Tag Archives: Installation Art

A Virtual Feast

Rachel Lee Hovnanian, In Loco Parentis, 2014In Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s installation In Loco Parentis, a gigantic white mouse stands in front of an open refrigerator, stuffing his face, while a toddler sits in a high chair looking down at her iPad; mounds of Cheerios cover the floor. But there’s a twist to this: the child is a video image on a LCD tablet-like screen and the white mouse is but a video projection.

Asked about the work, which was shown recently in her solo show “Plastic Perfect” in New York, Hovnanian told the interviewer that when she was growing up in Texas, she had two pet white mice. She said, “[The albino mouse] was a very rare animal. But through technology we created all these white mice to do testing on. So for me it represents technology itself. Even if you think you can get away from technology, you can’t. …The lab mouse has total freedom; that’s why it’s eating out of the refrigerator. It’s like the white elephant in the room—it’s so big and we’re not even aware it’s there because we naturally accept it.” [1] And because everyone has forgotten about the mouse, being preoccupied with all their gadgets.

In Loco Parentis along with Hovnanian’s other multi-media installations Dinner for Two: Wedding Cake and New Year’s Feast: Beijing 2014—each of which also features a virtual mouse, munching away on a festive cake set in the center of a table at which sits a digitally-produced couple or a family—effectively evoke a discussion about how our gadgets have changed the way we communicate, how our obsession with them has given rise to a preference for interacting with those farthest away over those who are near, casting a chilly spell over intimacy as well as parenting.

Each of these mice in her works, though hardly alive, is ironically the liveliest element within the domestic tableaux. Thus inasmuch as the tiny fellow may be intended to represent technology—genetically engineered in the case of the lab mouse—to my mind the tiny insatiable rodent could just as easily be regarded as the age-old symbol of a ceaselessly gnawing entropy.

Today Hovnanian keeps two mice in a cage in her studio, “her sometimes-actors,” her collaborators.




[1] Rachel Small, “Rachel Lee Hovnanian Versus the Future,” Interview, September 3, 2014.

Additional sources: Artist’s website; Robin Peckham, “Dining Partners: Beyond Weak Ties,” New Year’s Feast Beijing 2014, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, catalogue.

(In Loco Parentis, 2014, installation with rear projection video, HD video, acrylic, Cheerios, refrigerator, high chair, metal, diamond dust; dimensions variable, reproduced for non-commercial purpose only.)


In the Garden of Good and Evil

Liselot van der Hijden Trapped, 2006Like her fellow Netherlander Hieronymus Bosch who put a mouse in a glass container in his painting the Garden of Earthly Delights five hundred years earlier, Liselot van der Heijden put two mice in a white box with a glass front for her video piece. The artist’s installation is as spare as Bosch’s triptych is teeming. Nevertheless both works stir the same pot—in a manner of speaking: First Sin. While one is biblical, Adam and Eve out of control, the other is political, the United States’ leader run amok.

The New York City-based photographer and video artist van der Heijden created See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil in 2006, against the backdrop of the agenda the Bush administration was pursuing; “a parody,” we’re told, “of the deceptive and manipulative use of Good and Evil to frame foreign and domestic policy… when evil is thought of as not-human, as a thing, or a force, something that has a real existence…”[1] Language and symbolic power are recurring themes in her work.

Three wall-size screens are positioned inside a rectangular space. On the screen at the end, opposite the opening, is a video of a single snake coiling and uncoiling, slithering slowly inside a white box similar to that of the mice, on a twenty-five minute loop. The snake segment is called Serpent—that trickster-tempter of divine knowledge. And on an adjacent small television screen is George W. Bush using the word “evil” in far too many ways, culled from his State of the Union speeches. “Evil is real”; “to see the true evil”; “to hear claims of evil”; “to speak with evil,” the 43rd President says. Meanwhile the mice are displayed to the left; their footage is called Trap. In a continuous replay of twenty minutes, the tiny creatures run around looking for a way out, distracted intermittently by a red apple, the proverbial forbidden fruit. On the facing wall to the mice is a reflection of the mice video and the viewers themselves, courtesy of a real-time feed from a surveillance camera. According to the artist, “representations of nature reveal more about cultural, ideological, political and social frameworks, than actual nature.”[2] We and the mice are one. Bosch, I think, would approve.



[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: LMAK Projects, “See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil: Liselot van der Liselot van der Heijden,” The Village Voice, October 27th, 2006.

(Image: Trap, video still, copyright Liselot van der Heijden.)

“Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.”

Tetsumi Kudo, Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970At a glance the terrarium-sculpture of the Japanese avant-garde artist Tetsumi Kudo appears inviting. A small furry brown mouse with his back toward us sits still in the greenness of his surroundings. But up close the lushness is only an illusion. Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit gives us instead a post-apocalyptic world where the landscape of muck and mucus—albeit acrylic—cover the ground, beneath which visible diagrams of circuitry lie; where humankind has lost complete control of technology. While curators and critics debate the degree of humanity there is in Kudo’s work, the artist’s message is no matter how dark and dismal the path technology and consumerism lead us down it will ultimately force us into a “new ecology,” toward a hopeful future.

Trained at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Kudo had first turned painting into performance art, smearing the pigments onto canvas with his feet and fingers. He went on to creating biomorphic sculptures out of kitchenware, and started to incorporate ‘electronic circuitry diagrams’ into his cynicism-filled collages—echoes of the Dadaists in his “Anti-Art” campaign.

In the early 1970s (before his work swung ostensibly inward) he issues, with urgency if not belligerence, his “New Ecology” manifesto. “Pollution of nature! Decomposition of human[ism]! The end of the world!” he writes, railing against humankind’s abuses of nature. Topical, we’re told, for Japan at the time—a country in protest of environmental erosion, of the petrochemical plants polluting its ponds and rivers and streams.

Crammed with waste and ersatz human noses, transistors for cattails and a caterpillar-like phallus, and the mouse, Cultivation by Radioactivity signifies decay. “Conquered nature is starting to take its revenge.” Both Kudo’s words and works seem premonitory today. His legacy, however, was the ‘atomic’ 1950s; the decade in which he came of age. And, according to many, his art should be considered closer in spirit to Godzilla than to environmental activism. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that he ends his manifesto with a recommendation, a solution that is, shall we say, less than a practical one. “Irradiate humans,” Kudo commands, “to reform their conservative and egotistical heads.”[1]


[1] Ryan Holmberg, “Tetsumi Kudo: Nuclear Angst and Ecological Breakdown,” Art in America, March 2009.

Additional sources: Katie Kitamura, “Tetsumi Kudo,” Frieze, July 10, 2008; Roberta Smith, “Tetsumi Kudo,” New York Times, July 4, 2008.

(Image: Cultivation by Radioactivity in the Electronic Circuit, 1970, plastic bowl, wood, cotton, plastic, polyester, artificial hair, electrical diagrams, artificial soil, transistors, paint, and toy mouse, 
9-13/16 x 18-7/8 x 18-7/8 inches, Walker Art Center, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“The repetition in our lives.”

I find a clip on YouTube called 64 Frames per Second (fps). The artwork comprises footage of a white mouse running in slow motion on a wheel; the film itself swirls high above the image of the rodent projected on a wall, and back through a 16 mm projector. On the facing wall is a video of a polar bear swimming laps underwater in a pool. Conceptual art is all about ideas, and watching the 1:15 minute clip I admit I’m stumped; I haven’t a clue what the concept is. My immediate thought wraps around the ever-familiar predator and prey discourse, and just as quickly dismissed since lab mice and polar bears don’t exactly exist in the same habitat. So I decide to go to the source and shoot the artist an email; I ask, Why a mouse? Why a polar bear? In other words what were you saying?

In the mid-1990s the two animals conspired to get Michael Oliveri to thinking about science and art, about the transformation of the former into the latter, through the prism of scale: the largest white mammal and the smallest. Oliveri spent “hundreds of hours” at the San Francisco zoo, filming a polar bear endlessly treading back and forth; he later took a pet store mouse—standing in for a lab mouse—and put him in a cage with an ‘exercise’ wheel connected to a carousel slide projector. With every rotation the mouse made, the wheel tripped the projector, advancing slides made from the video of the polar bear. In essence the art installation mimicked a scientific experiment; the mouse’s movement mimicked the pacing polar bear, both caged animals spending their lives going nowhere at all.

He then increased the complexity of the piece in the plural. Mouse and Polar Bear became Mice and Polar Bears. He dipped two-dozen mice in non-toxic saline dyes. The colorful creatures ran on six separate wheels, triggering six projectors that too projected slides of anxiety-ridden polar bears; the slides were now tinted to correspond to the mice’s colors. The conversation, however, was diverted. To his consternation the artist saw in Mice and Polar Bears, thanks to the multi-hued mice, not an exploration of the boundary between science and art but a form of entertainment, “a kind of miniature circus.”

By the late nineties Oliveri had had enough of working with live animals, of using them in his installations; he had also been doing other projects involving fish and chickens. He was exhausted from their daily upkeep and the cleaning and the finding homes for them once the shows had ended. But there was something he felt more keenly. He tells me, the “animals had a real effect on my soul”; he could no longer “justify” their use. In his effort to continue the dialogue without the mice’s actual presence 64 fps was born.



Sources: Conversation with Michael Oliveri, October 4, 2012; Michael Oliveri websiteYouTube clip.

(Image: 64 fps, 2000, courtesy of Michael Oliveri, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“We’re just sugar mice in the rain.”

A long, narrow space runs behind a pair of walls built inside an art gallery; it’s chock-a-block with glue and foam, paper and canvas, pencils and pens. There’s a jumble of cords and hardware; there’s even a circular saw. This gap of a place also possesses a desk with a computer, a sleeping loft and a cardboard tunnel to the gallery’s bathroom. Sitting at the desk when he’s not scurrying about is the artist, the habitat’s inventor. He never leaves the enclosure—although we’re told he sometimes ventures out at night ‘to forage for food, materials and mating opportunities.’ Thus if we want to see him we have to peep into the peepholes in the walls or stare at the handful of suspended video monitors wired to surveillance cameras. The artist pecks away on the computer keyboard and spends a great deal of time making art, drawings and dolls and things. He puts the circular saw in motion; the blade carves a slit into the drywall through which he slides index cards with such expressions: “Self-criticism just isn’t sexy. I don’t know why.” Other small works seem to magically pop up daily, on a clothesline or in a flat drawer or behind tiny doors freshly cut into the room’s dividers. All is for sale. Welcome to We Have Mice.

Part installation, part performance piece We Have Mice was the creation of the American contemporary artist Ward Shelley who in 2004 hauled himself into his Brooklyn gallery and resided there for more than a month in the artificial passageways he had constructed. Shelley wholeheartedly embraced the metaphor of mouse for man.

The notion of an artist sequestering him or herself for a prolonged period of time in a gallery or a museum as a work of art, a comment on the human condition, has its own tradition that Shelley himself nodded to in his show. He rolled up pencil drawings, referencing earlier performance pieces including Joseph Beuys‘s influential and most famous ‘action’ that Beuys performed in 1974. Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me found Beuys encased in felt, living behind a wire screen with a live coyote for a week at the René Block Gallery in New York.

For Shelley, “We Have Mice was about how artists work like foragers around the margins of the economy. Despite the centrality, or respectability, of the Institution of Art, the artist works from the edges of the society, scavenging and improvising.”[1]

A reviewer of Shelley’s piece summed it up this way: “[T]he mouse, in the end, seemed like a safe choice compared with the more tenacious and embattled (and less cute) rat.”[2]


[2] Martha Schwendener, “Ward Shelley,” Artforum, April 2004.

Additional sources: Sarah Schmerler, “Ward Shelley at Pierogi,” Art in America, May 2004; Holland Cotter, “Sampling Brooklyn, Keeper of Eclectic Flames,” New York Times, January 23, 2004; Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys: Coyote, 2008.

(Image: Webcam still from We Have Mice by Ward Shelley, 2004, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

A ‘secret’ campsite, loosely assembled on a red Persian carpet in a forest with mice scampering about, is frozen in time, frozen in bronze. This is Paul Thek’s Personal Effects of the Pied Piper. The prolonged absence of the camp’s maker, the flute-playing man in multi-color clothing, is keenly reflected in the work: the book and the baguette sport holes, courtesy of the hungry mice; the potatoes are charred; the fire has long been extinguished.

You may recall Pied Piper’s tale: he played his musical pipe and led the rats and mice away from the German village Hamelin to save it from the plague; and when the villagers didn’t pay him for his trouble as they had promised, he lured their children away into the mountains. While countless theories have floated through the centuries of who the Piper was—from the personification of death to a pedophile, from a cult leader to a job recruiter—in the world of contemporary art, this Pied Piper who had left his belongings behind at the encampment was none other than Thek. The curator Richard Flood has noted, like the Piper, the artist saw himself as “half savior and half destroyer.”[1]

Trained at New York City’s art institutions—Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, the Arts Students League—Thek, in the 1960s, was caught in the middle of the Pop Art movement, to which he didn’t relate. He was more closely drawn to self-referential figures and poetry than what minimalism allowed. He ridiculed those around him, critics and artists alike. He took a piece of meat he made realistically out of latex and put it in a Warhol Brillo box. As artist and individual he was, it’s written, both arrogant and needy; he alienated almost everyone. In 1967 he took off to Europe where he remained for the next nine years.

He began working on the Piper’s leftovers in 1973; he had them cast in the winter of 1975-1976 at a foundry in Rome. But rather ironically—I’m thinking about the Piper and all—the foundry wasn’t paid. The foundry seized and destroyed several of the pieces. “The project,” Flood said, “would haunt [Thek] until his death.” He continued to work on variations, groupings of the ‘effects,’ in which he wanted to capture, as Thek wrote, “a scene of nature, an out-of-doors vignette.”

Personal Effects might be considered Thek’s parting gesture. He died of AIDS in 1988; he never achieved, while he was alive, the recognition he coveted—or as critics and scholars today say he deserved, the ability to seduce as the Piper had.


[1] Richard Flood, “The Artist and His Doppelgangers,” September 1, 2005, Walker Art Center.

Additional sources: “Paul Thek: The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper,” video, Whitney Museum of American Art; Holland Cotter, “Believing Is Seeing (Or, the Meat Of the Matter),” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Peter Schjeldahl, “Out-There Man,” New Yorker, November 1, 2010.

(Image: Mice and book, objects from Personal Effects of the Pied Piper by Paul Thek, 1975-1976, bronze, Whitney Museum of American Art.)