Museum of Installation: Interview with
Nico de Oliveira & Nicola Oxley (2008)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 19 February 2011
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 27(2), March 2008, pages 56-9 with the title "Feeding the spirit of adventure: A conversation with Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley".

No research on installation art is complete without a conversation with Nico de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley. As founding directors of London’s Museum of Installation (MoI, 1990–2005), an influential non-profit exhibition space, and authors of the equally influential books, Installation art (1994) and Installation art in the new millennium (2003), their impact is well known. However, their curatorial activities outside of London in Latin America and last summer in northern Greece are not so familiar. “Scarecrow,” which was installed in the Averoff Foundation in Metsovo, Greece, explored ideas of fear in contemporary life and featured works by 61 international contemporary artists. Indoor works were shown in the foundation’s 6,000-square-foot space, while 12 outdoor works were presented in a vineyard adjacent to the ancient St. Nicolas monastery.

While at the Museum of Installation, Nico de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley completed more than 200 projects. Much of their work there was facilitated through artist-led initiatives, and it was often artist-funded, based on artist effort and ingenuity— and fueled by a visionary and entrepreneurial spirit. The Museum of Installation officially closed its doors in 2005 after a 15-year run, but de Oliveira and Oxley have opened a new project space in London, Notice Gallery, which is very much under the MoI concept.

R.J. Preece: What would you say were the key successes with your “Scarecrow” exhibition?

Nico de Oliveira: First, I would say the chance to bring cutting-edge international artworks to a place that has had limited exposure to a contemporary language was most important. Then there was the opportunity to look at its impact and value. After all, the Averoff Foundation, which hosted the show, is located in the remote northern mountains of Greece, close to the Albanian border. It is an astonishing landscape. When delivering the project, we were also very fortunate to work with generous and motivated local partners, especially the directors of the foundation and our Greek co-curator Olga Daniylopoulou.

Nicola Oxley: We were also very pleased to be able to present a number of artworks, including Tomoko Konoike’s animated installation Mimio, Ugo Rondinone’s polyurethane mask, Hew Locke’s coat of arms, and Jon Pylypchuk’s hilarious animal sculptures, as well as works by Tom Hunter, Hans Op de Beeck, Jake & Dinos Chapman, and Mariko Mori. These works helped to provide the highlights for what we think was an intriguing exhibition.

We faced a number of challenges. An important one was to create a balance between works from Greece, including some commissioned works, and existing international works. Additionally, the works in the exhibition were hung adjacent to the foundation’s collection of 19th-century Greek paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Part of our overall remit was to select and re-hang historical works, which is always a difficult and sensitive task, and to redefine the space next to the exhibition.

Nico de Oliveira: We think that we succeeded in showing what was already familiar to the existing audience in an entirely new light. We brought together work of a more local significance, i.e., Greek art, with international art, framed by a specific context of location and history.

R.J. Preece: What would you identify as the highlights of your Museum of Installation work?

Nico de Oliveira: With the 200 or so projects that we commissioned over the years, it is hard to shortlist. However, some were of particular importance for the work at MoI. Many of the projects asked specific questions of the discipline/genre, such as the exhibition “Archive,” which brought together a wide range of artists with whom we had previously worked, asking them the question of how installation art— essentially a temporary/ephemeral activity— could be kept or preserved. This query led to an installation that presented artists’ answers in the shape of models, sculptures, taped conversations, video proposals, and ephemera.

Nicola Oxley: Also, years later, a traveling exhibition, “Box Project,” brought together some 300 works by artists, architects, and theorists. We asked them to think about what a Museum of Installation might be. This turned out to be a little like the musings of the French writer Georges Perec when thinking about the idea of the “void,” which can only be described by its absence.

Nico de Oliveira: Of the museum’s solo projects, I might pick the Norwegian artist Per Barclay for his elegant works relating to the body and Thomas Eller for his commission questioning the individual’s place in art. It is always a big challenge for a gallery and an artist to produce new work. The gallery runs a great risk in allowing a laboratory-like situation; however, it is a risk that brings rich rewards, unlike hanging a show of existing works, which is a known entity.

R.J. Preece: In retrospect, would you have changed anything along the way with your work at MoI?

Nicola Oxley: Not really. I think it is important to remain positive about what cannot be altered. In fact, I am always pleasantly surprised to be reminded of how well the hundreds of individual projects went, all things considered. However, running projects with a minimal budget and personnel demands sacrifices. You have to be a project manager and organize people to work collectively to achieve the artist’s goal. For example, you might need to call in the expertise of an engineer to achieve the artistic task, and to satisfy safety concerns.

Nico de Oliveira: To be frank, as directors of this type of institution, the reliance on others is a major burden. As a curator of commissioned installation art, you carry a disproportionate organizational and emotional burden. But the desire for innovation overrides these concerns. The rewards we’ve received along the way completely outweigh the practical challenges that we face when making these works come about.

R.J. Preece: Over the years, you’ve pursued a number of projects internationally with artist-led spaces and larger institutions. How would you explain your range of projects and outcomes?

Nico de Oliveira: The international aspect of our projects has always been of great significance. London has been a major attraction for artists, curators, and writers for many years, and it is possible to show international work without displacing oneself. However, to commission and curate works abroad remains essential, as contact and exchange are invaluable. Having worked with organizations in Mexico City, Brasilia, Brussels, Los Angeles, and at the Venice Biennale, among others, provides a different perspective and the opportunity for unusual partnerships.

Nicola Oxley: Sometimes one works with highly visible organizations or individuals; at other times, it may be more interesting to link up with a younger, less established group. Our resulting projects are often conditioned by the circumstances and needs of the location. In Brasilia, for example, a proposed exhibition turned into an intensive two-week series of presentations, lectures, and discussions about installation art.

R.J. Preece: What impact have your two books on installation art had on the genre?

Nicola Oxley: Our first book was the first international survey of the genre that was not an exhibition catalogue, while the second chronicled the developments from margin to center, some 10 years later. This process— or shift— was fascinating because it allowed us to research how far installation had come and, additionally, the impact of the first book. Chiefly Installation art was instrumental in demonstrating the genre’s impact on art in general, helping to cement its position within the art world.

Nico de Oliveira: It also showed the importance of work that was ephemeral but nonetheless had a strong media presence, even though most of the work in both books no longer exists as such. For work to have an impact, in other words, it need not be around forever, it just needs to be chronicled and disseminated properly. Incidentally, the first book is still in print, having sold over 30,000 copies. And the books have been translated into two other languages, French and Turkish.

R.J. Preece: How is your position different from spaces and strategies that promoted British YBA art and art facilitated by media exposure, in the sense that it was backed by a press relations person and sometimes commercial gallery support?

Nico de Oliveira: We have shown a number of YBA artists, such as Anya Gallaccio, Hayley Newman, and Martin Creed. In a widening art world, our perspective has always been an international one; our remit is to look beyond British art at artists who have built reputations abroad. However, your question is correct as regards a specific way of foregrounding artists in preference to having a targeted media strategy. We always did what we felt was interesting to us without regard for what was fashionable or expedient. This led to projects that were often laborious to build and fund but, in retrospect, were always rewarding in different ways. At other times, artists would approach us directly, which could also lead to highly stimulating relationships and projects. The result of this individual willfulness, also known as following your own nose, is that most of the effort goes into making the work happen and in constructing the exhibitions, as the commitment to the art comes first.

Nicola Oxley: Artists often comment on our collective enthusiasm for their ideas, since we frequently picked the artist and not the work. On balance, this intuition was mostly right, and we were privileged to work with emerging and established artists. In many ways, this approach allowed projects to take place that would not necessarily have been possible elsewhere.

R.J. Preece: And where does that leave your work and MoI?

Nico de Oliveira: I think the increased sensationalism in current work is related to the legacy of installation art, with its strong emphasis on the audience’s heightened experience of the work. Audiences now expect to respond to and to be included or immersed in the work.

Nicola Oxley: Yes, and clearly these changes cannot be ignored by emerging artists. And if it has a perceived impact on the work, it is only normal. History shows us that artists both lead and are influenced by contemporary culture. In this way, at any given point, art is shaped by artists’ powers of imagination coupled with their ability to read— and respond to— actual conditions. We simply have greater levels of exposure to what goes on, but we also develop better mechanisms of sifting and collating information and influence.

Nico de Oliveira: Meanwhile we have diversified from only commissioning projects to organizing larger exhibitions of work embracing other disciplines. After all, one of the key aims of installation art was to demonstrate the blending of disciplines, to the point where disciplines per se would become meaningless as a way of providing a discourse or a way of judging a work. The field is now divided between those who believe that disciplines are of little importance and those who assert that installation itself has shown all the correct hallmarks of just such a discipline and is now able to stand alongside painting, sculpture, and photography. MoI has fulfilled the first part of its remit, to help elevate installation from the periphery to the mainstream. Our project space, Notice, recently launched a manifesto to clarify its identity. Notice works on projects across disciplines and foregrounds publications and artists’ writings and collaborations between artists and other individuals.

R.J. Preece: You both have been closely involved in university-level art education for over 20 years. How have you seen young artists change as a result of an increasingly market- and media-driven environment? And how has their work changed?

Nico de Oliveira: I think that recent graduates are indeed more sensitized to the need for media exposure; as a result, young artists are more aware of a need to promote the visibility of their work and of themselves. They are also concerned with issues surrounding the art market and the work’s value. This is evidenced in the way that spaces that might have been termed “alternative” in the past are now young and vibrant commercial galleries. There is now an expectation that work can be sold, not simply displayed. And this is driving the work.

R.J. Preece: Who would you say is the most influential artist for the younger generation today?

Nicola Oxley: One might think that it would be an artist whose career is highly angled toward the media, but instead it is somebody whose work is perhaps less communicative and highly complex. Bruce Nauman’s output consistently crosses disciplinary boundaries and barely allows for unambiguous communication or media-friendliness. The paradox is that young artists respond to practitioners irrespective of their media efforts or visibility.

R.J. Preece: Future plans?

Nico de Oliveira: We are working on an ambitious project with the Norwegian artist Ole Jørgen Ness, whose work is characterized by his multiple artistic personae. I guess you might say that we won’t know what we’ll get until it’s finished.

Nicola Oxley: Additionally, we have been working on a series of new books and monographs, starting with On vanishing, on the Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck, which was published last year. Other writing projects include texts for a monograph on the Norwegian artist Marit Folstad and editing the extensive exhibition catalogue for the solo exhibition of the Mexican artist Stefan Brüggemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in Switzerland.

Nico de Oliveira: It seems that going elsewhere feeds the spirit of adventure, as ever.