What is an installation? What is installation art? “Installation” initially described how an exhibition was arranged. Then, artworks that used the entire gallery space were labeled “installation art.”
Installation art inhabits a space. It may surround you, or invite you to enter into it or physically interact with it. It is hybrid, often incorporating multiple mediums and/or everyday objects, and appealing to multiple senses. Installation art challenges viewers to consider the work’s context by calling attention to the place where it is exhibited, to its production, presentation, and reception. Usually temporary and occasionally site-specific (created for a given location), an installation may be ephemeral, only exhibited once, or collected, stored, and re-exhibited. Installation art disrupts the boundaries and categories that have traditionally defined art. Artists create installations to explore perceptual phenomena; the politics and pluralism of identity; the interaction between architectural settings, environmental sites, everyday objects, and people; and more.
How do you look at installation art?
- Where is the installation? (List the room, the gallery, the museum, the city, the state, the country, the current date, the date of the installation.) Is it site-specific (made for this space)?
- How do the location and/or time (the current date, the installation’s date, and the installation’s duration) contribute meaning?
- How long is it on display? Can it be displayed again in the future?
- What do you see, hear, smell, and/or feel? (Stand still. Walk around. Look from far away. Look up close. Look straight on. Look out of your peripheral vision.) How do light, color, texture, and sound affect your experience of the installation and the space?
- How does the installation transform you? In what ways does the installation’s physicality affect the way you perceive your own body and presence? How do you sense the passage of time? (Are you consciously aware of your body as an object in space? What does it mean to be an object?)
- How does your physical presence affect the installation? (Does the installation change in response to your movement? Are you part of the installation?)
- What is the physical relationship between the installation, the gallery space, and the museum’s architecture? (Where and how is the installation displayed within the room? Does the installation call your attention to the architecture and/or transform it? What is the scale?)
- How does the presence of other visitors affect the installation? How does their presence affect your experience of and/or interaction with the installation? How does your presence affect other visitors? Do you interact with other visitors?Are you aware of yourself as a social being?
- What media and/or objects are used? Do you normally see these media and objects together and/or in a museum? Where are they typically found and what is their significance outside of the museum? What do the media and objects mean on their own? What changes when they are combined? What meaning does the museum setting contribute to the installation and the media and objects that comprise it?
- How does the title and/or information about the artist help (or not) to enhance your understanding of what you see and perceive?
- How do you interpret the meaning of the installation? What questions would you like to know more about?
A Brief History
The history of installation art is contested. Some scholars argue that installation has roots in Richard Wagner’s concept of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art); the 19th century world’s fairs; the early 20th century avant-gardes’ explorations of the connections between painting, sculpture, and architecture; and the “dematerialization of the art object” in the 1960s and 1970s with Minimalism and Conceptualism. Other scholars contend that installation arose in the first few decades of the 20th century out of artists’ simultaneous use of multiple mediums, like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s Cubist collages, Kurt Schwitters’ Merz assemblages, and various installations by Marcel Duchamp. Regardless, many artists began creating environments and installations around the 1960s. This was the same period in which they also started resisting commercial art galleries by exhibiting in alternative spaces. Since the 1990s, installation art has become increasingly institutionalized.
Sometimes an installation may be called an “environment.” The latter term generally implies that the audience enters into and becomes part of the artwork. This is not true of all installations.
Phenomenology and Perception
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) – the “father” of phenomenology. For a summary of his work, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/husserl/.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) – influential French phenomenological philosopher and author of Phenomenology of Perception (1945). For a summary of his work, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/merleau-ponty/
Virtual Realities and Interactive Environments at Duke
De Oliveira, Nicolas, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry. Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” In Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. (Originally published in 1967.)González, Jennifer A. Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Kaprow, Allan. Assemblage, Environments & Happenings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational identity. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004.
Mondloch, Kate. Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Reiss, Julie H. From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
Rosenthal, Mark. Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2003.
Stiles, Kristine. “I/Eye/Oculus: Performance, Installation and Video.” In Themes in Contemporary Art, edited by Gill Perry and Paul Wood, 183-230. London: Yale University Press, in association with The Open University, 2004.
Suderberg, Erika, ed. Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
 For a concise definition of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, see Ingrid Macmillan, “Gesamtkunstwerk,” in Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T031798. For further information, see Anke Finger and Danielle Follett, eds., The Aesthetics of the Total Artwork: On Borders and Fragments (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011); and Juliet Koss, Modernism after Wagner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).