. £$£$£ POOR
  4. LAST MINUTE ASSEMBLAGE CAN BE TERRIFYING & LOGISTICS OF MOVING WORKS
[1] EACH SHOW CREATES NEW WORK V DIFFICULT TO APPLY TO
OPPORTUNITIES WHEN WORKS DON’T EXIST YET
PROPOSING …My first encounter with this dilemma was with the Parasol Unit Exposure 14 show, I had 3 weeks to submit a proposal. They normally ask students to provide the degree show work that was selected for the award, but in my case [installation] it was agreed that the work I could submit a new work for the gallery space. I tailored 2 images using Photoshop of the space with mocked up scenarios within them.
Key to this was photographing some existing ‘like’ pieces and inserting them into this sketched mis-en-scene. It was pretty effective and it gave a clear picture of what the different cladding modes and colour palette would look like in the space, I was however clear that the work in actuality would have shift as it progressed. For my work, the most important thing in a proposal was to get across the aesthetic and tactility of the piece.
Not only did the agreed proposal give me something to work around, it also reassured me that the Parasol unit knew what they were getting which really helped when the deadline approached.
APPLYING…Applying cold seems a bit different at our Lifeboat mentoring session Ceri Hand gave some great advice that in cases where people are asking to see examples of work, they are just that, ‘examples’ so if you are working on something new it is likely [unless stated] that you can propose a new work at the next phase as long as it fits with the body of work/aesthetic that led to selection [i.e. current, showing your mark]
[2] LABOUR INTENSIVE [making] V LABOUR INTENSIVE [timescales]
Getting to spend a LOT of time with EVEN MORE material is the real joy, and experimentation is key to my practice, but the decision to include so much in one work means your production schedule inevitably takes a hit. Over the summer I had 3 shows simultaneously, all of which were great opportunities to show and build a portfolio. On the flipside, over a few months I had to produce about 250 pieces whilst outsourcing elements from printers and manufacturers where required.
SANITY =SPACE+ SCHEDULE
SPACE SAVER…I started looking for a space to work in London and as time ticked on and I hadn’t found anything I resorted to extreme measures and hired a space in my hometown in Gwynedd, Mid Wales on an old army base. That’s my first tip, if you can’t find it in London, then maybe get out until you can. Whilst I was there I applied for residencies and signed up to waiting lists-which with hindsight I wish I had done in my second year at university as time on the lists acts in your favour. I was lucky, and LIFEBOAT came along and rescued me from obscurity, but working
elsewhere for a time was great and really gave me some space.
SCHEDULED…I timetabled in a working day, being outside the institution and working to your own hours can either consume or expand your time to an unmanageable level, you’ll either never start working or never switch off. I like to timetable and 8hr day and then anything more is a bonus. It also helps with scheduling around other work and stops you from feeling guilty when you’re doing one thing and not the other.
I also find labelling components and keeping a listing of them really helps, as when they go in and out of storage you can locate things easily if you ever want to reuse them, and if you have multiple shows use colour coding stickers so you make sure everything goes to the right place.
[3] MATERIAL RICH V £$£$£ POOR
There’s no real way around this one, once I lost interest with the found object and started to crave the sort of autonomy that you can only seem to get from the newly made…it’s a simple fact, materials are expensive.
TRADE INS__Sign up for trade cards, always ask for trade, remember that places generally add VAT. Also check the bargain section for waste paint samples and split bags. If ordering from sculptors merchants do it in bulk as carriage is pricey for small orders. And of course, recycle and share resources where you can with other artists.
I just found out about the ‘ART JUNK’ App that you can download for updates on available free stuff, which is a great way you can find free materials and also let other people know when you see those really useful looking things that you personally don’t need but that look too useful to be thrown away.
MOCK MATTERs…Sketching out ideas is the only way I can see so far to avoid bankruptcy and get all the ideas out of your head… try small mockups, drawings and swatches.
…and of course there are residencies, opportunities, bursaries- I keep checking the artquest website and http://blog.re-title.com/opportunities/ for these.
[4] ALLOWS CURATORIAL INVOLVEMENT/CONTROL IN SHOWS V LAST MINUTE ASSEMBLAGE CAN BE TERRIFYING & LOGISTICS OF MOVING WORKS
Being a sculptural ‘installation’ artist, means the exhibition itself is an intrinsic part of the work, It’s a terrifying prospect to have a show coming up and not 100% knowing what the work will look like. I know roughly what it will contain, I know the aesthetic, but it only really comes together when I’m there in the space. Well that’s a terror in itself- what if it doesn’t ‘happen’ it’s such an instinctive approach so what if it fails me on the day?
The night before the install is still nauseating… Gill Addison, one of my tutors at Chelsea told me to trust my instincts and enjoy it, and as time progresses I’m getting there. There are also a few practical things that help:
BEFORE THE STORM…
  • Make a rough plan but be aware it may need to change as places can feel different to ones on paper and it’s important to go with your gut.
  • Label and wrap everything well
  • Ask loads of questions and ask for an image of the space and a floor plan before you get there/propose a work. No curator or gallerist will mind, as they also want you to do a professional job so they’ll be happy to help.
  • Find out about arrangements and timings for loading in and out and
ON THE DAY… [SET UP AND TAKE DOWN]
  • Get there EARLY and be super nice to everyone you -having good will on your side is a real benefit if you need to ask for help! At Saatchi New Sensations, Rebecca Wilson told me I was the only one who offered to help clean up after install, and on takedown I had no problem getting help with the load out from technicians in the 3 hr takedown when I really needed it [karma lives]
  • Be realistic and if you can’t do it yourself take someone with you to help [you can always return the favour] I needed 3 helpers for a 3 hr takedown, it really was the only way.
  • A temporary van hire like Zip, or a day hire is more practical and flexible than a courier for dropping off/picking up large volumes, but make sure you sign up in advance- if it’s a load in and leave situation then you can’t really drive it yourself so you need a designated driver. If you’re really lucky you might have good friends with big cars!
  • Ask if the gallery can help with packaging materials- you may be pleasantly surprised and save a fortune, and at very least you’ll be prepared.

And so, for now, rather than decamping to a painting course for the wrong reasons… I’ll settle for what I am BUT keep trying to shift the practice through making so it keeps on exciting and surprises me, they can’t all be this big? And as unlikely as it seems who knows, maybe next year it will be me, holding the tiny painting and watching the girl in the dungarees struggling with a million sculptures in the back of a Land Rover…

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