Some artists found that placing the viewer in a role where he or she was required to physically interact with the work was an appropriate solution. Western art was even steeped in a tradition of this very kind. Christianity, in both the East and the West, had a productive practice of interactivity within the arts. Music and theatre (mystery plays) were highly interactive. The Mass itself is set up as a call and response. And participation with the visual arts could be found in the veneration of saints through icons and relics, as well as the comprehension of biblical stories through the presence of mosaics, murals, and stained glass within churches and chapels. However, by the mid-twentieth century these participatory traditions had been lost to only but a handful within the larger society.
Edward Kienholz was one of the pioneers who chose interaction as a defining element within his work. The scope and scale of his work was such that it transformed how future generations would conceive of and produce artwork. While Kienholz’s name is not well recognized outside of the closed circle of the high art elite, understanding his impact on his art world progeny provides great insight into the current state of art production.
Surveying current gallery exhibitions in New York’s Chelsea district, Beijing, or London on any given week will enable one to see that nearly half the exhibits are likely in the form of what is called an "installation." Those not accustomed to this format might find it perplexing. Many shows will appear to be a gallery room full of junk. I mean this literally. It will seem like piles of trash and cast-off objects, haphazardly piled and scattered within the space. You may ask, "Where is the artistry? The talent? The toil?" Admittedly, these installations may simply be trash in another context, but one must understand the evolution of the form to properly engage the work. And it is in the output of Kienholz from the 1950s and 60s where we must begin.
Kienholz did not refer to his early experiments as installations. He called them tableaux. The term environment was often used by his contemporaries in those early days, and that is a rather apt term that offers a good starting point. Kienholz created small room-sized spaces that the viewer often actually needed to enter to fully experience. Once inside, the viewer was surrounded by the elements that the artist had carefully selected, crafted, and arranged. It was not simply viewing work but being subsumed but it.
Among the most famous of the early tableaux is The State Hospital. While viewers did not enter the space of this work, it did lay the groundwork for future pieces. Kienholz had spent some time in 1947 working in a state-run mental facility in Washington. The impact on him was such that he was compelled to create a socially conscious work about the inhumane treatment of the patients.
The viewer unsuspectingly approaches The State Hospital perplexed by the casement. The exterior is similar to a large metal freight container except for the inclusion of a locked central door with a barred window. The entire exterior structure is covered with a coat of institutional white paint. Peering through the window the viewer is confronted with the scene of a mental patient’s cell.
One finds two identical, emaciated, and naked male figures lying on a less-than-sanitary metal framed bunk bed. In fact, the whole room is conspicuously filthy, including the bed pan cast to the side. Closer investigation reveals that the heads of the figures have been formed from fishbowls, in which swim a couple live goldfish each. The figures are duplicates—they are the same person. A neon "thought bubble" proceeds from the fishbowl head of the lower figure and envelopes the upper figure. This patient’s pathetic self-image exists no further than the confined space in which it lives out its endless days. From within the space the fetid odor associated with nursing homes and hospitals is emitted.
A social and moral conscience was the foundation of all Kienholz’s work. Another early, seminal work, Roxy’s, was comprised of multiple rooms of a brothel. The prostitutes were part mannequin and part machine. One, Five-Dollar Billy, was laid out horizontally with a sewing machine treadle at her base—apparently for the client to pump with his feet to make Billy "work." The vulgarity found in Roxy’s was evident in many Kienholz tableaux. It was through the scandalous qualities of the works that he could most successfully express his concepts.
However, the interactive quality, while still theoretically present, was rarely enacted after exhibitions premiered. The insurance value of the works has caused exhibition venues to disallow full interaction. By that time, actual planned interaction was minimal anyway. Kienholz had begun to incorporate another key, though often overlooked, element within his work. The television set began appearing as singular sculptural works or within larger tableaux. Kienholz was not engaging with video elements but was again making social commentary.
The television is a passive form of communication and entertainment. Kienholz recognized how easily people believed what they saw on the television. His televisions were typically non-functioning—or at least not functioning in the expected sense. Some were simply other items, the detritus of everyday life, that the artist fashioned into something that resembled a TV. One made from a cinderblock comes to mind. Kienholz had purposely negated the interactive quality by enhancing the passivity.
With this shift, the interactive quality had not actually been eliminated but transformed. Instead of bringing the viewer into immediate physical contact with the work, Kienholz was prompting the viewer to make connections between the various physical objects placed within each environment. He was giving viewers the raw visual materials and requiring their mental interaction to connect the dots. This concept is still what drives the installations of many contemporary artists.
To bring this process of interaction full circle, it seems appropriate to consider Kienholz’s early years. Though he never graduated from college, Kienholz did attend two colleges in the Northwest for brief periods of time. The second institution, Whitworth College, is a Christian liberal arts college in Spokane, WA. Some would find this an odd choice since a segment of Kienholz’s mature work appears heretical, at best. As Eleanor Heartney points out in her book Postmodern Heretics: Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, early religious fervor later transformed to nearly blasphemous art is not uncommon among contemporary artists. There is a residual interactive connection between Christianity and art.
In his final year, Kienholz (along with his wife Nancy, with whom he collaborated for much of his career) produced a wall mounted work entitled 76 J.C.s Led the Big Charade. The work consists of seventy-six crucifixes fashioned from the cast-off elements of toys, with kitschy printed images of Christ crowning each. Some included small doll hands and arms at their extremities. The title gives the indication that this is yet another social commentary.
The expected reading of the work would be an indictment against Christianity. I find that far too simplistic of a reading. From the first, Kienholz’s work brought attention to injustices and incongruities. Just as he was skeptical of government and politicians, he was skeptical of organized religion and clergy. It is entirely possible that, like many artists nearing the end of their days, he was increasingly consumed with the ultimate questions of life. He had consistently produced work that considered existence and the motivational power of death. And, in the end, he would also be pleased to have viewers filling in the pieces to his puzzle.