Installation Art - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Installation Art
Installation art did not arise from a particular collective impetus, or an organized intention. Rather, it arose organically from a lineage of conceptual, theatrical, site, and time specific ventures by various artists from within multiple movements. Installation art's roots are often traced back to the great Conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp, the first to place a mundane toilet seat into the "fine art" setting in all of its literal plainness, to be considered in an out-of-context setting. Duchamp's readymades thus became precursors to this genre alongside other early influencers like the avant-garde Dadaists, who were the first Conceptual artists who chose to focus on making works that generated questions rather than crafting aesthetically pleasing objects. German artist Kurt Schwitters with his anti-commerce Merz objects-from-everyday-life collages and El Lissitzky with his Proun paintings that were a radical re-conception of space and material expressed early Installation art concerns along with notes of Spatialism - a movement that championed a synthesis of sound, sight, space, motion, and time into new forms of art. All of these prior efforts alongside inspiration from the theater - specifically seen in Performance art legends such as the Gutai group from Japan, who staged large-scale multimedia environments, coalesced into the birth of Installation art.
The earlier version of this innovative category of art was found in the expressionistic "environments," of artists in the 1950s and '60s such as Allan Kaprow. Kaprow curated entire gallery spaces into objects of art in which the guest might be absorbed. In his significant piece Words (1961), he installed rolls of paper with jumbled phrases and played audio recordings for the audience as they moved through the installation. Yves Klein was another pioneer of the curated environment, although his approach was a much sparser one. The Void, a piece made by Klein in 1958, featured a white gallery room, which was radically empty. It sought to validate space as an object worthy of artistic attention, thus shaping a path for Installation art.
Naming the Style: The 1970s
The term "Installation art" came of use in the 1970s to describe works attentive to the entirety of the spaces they occupied and to the audience's viewing process. During these decades of social, political, and cultural upheaval, the art world entered a time of experimentation that blurred the boundaries between disciplines. Installation artists were increasingly interested in doing work that could be displayed unconventionally and that would take into account the viewer's entire sensory experience. Bruce Nauman's claustrophobic works during the 1970s, for example, played with the audience's discomfort and aimed to make viewers feel out of sync with their surroundings. As visitors walked through his staged corridors and rooms, they experienced feelings of being locked-in or abandoned. For artists such as Vito Acconci, honing in on the audience's discomfort was also a means of engagement. In a 1972 performance entitled Seedbed, the artist masturbated under an installed, temporary floor at the Sonnabend Gallery while visitors walked overhead and heard him voicing sexual scenarios that involved them.
Initially, art critics focused solely on the site-specific and ephemeral nature of Installation artwork to define it, but this focus shifted as proponents of the genre began to make work referencing cultural contexts and social concerns. Debates around art's relationship to people's everyday socio-economic reality spurred the transformation of Installation Art, during the late 70s.
The increase in venues for contemporary art and the vogue of large-scale exhibitions in the 1980s paved the way for Installation Art's current pervasiveness. Cildo Meireles's Through (1983-1989), for example, was a highly politicized piece that invited viewers to move thorough a labyrinth of barriers, shattered glass, and other disconcerting obstructions. The piece was meant to be a critique of social repression, consumerism, and political censorship. Bill Viola was another artist who carefully curated environments. He was noted for his use of video technology to explore elemental human experiences. For the Installation Room for St. John of the Cross (1983), for example, Viola created a black cubicle with a viewing window through which audiences could see a small color monitor perched atop a wooden table and alongside a metal pitcher. A screen in the background showed an image of a snow-covered mountain while a voice quietly recited poetry, making this a soothing and fully immersive scene.
By the 1990s, an even more involved viewer participation had surfaced as a central issue for Installation artists. Carsten Holler and Rosemarie Trockel, for example, created House for Pigs and People (1997) - a metaphor for social division that consisted of a house partitioned into two by one-way mirrored glass. People occupied one side of the house while pigs occupied the other, and the mirror enabled the people to see the pigs, but not the other way around. The artists felt that by immersing the viewers literally into the concept they were trying to express, viewers would have a visceral rather than an intellectual experience.
From the 2000s on Installation art has seen an increase in the incorporation of ever-burgeoning technological advances into works that create even more immersive environments. These highly stimulating works employ light, sensors, computers, and video realities and can be web-based, gallery-based, and even mobile-based installations. Bruce Nauman continues to work with audio recordings to create controlled situations in works such as Raw Materials (2004). The piece brings together multiple, overlapping readings of text which range in content from the stark repetition of single words to the more gasping recitation of longer texts in a sound installation. Some artists design these installation pieces so that they respond to interventions from audience members, such as in Maurice Benayoun's Brain Factory (2016). The piece translates visitor's emotions into visual data through a 3D printer so that audience and machine work together to produce the artwork. Brainwaves detected in the viewer are treated as abstract fodder to inform the materialization of solid objects and sculptures.
Installation Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Site Specificity: Location as The Integral Element
This category of art emerged during the 1960s as artists, disillusioned with the increasing commodification of the art world, began to break with artistic conventions in search of alternatives. Many Installation artists began making work that was solely created to exist in interrelationship with a particular space. Thus, if it were to be removed from said space, it would lose its meaning.
A great example of this is Walter de Maria's New York Earth Room (1977), on long-term display at the Dia Art Foundation. The piece consists of an entire room filled with dirt - de Maria's attempt to bring nature inside, to in fact contain what is regularly viewed as free from containment. Andy Goldsworthy has done similar experiments in manipulating nature. He's been known to paint entire walls of galleries and other architectural spaces with mud. As the mud dries and cracks, the pieces physically change and deteriorate allowing viewers to witness erosion in real time. German artist Eberhard Bosslet uses existing spaces to inspire construction projects. Since 1985, he has created many interior works using industrial building materials that exist as structural bodies that merge seamlessly within existing architectural frameworks. Kara Walker is known for affixing her black silhouettes depicting the African American experience directly onto walls, so that her messages of the ever-pervasiveness of racism cannot be removed or erased.
Installation art also overlaps with the Conceptual art movement, since they both prioritize the importance of ideas over the work's technical merit. However, Conceptual art tends to be more understated and minimalist, whereas Installation art is often bold and more object-based. Some examples that connect the two movements include Jenny Holzer's works since the 1970s where she has expressed her own ideas about the human condition via text-based light projections and LED sculptural signage across the walls of many public buildings. Her thoughts become one with the surroundings, inviting visitors directly into her mind. When British artist Damien Hirst wanted to express society's global dependency on pharmaceuticals, he built actual pharmacy cabinets stocked with medicine bottles. The shelves from top to bottom corresponded with the human body - drugs for the head filled the top shelf and so on down to the bottom shelf for ailments of the feet. In 2010, when visitors to Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, 2010 at the Tate were allowed to take away one of (nearly) a billion tiny porcelain seeds piled on the floor of an entire gallery space, they also took away reflections on the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange surrounding the words "Made in China."
Interaction and Immersion: Emphasis On Viewer Engagement
Pieces belonging to this category of Installation art shift the focus from art as a mere object to art as an instigator of dialogue. By occupying spaces so intentionally the artwork forces viewers into close interactions, so that viewing Installation art is more akin to an act of engagement than to one of contemplation. Artist Olafur Eliasson, has said, "I always try to make work that activates the viewer to be a co-producer of our shared reality." Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang epitomizes this notion. After strategically placing gunpowder on giant surfaces or constructions, he then stages public explosions of the works that rival exciting firecracker shows. After the sparks die down, gorgeous, soot-dark paintings are left to contemplate. Another artist, Rachel Whiteread, is known for large-scale installations that provoke the audience to consider interior space. In Embankment, she filled a room at the Tate museum with hundreds of white cubes cast from the insides of empty boxes and containers. As guests walked through and around these positive impressions of negative space, they were compelled to reflect upon all the "ghosts" of internal spaces in their own lives.
Some Installation artists create fully immersive environments in order to encapsulate the viewer within an experience completely separate from reality. These pieces become like amusement park attractions or experiential activities for the visitor's willing participation. A prime illustration is Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Room (2016), an installation inside an entire room of the Broad Museum, to which ticket-holding visitors enter one at a time to experience alone. The black room lit with thousands of tiny lights provokes feelings of being in space, or somewhere out of this world.
With the advent of technological advances, artists in this genre increasingly seek to captivate the viewer's every sense through smell, sound, performance, and immersive video reality (all connected to the loosely used term 4-D.) Artist Nathaniel Stern's works are often in direct collaboration with viewers as they require the movements of visitors' body parts to influence various actions by the artwork. In one piece, enter: hektor (2001), he had guests chase projected words with their arms to trigger spoken words.
Capitalizing on Massive Scale
Grand projects that transform public places into spaces for contemplation have long belonged to the realm of Installation art, with large-scale commissions having become requisite pieces in most major art museums. These works make bold statements and tend to be crowd favorites, but some argue that large-scale pieces have become overly ubiquitous and gimmicky, with public appeal far outstripping the pieces' artistic merit. Indeed, well known artists often seem to turn to the manufacturing of these massive Installations sure to catch the public's fancy, and to further catapult their fame. Duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, largely known for spectacular outdoor works, once filled the fifty foot by fifty foot atrium of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia with a two floors high mastaba consisting of 1,240 oil barrels that guests could barely walk around in traversing the space. Some of Anish Kapoor's most famous work befit this category, in particular his enormous sculptural interventions into buildings that (often invasively) overtake multiple areas, rooms, and even floors.
Perception of Space
Some installation art endeavors to tweak our perception of space by manipulating an environment. For example, renowned artist James Turrell works with architecture, light, and shadow to eliminate a person's depth perception. In his seminal work Breathing Light (2013) for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he transformed a room through strategically placed LEDs into an all-encompassing experience that enclosed the viewer in what felt like a breathing, heavenly womb. In The Weather Project (2003), Olafur Eliasson brought the outside inside by transforming a room, through the use of monofrequency lights and haze, into an eerie expression of the sun. Richard Serra is known for massive metal sculptural forms that warp, undulate, and command interior spaces in ways that tweak a viewer's equilibrium and sense of balance as they walk into, throughout, and around the gargantuan-scale works. These types of installations transport audiences into seemingly other dimensions, oftentimes provoking thoughts about existence - the physical, ethereal, and/or spiritual.
Later Developments - After Installation Art
Contemporary artists continue to use Installation art as a vehicle to inform a complete, unified experience. With the advent of revolutionary technologies and a rapidly expanding digital art toolbox, it can be said that artists are only just beginning to understand the possibilities of Installation art 2.0. Recently, installation artists have been turning toward work that immerses viewers in a virtual reality such as Daniel Steegmann Mangrane's Phantom (2015). The piece transports viewers to a Brazilian rain forest, complete with rustling leaves and imposing tree trunks. Although these new technologies haven't yet been widely adopted by the art world, many believe they are primed to emerge as one of the foremost directions in contemporary art's future.