Installation art – a feast for the senses

Installation art is a relatively new artform. It is an immersive experience, whereby the viewer enters into a simulated, multi-dimensional world. Artworks in this genre can be seen in major art galleries including the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Notable contemporary installation artists include Olafur Elliasson, Bruce Nauman and Cildo Meireles.

Initially this artform was met with resistance from art galleries in the 1950s, and artists showcased their work in alternative, underground spaces. The first installations were called ‘environments’ or ‘happenings’ and artists such as Allan Kaprow and Robert Whitman, part of the Fluxus movement, were among the first artists to showcase installations as part of artist collectives. Kaprow considered traditional art galleries to be ‘sterile’, preferring the ‘organic’ setting of spaces such as the Reuben Gallery and the Judson Gallery. These gallery spaces were rundown, and did not attract many visitors. Kaprow used second hand and found objects to create live environments and he was fascinated by the objects of everyday life. Interestingly, many Fluxus artists such as Kaprow had been influenced by the experimental composer John Cage, who also involved the audience in his works such as ’4”33’ a piece which is completely silent and instead focuses on the audience and the sounds of the room in which it is performed. This focus on the audience experience is central to installation art.

This art form does not easily lend itself to the commercial sphere. You are unlikely to see an installation at an art auction, for example. Installation art is notoriously difficult to exhibit and to reproduce. Many of these artworks are site-specific, created for the space in which they are exhibited. Installation art challenges the traditional art market and for this reason it is sometimes considered subversive. Galleries such as the Hansa Gallery were not part of the traditional, commercial art world and they allowed for more experimental artworks such as installation art. The non-commodifiable nature of installation art not only challenges the art market but also challenges the sense of ownership and property altogether. In this sense it questions so called “bourgeois” ideals. 

Dan Flavin: untitled (To A Man, George McGovern) 2, 1972

It has taken time for art galleries to accept this artform, although now they often dominate such spaces. As art academic Julie Reiss notes, ‘by the end of the 1980s it had become widely prevalent in the art world, and its status became that of an accepted genre that was not only accommodated but actually sought after by major museums.’ Installation art now forms a regular part of curators’ collections across the world and the general public is now more accustomed to seeing installation art in addition to Monet and Picasso. This reflects society, as we have embraced technological innovation so too we have accepted innovations in art. 

Installation art is inherently abstract. In this sense it is a logical progression from the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, who had turned painting away from the representational. The key difference is that installation art focuses its abstraction on space and perspective. This is a form of ‘decentering’, where the viewer is no longer dominant, choosing to cast their gaze upon a painting and interpret it, but is instead thrown into the artwork itself. The viewer walks through the artwork, experiencing different parts of it at different points in time. This time-based element places it closer to performance art than to painting. This ‘decentering’ aspect, a plurality of experience and multitude of perspectives when viewing installation art, has also drawn in feminist theory as it contrasts with the masculine centred gaze, where the world is presented in art to a centred, knowing subject. Installation art instead suggests that the subject is fragmented, that perception is fluid and changeable and our experience of art is likewise fragmented. There is no single way of viewing the world, and to say that there there is only one viewpoint is hegemonic. In this sense installation art is emancipatory. 

These artworks are also known for their scale. Take Olafur Elliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, that filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, or Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’, exhibited in the same venue, for example. Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds, each meticulously hand painted, brings up notions of mass production and the factory assembly. It is the scale of these projects that leaves an indelible impression upon the viewer, a sense of expanse and overwhelm that causes you to ponder and reflect on the world. 

Multimedia is a common feature in installation art. The ‘dead room’, a darkened room with black sound proofed walls, video screens and speakers is specifically designed to accommodate multimedia artworks in art galleries. Art is now becoming increasingly mediated, existing along a continuum of media. Light, sound and video as well as sculptural elements and writings are now typically encountered in a work of installation art. For example, Bruce Nauman is known for making use of neon lights and words to create provocative and thought-inspiring pieces. He is also known for his video installation of a raging clown, known as ‘Clown Torture’ (1987), a piece that blurs the line between video art, performance art and installation. Steve McQueen is also known for his controversial video installations, such as Illuminer (2001) where a man watches a video about soldiers in Afghanistan in a hotel room, bringing up questions about surveillance and control. 

Bruce Nauman: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967)

Art has often been used as a political medium, and installation art particularly lends itself to political messaging. Some academics have suggested that by requiring the spectator to be ‘activated’ when viewing the piece, a form of democratisation is taking place. Art is no longer kept at a distance, to be revered, but is messy, chaotic and participatory. Installation art encourages independent thinking, questioning the art gallery space. It challenges, stimulates and provokes the viewer with the unexpected. It places the artist, the gallery, and the viewer on the same level. It is antagonistic, creating a relationship between the viewer and the artwork, whether they wish to be in dialogue or not. A viewer will leave an exhibition of installation art thinking differently, feeling differently and seeing the world differently. The viewer’s consciousness is very much a part of the artwork itself; the artwork is only one part of the experience, the rest being distinctly unique to the viewer. In this sense installation art resembles life, as we navigate our experiences through the world, installation art leaves us with a similar sense of disorientation. 

Cildo Miereles is a Brazilian installation artist, whose piece Red Shift (1967-84) is an installation spanning three rooms in which all the objects are red in colour, creating a visual sensory overload. Babel (2001) is a large scale installation consisting of a tower of second-hand radios, whilst Missao (1987) is an installation that deals with the religious conversion of the indigenous Tupi-Guarani to Catholicism, made of coins, communion wafers, cattle bones and black cloth. Brazil was under a harsh military dictatorship until the 1980s, making it difficult for Miereles to create artwork of this kind during that time. 

Cildo Miereles: Babel (2001)

Rirkit Tarivanija’s installation art pieces were created with the idea of groups of people participating in the artworks. This social element, of human interaction, is a key element of his style. He is known for ‘live’ installations, with actions such as cooking in a kitchen in his piece Untitled (tomorrow is another day) (1997). This style of installation art became known as relational aesthetics, and is focused on active participation rather than solitary contemplation. The works are distinctly egalitarian; through giving freedom to the viewer to participate, the artwork is no longer in a hierarchical relationship.

Finally, something should be mentioned about the body when discussing installation art. Embodiment, where perception and sensory experience inform how you interpret and perceive your surroundings, is a more recent way of understanding our place in the world. Previously, the focus was on the mind as the centre of understanding. Installation art brings embodiment to the fore; the body is required to move through artworks to gain the full gamut of experience. So you must walk through the artwork and experience it at different points, as the body makes sense of it. 

To an extent, we are drawn to the spectacle when it comes to installation art. But that is not to downplay its deeper, more cerebral characteristics. Viewed alone or as part of a crowd, the works invite you to connect and to respond and react as you wish. It is not telling you what to think or feel (although sometimes there will be direction). Its use of media makes it inherently modern, as does its call for active participation. It is a fitting artform for the 21st century.

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