Analysis Of Leah Cooper’s Installations And Art Of Viewer Engagement

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For me, the thing that is ‘the art’ happens without me there. It doesn’t happen until somebody experiences my work. I experience the art of seeing, but ‘art’ (as an object or event) is happening only with an audience present. —Leah Cooper

Leah Cooper navigates a long tradition of viewer engagement relating to art and architecture through her installations, utilizing light and vitrines as her drawings tools. Cooper connects with an audience through highly constructed experiences and subtle connections, exploiting architectural details and assumptions around space. “I am intrigued with the idea of how people process information and perceive a space with what we edit out to get through the clutter,” says Cooper. “With my installations, I put an idea in space. Its only art with the lights on and when someone interacts with it.”

Engaging with the vernacular of built spaces and the theories of Minimalism, Cooper furthers the conversation by activating what she describes as the “seeing muscle.” The grandest spaces in the canon of architecture have traditionally been halls of worship, such as gothic cathedrals, majestic synagogues, or domed mosques. Often majestic in size, they are designed to awe parishioners and pilgrims through a sense of impossible lightness in the stone and soaring spaces. Flying buttresses made it possible to reduce overall wall surface and insert grand windows. This allowed light to stream through vast expanses of stained glass creating the appearance of transparent and weightless curtains made from stone. Santiago de Compostela, a Romanesque Cathedral located in northern Spain, was built to house monks and traveling worshipers. The original designers of this cathedral understood the necessity of a prescriptive path to encourage an experience. By strategically placing apsidal chapels along exterior aisles, parishioners (transitory users) and monks (perpetual users) could occupy the cathedral simultaneously. After completing the 1100-mile trek from Southern England a weary pilgrim would not have seen “wayfinding” signage. Architectural cues suggested how to move through Santiago de Compostela, in the same way stained glass windows told biblical stories to illiterate parishioners: through naturally inherent cues and illustrative design.

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Modern interior spaces can inspire similar reverence, whether it is a grand museum or a bustling commercial environment. Architect Steven Holl’s Sarphatistraat Offices in Amsterdam, Netherlands encourages contemplation and intimate scale and consideration for any viewer who steps into this atypical building. The commonly overlooked details become the key components to understanding how this office functions. Intentional segments removed from the stone walls and a perforated façade allow light to puncture the space, communicating movement and physical materiality: “While the exterior expression is one of complementary contrast (existing brick adjacent to new perforated copper), the interior strategy is one fusion. ‘Chromatic Space’ is formed by light bounced between the building’s layers. At night, light trapped between screens sometimes appears as thick floating blocks of color. At other times the passing sun creates a throbbing color wash or moving moiré patterns.” Holl’s design engages a viewer in the space and its use consciously through egress, and philosophically through ephemeral materials. Holl’s gestures are whispers, suggestions in a visitor’s ear.

“Architects always seem to understand, or at least appreciate, what I’m trying to do”, says artist Leah Cooper. Flexing (the Seeing Muscle), the exhibition of Cooper’s installation drawings, establishes the connections between environments and viewer engagement. Cooper is working under many of the same basic principles that urban planners, landscape architects and architects do. And on the surface Cooper’s vitrine installations (Drawing the Undifferentiated) draw connections between constructed spaces and audience awareness. The main divergence, and what differentiates Cooper from a designer, is her ability to utilize art to create a conversation for the viewer around object, space, institution and self. Activating the “seeing muscle” does not solely describe Cooper’s personal artistic goals, but what she aims to help the viewer do.

Leah Cooper’s newest investigation takes her long-established practice of “framing” a view away from an exterior landscape and into the gallery. While actively connecting with an immediate audience, Cooper expands upon a long history of Minimalist artists asking questions about the role of museum and gallery institutions and their relationship with the viewer. Robert Smithson’s Mirror and Crushed Shells, or Donald Judd’s Untitled (Six Boxes) are examples of art works that consider what the medium can be and how a viewer completes the work. Judd’s Six Boxes were placed directly on the floor of the gallery, reflecting back the immediate environment surrounding them. As a viewer steps into the box’s boundaries, the golden surface mirrors back their bodies in a different hue. Would the art be complete without the viewer interacting with the work and considering their own scale and presence within the gallery? Cooper, like Judd, would answer this question with a very distinct “no”.

Cooper’s emphatic “no” is clearly exercised in Flexing , but she pushes the conversation one step further. As Cooper points to the physical and institutional structures of the gallery, she executes what the Minimalists adamantly valued and promoted. She highlights the physical structure and forced experience manifested through walls and columns, she calls to attention the “white cube”, and most importantly – she actives, invigorates and strengthens the viewer’s “seeing muscle”. Engagement for Cooper is not a time or site-specific experience; she moves beyond the physical conventions employed by architects and past the critique made by Minimalism.

Viewers fully engaged in Cooper’s installation run on a treadmill strengthening underutilized muscles with each step. And this newly gained fitness extends past the gallery setting. Participants in Cooper’s work will exit with a fresh viewfinder to shape their world: “What I would hope to do is determine a way to delineate or note a shadow along a wall… Then next step would be, to have the people noticing another shadow in the room without me having addressed it. That’s exercising the seeing muscle.”

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