The illusionism of the stage

“The traditional theater-goer does not forget that he has come in from outside to sit and take in a created experience; a trademark of installation art has been the curious and eager viewer, still aware that he is in an exhibition setting and tentatively exploring the novel universe of the installation.” [1]

It is rather risky to quote from an anonymous Wikipedia editor, however, in this case, he or she did very eloquently express the quasi-umbilical bond between theatre and the staged environments of installation art. The core of their correlation resides in the fact that both create a setting that looks and feels real, in which viewers are totally immersed and suspend their disbelief, but that precisely in this creation, in this constructed-ness, both have to acknowledge their unrealness and illusory essence.

One aspect of the staged set is especially decisive for the full immersion and (hence) illusion: the generated atmospheric backdrop. As philosopher Gernot Böhme characterizes them, atmospheres “bathe everything in a certain light, unify a diversity of impressions in a single emotive state.”[2] An atmosphere is thus the feeling or mood of a place or situation, that envelops the viewers completely. This also means that atmospheres are not things, they do not exist as solid entities. So how then, Böhme justly asks, can something intrinsically intangible be made? For him, the answer is that creating an atmosphere is restricted to setting the conditions, which enable it to appear. Through complicity with their expressive characteristics, sounds, lights, or objects, can be used as so-called generators of the atmosphere. Consequently, the atmospheric aim is never achieved in a finalized object, “but in the imaginative idea the observer receives through the object.”[3] The appearing atmosphere then is a totality that has to be experienced but cannot be expressed; it is a rather ungraspable, yet embodied ‘something more’.[4]

Moreover, some artists have made this atmosphere-inducing staging to artworks in their own right. One needs only think of the apartment art of Ilya Kabakov [5], a Russian artist and preeminent promulgator of the total installation, famously describing the viewer as “overcome by the intense atmosphere of the total illusion.”[6] Another artist who sees her work as having more to do with theater and staging than making objects such as paintings or sculptures is the French Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. [7] Her often uncanny installations can indeed be read as staged settings for possible stories to be imagined by the spectator. Perhaps the most telling example is Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, who didn’t not even refer to his environments, consisting of objects he and the curator found, as installations, but explicitly considered them “décors” in the strict sense of stage theatre or film sets. [8]

However, sometimes the artist is not looking for perfect illusions, but instead is interested in revealing the inherent systems of staging. The breathtaking pieces Staging Silence 1 and 2 by Belgian artist Hans Op De Beeck seem to convey just that. Here, the artist does not even attempt to conceal the fixtures; on the contrary, the atmosphere is heavily determined by the demonstration of the maker’s mechanisms.

In a, for some troublesome, analogy, the act of staging is also taken up in contemporary curatorial practice. There have been exhibitions which have deliberate sought to connect with the world of the performing arts, and evoke the atmosphere of the stage. One such example was the group show Il Tempo Del Postino, curated by contemporary art star Hans Ulrich Obrist and French conceptual artist Philippe Parreno.[9] This exhibition sequentially showed time-based art on a theatre stage. But also on the idea of exposing the self-constructed stage and accompanying atmosphere has been picked up. It was only recently that blue chip mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth enticed frieze visitors by transforming their fair booth into a fictional artist’s studio. L’atelier d’artistes brought together works by different artists that nevertheless has a similar muted and raw aesthetic, and wanted to highlight “the role of “staging” in how art is viewed” in a tongue-in-cheek-ish way.[10]

Arguably, this is also the stance of The Best Bogus Botanical Garden. Staging a fictional environment, the curators wish to evoke the atmosphere of a botanical garden. They aspire it to feel like Leo Lionni’s wondrous world of “Parallel Botany”, whilst at the same time they are aware of and playing with the notion of the construction itself – everything is bogus after all.

So perhaps it is just the same as in theatre: you have to lie for there to be a stage, but you can’t lie on it.



[1] “Installation Art”, Wikipedia,
It was precisely this level of the viewer’s self-identity whilst being immersed that was denied by art critic Michael Fried. The lack of differentiation between the work of art itself and the experience of viewing it, he then referred to as “theatrical”. See: WOLF, Justin, “Michael Fried”, The Art Story,

[2] BÖHME, Gernot, “The art of the stage set as a paradigm for an aesthetics of atmospheres”, Ambiances, 10 février 2013,

[3] Ibidem

[4] Böhme described it as an intermediate phenomenon without secure ontological state,  between subject and object. See ibidem

[5] “Ilya Kabakov”, Ronald Feldman Gallery,

[6] KABAKOV, Ilya and Kabakov, Emilia, An alternative history of art: Rosenthal, Kabakov, Spivak, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, 2005, p. 148

[7] SOOKE, Alastair, “Tate Modern Unilever series: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s grand design”, The Telegraph, 11 October 2008,  )

[8] DICKHOFF, Wilfried, “Esprit Décor”, Tate Etc., Issue 13, 2008,

[9] “Il Tempo del Postino”, e-flux, 25 May 2009,

[10] “Frieze London: press release”, Hauser & Wirth, 2016,