My sister's boyfriend is a fine arts lecturer and yesterday he took us on a tour of the art installations set up for Art Sheffield 2010, the theme of which was Life: A User's manual. The installations had mostly been set up in disused and derelict industrial low-rise buildings near Bramall Lane (the Sheffield United ground). Each installation was quite small. Being with an artist made me slow down and spend a long time looking at each installation, which I think was good. They are not very accessible or friendly to the casual viewer. For example, an installation by a Korean artist was household equipment, such as drying racks, organised into large teetering shapes hung with lit bulbs, and the room full of fog from a machine, so the big shapes loomed out of the fog. There was supporting material explaining that it was inspired by the Korean myth Dangun, and a Japanese film called Woman in the Dunes, which are both about domestic endurance and entropy. In this case I thought the installation worked on its own, and was then enhanced by the materials.
In other cases I felt the installations did not work without the supporting commentary. For example one installation was a woman reading the classical texts about women that Virgina Woolf cites in A Room of One's Own, filmed so that her head obscured the text. Without the blurb explaining it, this just looked like a film of a woman sitting in a library, filmed from the back of her head. I mean, to me the meaning is important, but you couldn't get it from the work without reading the blurb.
I think even more than poetry the presentation of this type of work is inaccessible and even frightening to the casual visitor, entering a big empty space with some earnest chap in glasses watching you watch the exhibit. But I was glad, very glad, to have spent the afternoon looking at these installations. I was definitely affected by them, individually and collectively, even if I didn't understand or enjoy each one.