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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term that gained currency in the 1960s to describe a construction or assemblage conceived for a specific interior, often for a temporary period, and distinguished from more conventional sculpture as a discrete object by its physical domination of the entire space. By inviting the viewer literally to enter into the work of art, and by appealing not only to the sense of sight but also, on occasion, to those of hearing and smell, such works demand the spectator’s active engagement. As an art form, installations are particularly associated with movements of the 1960s and 1970s such as Pop art, Nouveau Réalisme, Minimalism, conceptual art and process art, but in theory they can be conceived within the terms of virtually any style.

The notion of the installation can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century and in particular to Richard Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk as a synthesis of sensory impressions overwhelming the spectator. Whistler’s decorative scheme of the same period, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–7; Washington, DC, Freer), originally designed for the dining-room of his patron F. R. Leyland, sought a similar immersion of the spectator in an experience of beauty encompassing the whole of his or her field of vision; as such it went beyond the impulse to decorate, narrate or instruct, characteristic of church or palace architecture during the medieval period or in the Renaissance.

The most direct predecessors of the installation in its narrower sense, however, are to be found in the international Surrealist exhibitions held during and after the 1930s, notably in London (1936) and at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris (1938); on the latter occasion, music and smells pervaded an entirely enclosed space that included coal sacks on the ceiling, assemblages, plants and paintings.

One of the earliest installations, in the historically precise sense of the term, was Yves Klein’s The Void (Paris, Gal. Iris Clert, 1958), a presentation of the empty white interior of a commercial gallery; a year later another sculptor associated with Nouveau Réalisme, Arman, created Fullness in the same gallery interior by filling the space with rubbish so that it could be viewed only through the outside window. In New York some of the first installations, such as Claes Oldenburg’s The Street and Jim Dine’s The House (both exh. New York, Judson, 1960), each assembled from discarded items found in the streets of the city, were closely linked to performance-art events known as Happenings, which also sought to expand the realm of art by drawing the audience into the physical environment as a total entity. One of the most influential of the artists involved with both Happenings and installations was Allan Kaprow; for his installation Words (New York, Smolin Gal., 1961) he combined numerous sheets and rolls of paper containing random arrangements of words with music played by several record-players, allowing spectators to walk right through this chaotic jumble. Joseph Beuys’s arcane installations, such as Room Sculpture, a collection of his earlier works gathered together for the specific gallery space at Documenta IV (Kassel, 1968), emerged from a similar background of actions and Happenings.

In contrast to these temporary or changeable displays, installations that were more fixed in form were made by other artists as early as the 1960s. In works such as The Beanery (1965; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.), for example, Edward Kienholz created detailed environments of real places through which the spectator could walk. Modelled on an actual bar in Los Angeles and built to half-scale, it reproduced its architectural source together with assembled figures, most of them heads in the form of clocks and tape-recorded sounds. As permanent, self-contained structures, such installations do not relate closely to the surrounding gallery space but could in principle be housed anywhere. She, a temporary work created by Niki de Saint- Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt for an exhibition held in 1966 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, was similarly enclosed. It consisted of a huge reclining female figure, which could be entered between the legs, with a variety of rooms with machines and further installations inside.

Oldenburg followed his installation The Street with The Store, housing it in a rented shop in New York for two months from December 1961. In this space, which functioned as both a studio and a commercial gallery, that is to say as source of production and as retail outlet, he sold sculptural replicas of ordinary manufactured objects and items of food displayed as if they formed part of a typical shop. This equation of commerce and mass production with the work of art, central to Pop art, was pursued also by Andy Warhol in an installation of sculptures replicating stacked supermarket cartons (New York, Stable Gal., 1964). At the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in April 1966, Warhol created two separate installations: one consisting of a room containing only silver-coloured helium-filled pillow shapes known as Silver Clouds, the other of walls covered in Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper, each in its way marking the artist’s removal from his work and renunciation of traditional painting. Oldenburg, for his part, created Bedroom Ensemble (1963; Ottawa, N.G.), an arrangement of furniture and other items in synthetic materials and false perspective: the ultimate Pop-art interior.

In the late 1960s and 1970s installations became a favoured form for artists working against the notion of the permanent, and therefore collectable, art object. It was essential, for instance, for Minimalists such as Dan Flavin, who modified the viewer’s perception of interior spaces through the precise placement of fluorescent light tubes of different colours, or Carl André, whose exhibitions of floor sculptures were designed in part to articulate the architectural setting in which they were housed. Installations of a temporary or changeable nature, such as Richard Serra’s Splashing (1968; for illustration see Process art) or Eva Hesse’s Rope Piece (1970; New York, Whitney; for illustration see Soft art), were produced by artists involved with process art. Even land artists, when working indoors, found installations to be a natural form for their work; Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977; New York, Dia A. Found.), a pristine-white gallery space filled with a deep layer of dirt, is perhaps the best-known example. In Conceptual Art, installations assumed paramount importance, given the fact that in replacing the art object with an idea it was only through its specific context that it could take form. In such works the installation as a complete entity, rather than as a collection of objects, becomes the work of art.

From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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