Museum of Installation, London (2001)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 30 January 2010
This article first appeared in Sculpture magazine, 20(2), page 10-11 in 2001.

Museum of Installation, London

“Hard to fathom. Hard to come to grips with. Interesting and annoying,” says co-director Nico de Oliveira of the Museum of Installation’s reputation in London. “We’re not networkers. The key thing for us has always been the art.”

In November 2000, the Museum (otherwise known as MoI) celebrated its 10th anniversary with over 100 projects to its credit at its gallery and in Los Angeles, Germany, Belgium, Norway, and Mexico City. “The way we’ve operated— without structural funding— is that you are always surprised that you’ll be around for another day,” reflects de Oliveira. “The project is entirely run on our energy and that of the people who collaborate with us.”

Opened in 1990 by co-directors Nico de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry, the museum has pursued an “absolutely pro-artists” agenda solely dedicated to installation, and it continues as an important center for discussions, exhibitions, and archival techniques for the medium. In addition to presenting solo and thematic group shows, the Museum of Installation has organized exhibitions in shop windows, London’s only surviving diorama, a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, and in Portakabins, and created an intervention in the British Museum. First located in a leased warehouse space in London’s Clarkenwell area, the Museum of Installation moved into a permanent five-room row house south of the Thames in January 1997; the building was purchased by the directors as a “cultural investment to guarantee the project’s longevity.” In 1999, MoI opened an adjacent space exclusively devoted to displaying its archives and developing research activities. If this weren’t enough, the curatorial trio also co-authored Installation Art, published by Thames and Hudson, now in its fifth printing, in English and French.

Despite its name, the Museum of Installation is not really a museum— at least not in the traditional sense. “In 1989, everyone was denying there was such a thing as ‘installation.’ We wanted to legitimize and enshrine that name— and provide a kind of credibility by coupling it to the word ‘museum.’ At the same time, it was a dare. With the temporary nature of the medium, is it possible to have a museum of installation?” Later, confronting the notion of a museum “collection,” the Museum of Installation requested artist input. In a 1995 show called “Archive,” the directors asked, “If there was to be an archive of installation, which would become the museum’s bedrock, what would it be?” The results included a series of artist memories on audiotape created in a special booth. Responses came in standard art jargon and narratives about relationships that developed during the curatorial process, as well as traditional slides, video footage and, in a further development, the box.

The box? At the time of my visit in the summer of 2000, the Museum of Installation had just recently closed its “Box Project” show, which featured over 250 contributions by artists, architects, and curators. Using a specifically commissioned six-by-nine-by-two-inch cardboard box, the empty container became “a space for participants to inhabit with their thoughts of what an archive of an artwork might be.” Contributions have included models, remnants of the installations, as well as, contentiously, the remains of an artist’s dead grandmother. The box— “a metaphor for a space beyond it”— originated from a show in 1997 in which artists were invited to put forth ideas toward Andre Malraux’s imaginary museum.

Reflecting on the past 10 years, Nico de Oliveira lists four shows as particularly significant. In addition to the Portakabin-centered “Day for Night” show, he cites solos by Stefan Brüggemann from Mexico, Osvaldo Macia of Colombia, and the group exhibition “Forensic” in January 2000. Opening, Brüggemann’s show (1998), occurred shortly after the Museum of Installation’s façade had been redone. The artist intervened by taking the plate glass window and skirting boards out, displaying them as “objects that mocked objects.” Earlier in 1995, Colombian artist Osvaldo Macia, who works with senses outside the visual including sound and smell, presented Memory Skip. For his solo installation, Macia rebuilt and welded a large-scale construction skip in the space and filled the container with water, a specially manufactured pine essence, and water thickener— which created an opaque solution. The piece, which included a soundtrack of a blender grinding pine needles, explored the idea of transferring perception from one sense to another—smelling something, but seeing something else— and contrasted the association of rubbish with the clean smell. Meanwhile, “Forensic”— a show that required artistic collaboration to produce the art— consisted of seven artists who engaged “in an open dialogue on the nature of research in art— fact-finding in order to make a collaborated ‘case.’” Wasn’t this process a high-risk venture? For Nico de Oliveira, “Not really. If you embark on that kind of project, even if you have a series of handwritten pieces of paper in the space, the process is interesting enough for the Museum of Installation still to have mounted a display.”

In retrospect, any regrets over the Museum of Installation’s 10-year run? Nico de Oliveira replies, “No, because part of the reason we are still here is that we are so bloody stubborn. We find it incredibly difficult to compromise. Maintaining our autonomy has been the lifeblood of this space. It’s never been a question of becoming part of one scene or another— never a question of fashion— while there have been financial pressures.” While the Museum of Installation does not receive a subsidy, its shows often receive project funding. Surprisingly, the Museum of Installation’s media presence in London is low-profile. “We’re neither pro- nor anti-media. Some people may read this as being anti-, because many can be so desperate to get press coverage.”

Hard to fathom? Perhaps for some. For others, the museum continues to be an interesting and inspiring alternative resulting in experimentation and significant gains, despite the pressures. “While it’s surprising that we’re still here, actually it isn’t,” says Nico de Oliveira. “There’s never been a question of shall we do this or not— it’s normal. For us, it’s like eating or drinking.”