Lee Boroson: Windowbox Essay

11/10/2000 - 12/20/2000

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Lee Boroson: Windowbox
Raechell Smith

You can’t be inside a painting and I want people to be absorbed into a physical kind of mass. I want to be absorbed.
—Ann Hamilton 1

Lee Boroson: Windowbox has transformed the main gallery of the Artspace into an immersive, otherworldly environment. Looking for inspiration from within the physical space of the gallery and beyond, Boroson has responded directly to the architecture and its unique characteristics to create the illusion of a translucent, dreamlike garden environment. Entrance to this garden takes only one step but this step becomes a passage of sorts – moving the viewer into a place where imagination and wonderment take over.

Windowbox divides the gallery into two sections. One enters the garden through the forest, a dense grove of trees created with over 1,300 yards of quilted translucent white nylon fabric that extends, from floor to ceiling, to a height of over twenty feet. Stretching up through a drop ceiling that reads from below as a blanket of clouds, the forms achieve their volume and verticality from the building itself, attached to and inflated by the constant pressure of air coming from the heating and ventilation system. From the forest, one can see beyond into the second section, a contrasting space much more formal in arrangement – with curtains and low, inflated forms that suggest the highly cultivated, space-shaping hedge forms found in many formal western gardens.

In its guise of nature, the planned forest often accompanies a formal, geometric arrangement of hedges that form interior spaces, pathways, and decorative patterns within a western garden. These two elements combined within garden architecture operate symbolically, representing the duality of nature and artifice – man’s intervention in the landscape is thus revealed. As in the case of the Italian Renaissance garden, Villa Lante, located just outside Rome, which provided inspiration for Boroson’s selection of design elements for his own garden, these two motifs, one organic and one geometric, are arranged with a fountain as the central most focal point. Within the formal garden portion of Boroson’s installation, suspended curtains create transparently veiled rooms that create subdivisions, mimicking the more private, interior spaces within an actual garden that are typically achieved through decorative, shaped hedges. Interspersed between and among these subtle, room-like spaces are colorful abstract circular forms, suggestive of water, as in a central fountain, and ornamental flora. The circular fleece-covered foam pods serve a functional end as well, placed within the environment as a way to lure the viewer into a pause, to slow down, to sit, to look, and to reflect. In Windowbox, Boroson has simplified the forms of a garden yet still provides enough information to provoke the viewer’s imagination, stimulating a range of associative connections. For artist and spectator, the garden becomes rich ground for experience and exploration.

For centuries, artists have been fascinated with the landscape. They have found inspiration in the ideal, untouched landscape of the natural world as well as the planned and cultivated landscapes created by the human mind and hand. These physical places that exist as landscape can act as destination or as vista. They can mirror the time and culture in which they exist and can also provide a point for human intellectual departure, a space where we can go to seek brief respite from the real world and journey, through our senses and imagination, to another place. Even during the last few decades when technology and information have come to determine so much of our daily experience, the landscape and its man-made equivalent, the garden, have provided many an artist with source, subject, and inspiration for their work. We see these gestures illustrated in the nature walks of Richard Long, the monumental interventions of Christo and Jean-Claude, the environmental time-based landscapes of Alan Sonfist, the cultivated gardens within a gallery by Meg Webster, the sculpture garden created by Robert Irwin for the Getty Center, and, finally, in the abstracted evocation of a suburban garden created by Teresita Fernández for the recent exhibition Wonderland at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Even now, as we move into a new millennium, the landscape and the garden continue as muse.

In his thinking towards an installation at the Artspace, Boroson researched the history of Kansas City’s planned system for parks and boulevards and arrived at the idea of employing an interior garden environment to create a work that would refer in some way to the surrounding world. Ultimately, Boroson is compelled to consider and utilize aspects of manmade systems used to control patterns of human movement, whether in navigating people within a city, an outdoor setting, an architectural space, or, with special significance to a viewer’s experience of art, a museum or gallery setting. In his written proposal for Windowbox, Boroson clarifies his thought process as such: “I’m interested in a space where the navigation is about seeing, slowing down and noticing. In a way, this is what the art museum is about. But I’m also interested in a less elite realm of culture so, recently, I’ve looked to the garden for inspiration. Here exists a space where one might go just to amble. It’s a space where one can get away from the day-to-day reality, and just appreciate one’s surroundings. The garden is a soft form of architecture where the navigational patterns and directions give you access to the variety of spaces.”

As Boroson suggests, there is an interesting connection that links the garden and the museum. They are both sites intended for quiet contemplation of the physical world, however, they are also places envisioned and built specifically for human interaction and engagement, inviting a realm of social participation meant to provide a destination point for our leisure time. Overlaying design elements taken from numerous gardens onto the architectural plans of the Artspace, Boroson turned these ideas into a conceptual approach for considering and developing the gallery as a site for his work.

Boroson’s approach is closely aligned with the working process of an architect or designer, beginning on both counts with a set of drawings or plans of the space and a walk through. The two-dimensional plans render the space in a manner that is similar to an aerial view of a garden, allowing an overall perspective and conceptual understanding of the arrangement of space that can never quite be achieved while one is actually occupying that same space. True to the artist’s intentions, each space within Windowbox presents a unique experience while providing some view into a contrasting space, however, there is no space from which the viewer can glimpse all of the spaces simultaneously. The information is revealed in layers, as one moves deeper into the transformed space and encounters different views, an expanded understanding of the work is gained, often accompanied by a heightened awareness of the space itself. It is a similar experience, in fact, to one’s passage through garden architecture. An understanding of the arrangement of parts and how they fit together comes only as one passes further into and through the space. Often, a complete understanding of the whole arrives only when an aerial or plan view of the designed space is revealed. How many times have we passed through a maze, the second time around with a postcard in hand, hoping navigational abilities will be enhanced to help us reach the journey’s end?

There is nothing below that prepares us for the view of Windowbox from above. Looking down into the forest from the mezzanine, we are captivated by the sensation of floating among the clouds. It is a meditative, otherworldly space  – albeit one that serves the purposeful end of providing the viewer with another perspective of the work. Boroson reminds us, in his conceptual drawings for the installation (on view in the Cohen Resource Room) and in his written proposal, that “this popular viewing style for the depiction of gardens allows the viewer to get both a sense of the plan and the three dimensionality of the space.”

Installation art is a hybrid form that has evolved over the course of the twentieth century, slipping into the mainstream of contemporary art within the past twenty years. As artists continue to explore and occupy physical space and push its potentiality beyond that of the “white cube,” a neutral container for the individual works of art on display,3  installation art has become a genre and an approach to artmaking that represents the confluence of architecture, sculpture, painting, performance, engineering, and design. It encompasses the act of looking, as in the subject beholding the object, but also incorporates the realm of physical and psychological sensations experienced by the viewer, ultimately refocusing our attention on our own presence within the space.

In many recent manifestations of installation art, the artist’s primary interest is in creating an experience specifically for the viewer – one that involves and actively solicits participation and direct engagement over the kind of passive viewing we’ve come to expect with much conventional art. In the perceptually-oriented environmental installations of Robert Irwin, for example, the artist goes far in refuting the autonomy of the art object we’ve come to associate with the modernist tradition, referring specifically to the viewer’s experience of the situation as his art.4  We relate to much installation work primarily through sight but arrive at an expanded understanding of its situation within a given environment through our bodies, as we wander in and around the spatial transformation. And, often, as in the experience of Lee Boroson’s transformative installation, Windowbox, we are absorbed into a physical space and invited to engage our senses fully – to see, to hear, and to touch. Installation art, in the hands of many contemporary artists, becomes a journey that involves a visual, conceptual, perceptual, haptic, and somatic experience for body and mind alike.


1 Rochelle Steiner, Wonderland (Saint Louis: The Saint Louis Art Museum, 2000), p. 25.
2 For a history of installation, see Nicolas de Oliveira, Installation Art (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994); Anne Farrell, ed., Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art, 1969-1996 (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997); and Andrew Benjamin, ed., Installation Art (London: Art & Design Magazine, Profile No. 30, 1993).
3 See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1976). These articles were first published in Artforum.
4 Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996), p. 170.