What Is Installation Art and How Does It Transform Our Perception?

New Media

October 19, 2016

In the modern world where so many different art forms have been born, developed, explored and even forgotten over time, almost no other manifestation of art is so impressive and instantly mesmerizing as installation art. When you walk into a room where the majority of the space around you is actually a part of the artwork, you yourself become part of the art. When you see something that shouldn’t quite be there and stands out in an obvious manner, and yet somehow fits in the surroundings in a peculiar way, you’re probably looking at another piece of art made by installation artists. It offers so much more than a traditional painting, sculpture or any other kind of creativity would. It may engage you on multiple levels, activating your senses to experience art in a new way; touch, sound, smell as well as vision are explored to convey the artistry of installations. Often, the focus is centered on the idea and the impact of it, rather than the quality of a finished product. Usually, installation art is a purely temporary work of art, but its impact, message and the notion behind it remain forever. Let us further explore this fascinating, engaging, and bewildering art form embodied in installations that will seduce you and make you stop to think for a second, and perhaps even make you question the notions around it, the world and yourself.

Kusama's Infinity Room gives out an impression of infinite space inside a museum. Over the years the artist has covered different objects in dots
Yayoi Kusama - Infinity Mirrored Room

Installation Art - Origins and Development

The origins and roots of installation art are often associated with Conceptual art, tracing the steps all the way back to artists like Marcel Duchamp and his innovative approach of presenting his readymades; specifically the controversial urinal piece called Fountain from 1917. Other early influences that are considered to have paved the way for the developing of installation art as such, include the avant-garde Dada exhibitions, various works and assemblage art which notably filled entire rooms, theories of Spatialism, and even some pieces by John Cage. In fact, before it even got the name, the earlier version of this groundbreaking art movement was referred to as the environment, which was started by the American artist Allan Kaprow in 1957. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the term Installation began to be employed to describe works which take into account the viewer’s entirely sensory experience, or basically fill out an entire room of a gallery, leaving space and time as its only dimensional constants.

Either temporary or permanent, installation artworks are constructed within exhibiting venues like galleries and museums, or in public or private locations. Installations can include a very broad range of materials used, natural and man-made alike, giving an individual complete creative freedom over the artwork. With the development of latest technologies, installation art did not stay behind; video, sound, immersive virtual reality, Internet and performance are just some of the media outlets which are often part of the piece. Site-specific installations are designed to exist and “function” only in the location for which they were created, making them part of the surroundings. Other artworks could be moved and presented in various locations, not depending on their environment. It is this sensory engaging art practice that blurs the line between art and life, as Kaprow noted, if we bypass ‘art’ and take nature itself as a model or point of departure, we might be able to devise a different kind of art…out of the sensory stuff of ordinary life.

What is installation art and how do we interact with the installations
Left: Tadashi Kawamata - Chairs / Right: Chiharu Shiota - In Silence

Sculpture or Installation Artwork?

A logical question of the difference between Sculpture and Installation might boggle some critics, and as much as some installations may resemble traditional craft-based sculptures, they do not fall under the same category. Installation art effectively inverts the principles of sculpture where the piece is designed to be viewed from the outside, experienced as a self-contained arrangement of elements. On the other hand, installation works often include and envelop the spectator in the surroundings of the piece, furthermore, it could be said that installation art is created with the focus on the viewer, where he/she becomes almost the main subject of the artwork, taking into account the spectator’s involvement and interaction with the art piece. The formalism of the composition falls to the background, bringing the effect of the viewer’s spatial and cultural expectation to a focal point. The sensitively arranged piece creates a dialogue with its surroundings, waiting for the spectator to take in both the creation and its environment as an overall immersive display.

What is art installation and how do we interact with the installations of contemporary artists
Left: Goldschmied & Chiari - Where are we going to dance tonight? / Right: Claire Morgan installation of a crow falling through a plane of strawberries

Variety of Forms, Locations and Effects of Installation Art

Where can installation art be found? Literally – anywhere; from galleries, museums and exhibiting spaces, to public spaces such as playgrounds, pedestrian walkways, streets and building sites. Usually, these artworks really do stand out and grab your attention as soon as you see/hear/feel them. However, sometimes it can be quite difficult to discern whether you’re witnessing an artistic installation piece, or simply an unintentional scene from everyday life. Like in Bolzano, Italy, when a group of cleaners misinterpreted an art installation made by Goldschmied & Chiari at the Museion, and thought they needed to get to work and clean up the area from all the ‘’garbage’’ someone left behind. On the other hand, these 10 gripping street art installations are surely not to be taken the wrong way as they perplex the passers-by and clearly stand out as out of the ordinary. A sub-category of it, called interactive installation, essentially involves the audience to act on the piece of art, thus making an interactive dialogue between the art and the spectator. From web-based installations, gallery-based works, mobile, digital, electronic and all sorts of other structures, the interaction could be based around almost any type of medium. The beauty of installation art lies in its vast range of different materials, mediums and environments used to create a notion-challenging artwork. The unique concept of weaving the art piece around the viewer, and for the viewer, makes it an event definitely worth engaging in.

Gabriel Dawe and Alex Chinneck's installation art in a museum
Left: Gabriel Dawe - Plexus № 19 / Right: Alex Chinneck - From the Knees of My Nose to the Belly of My Toes

What Happens to the Installations after the Show?

More and more is the field of art today equated and measured by the status on the art market, yet, there is art which is made and exhibited not for those who wish to be art collectors or buyers. Logically, these people constitute the majority of the art public, a typical visitor of an exhibition does not look at the piece on display as a commodity. After all, when it comes to performance-based, conceptual, installation, or otherwise ephemeral work of art, how do you turn a transient experience into something that can be bought and sold? Naturally, two-thirds of all the artworks sold are paintings, and installation, video, performance, drawing, time-based or conceptual practices account for less than 1% of the market. However, not all of the artists who work in the “unsellable” field of installation art dream of making a living from their ephemeral creations. In fact, many of them intentionally wish to thwart the institution of the market, positioning their artwork as a critique of the system. For instance, Yves Klein’s The Void was sold to collectors for a gold coin. After procuring the receipt of the transaction to the collector, the creative promptly threw the gold coin into the Seine. The said receipts are even now on display in glass vitrines at the Pompidou Center in Paris. This raises the question of how the scheme of carefully executed certificates, high-production value photographs, limited edition prints and other ephemera can actually play the part of the collectable aspect for the individuals and cultural institutions. It is argued that these items only produce the appearance of limited access through claims of uniqueness or authenticity. This discussion eventually leads to the discourse of intellectual property and how it is sold and bought.

See more works by Yves Klein on our marketplace!

Essentially, installation art is quite problematic and difficult to sell, naturally due to its size, shape and form, which pose a complicated task for any collector. So, what exactly happens with the installation pieces after they’re not sold or housed in any gallery or museum? Most of the time, after the display ends, the artwork is disassembled and either returned to the artist’s studio or placed in storage. On the other hand, some artists such as Terence Koh, tend to disparate elements from the installation and sell them as individual artworks which are divided and titled by the artist himself. Some of the unique pieces end up as backdrops for films or become setups to be photographed. Of course, not all authors and curators consider selling components of an artwork as an option even. Some installations wouldn’t function without every part being together, and many critics say chopping up an artwork into pieces for sale is like making a buffet and a travesty out of a piece of art. (Speaking of which, have a look at what Cards Against Humanity had in mind when it comes to chopping artworks!). Other artists are considering the practical side of it, taking in account the storage, shipping and mobility of the artwork itself, so for instance, Judith Hoffman started making “collapsible” works which are more easily moved, and switched from using metal and wood to lighter materials like paper, because it was simply easier to carry, and as the artist stated herself, they are much easier to sell and she wants to make money, after all. So, whether or not the artists will yield to the market, or the market will become more ephemeral art-friendly, installation art remains to break the boundaries of our perception in every possible way. It is there to be witnessed and experienced fully, to immerse the viewer and captivate the audience, challenging the notions of art and expression.

museum Editors’ Tip: Contemporary Installation Art

In a bid to meet the demand of times, the Modern Installation Art book assembles the topmost installation artworks from across the world, including detailed pictures as well as graphic design patterns and hand-drawn sketches. Viewed as a genre of newly emerging art, installation art has endowed artists with ultimate creative freedom thanks to its distinctive characters of creation materials and structures. In recent years, installation works have been frequently showcased in a wealth of various exhibitions, becoming an indispensably vital part in the history of art. Don’t miss this unique publication, as it is indeed one of the most comprehensive ones on the subject.

Featured images: Henrique Oliveira - Tangled Constructions; Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam - Harmonic Motion; William Forsythe - White Bouncy Castle; Audiovisual installation titled Daydream V.2 created by Nonotak Studio; Chiharu Shiota - Over The Continents; Ernesto Neto - artwork; Filthy Lurker - Octopied Building in France. All images used for illustrative purposes only

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