Project 3: Place in Art

Exercise 3, continued – But is it installation art? [accessed 29/03/17]

Written by Claire Bishop
Published 1 January 2005
From Tate Etc. issue 3: Spring 2005

To build on background knowledge of diverse media and the role of “place” in art, students were instructed to read the above-linked article, But is it Installation Art? on the Tate website.

My notes:

Interrogation of overused contemporary art term: “installation art”

  • I identify with this! What constitutes installation art?
  • Like the term “contemporary art” itself, “installation art” is slippery as a term, has evolved with ideas, context, influence, artists who appropriate the term/fall into the category of “installation artists
  • Definition of term, according to the text:

    Almost any arrangement of objects in a given space can now be referred to as installation art. […] It has become the catch-all description that draws attention to its staging, and as a result it’s almost totally meaningless.

Did this term ever mean anything more specific?

  • 1960s – The term was first used by serious arts magazines (ie: ArtForum) to describe the way the exposition was arranged; photo documentation of this was called “installation shot.”
  • Minimalists like the term as it felt neutral, compared to the more expressive/messy term “environment”
  • Around the same time, the Minimalism movement was interested in the (typically very bare) space in which a work was shown; this led to the idea that the viewer’s relationship/engagement/experience of the work within a space was itself a work of art.
  • Since, unclear distinction between “installation art” (engagement with the totality of the curated space as a work of art itself) and an “installation of works of art” (which happens anytime an exposition is installed, or set up.

But there are differences! 

  • Text uses example of a room of paintings by Glenn Brown versus a room of paintings by Ilya Kabakov.
    • For Brown, each painting is a stand-alone piece of art.
    • For Kabakov, whose series of paintings are installed in a fictional soviet museum, the paintings are part of a total experience, of which the fictional museum is a crucial element.
  • This “total experience” led viewers, critics to think about installation art as “immersive.”
  • An installation is large enough to enter (space + art = total art experience), so installation artists are concerned with viewer’s presence, experience, interaction.
  • Since its emergence in the 60s, installation art has sought to provide viewers with intense experiences.
  • In 60s through 70s, as installation art movement gained momentum, the idea of “activating the spectator” became a socio-political impetus against the pacifying/unifying effects mainstream/mass media: TV, film, magazines (marketing/advertising)….

Noteworthy installation artists

  • Vito Acconci (US) : interested in interactivity and political activism in art
    • believed that artistic engagement could also inspire revolution
  • Hélio Oiticica (Brazil) : interested in “supra-sensorial” experiences as an antidote to political oppression (creating during time of military dictatorship).
    • Sought to free the individual from oppressive state: radicalized “hanging out”
  • Bruce Nauman (US) : concerned with body’s response to space, sought to subvert viewer expectations of space through video feedback, mirrors, harsh lighting, “video corridors” of the 70s, etc.
    • interested in unresolvable tensions, keeping spectators on the edge of understanding, preventing them from relating in a fixed way to space.
  • Olafur Eliasson
  • Ann Hamilton
  • Cildo Meireles  – work Volatile simulates danger to heighten sensory experience.

Interesting! Installation art insists on our actual presence, so any displaced representation (ie: photographic documentation aka “installation shots”), even memory of the work, is particularly problematic. So really tracing the genre/movement’s history/emergence is equally frought.

[In installation art y]ou have to make big imaginative leaps if you haven’t actually experienced the work first hand. Like a joke that fails to be funny when repeated, you had to be there.

A timeline tracing the movement’s life thus far

Installation Art timeline.jpg
Timeline created using online resource at ReadWriteThink. [accessed 30/03/17]
  • Glorification of installation art best represented by huge pieces designed to fill big, architectually-impressive spaces, such as at New York’s Guggenheim or Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, or in “romantically half-derelict” and trendy spots like abandoned barns or warehouses.
  • [Artforum writer] James Meyer […] quoted critic Hal Foster on the Bilbao Guggenheim:

‘To make a big splash in the global pond of spectacle culture today, you have to have a big rock to drop.’ Big audiences are assumed to demand […] big works: wall-size video/film projections, oversize photographs, overwhelming sculptures.

  • Originally, installation art disrupted the market because impossible to sell; this is no longer the case, although installation art represents a relatively small fraction of gallery acquisitions.
    • Photos, paintings, sculptures, video remain safer investments: more durable, portable.
    • Personal response: The author argues that installation art represents a small fraction of gallery acquisitions, but even a couple giant installation pieces take up a lot of physical, intellectual and emotional energy in the contained space of a gallery. It can feel disproportionate to the spectator.
  • While several video installation artists have won the Turner Prize, only Martin Creed has won for his site-specific The Lights Going on and off 2001.
  • Many critics wary of installation’s art surrender to the “culture industry” (ie: bigger is better mentality; pieces that seek impress and overwhelm (pacify) rather than provoke thoughtful inquiry (activate)).
    • Examples of “wow” installation art” Amish Kapoor’s Marsyas, Matthew Barney’s recreated Cremaster film sets.
  • Today, installation work tends to emphasize an awareness of space without necessarily soliciting the viewer’s active engagement in order to complete the work’s meaning.
    • Nicolas Bourriard describes this as relational aesthetics.

Trends in installation art today

  • Rirkrit Tiravanija’s NYC appartment, available for viewers to use and appropriate as they liked
  • Christine Hill’s Volksboutique, a second-hand clothes shop.
  • Carston Höller’s contraptions and experiments
  • Jorge Pardo’s interior designs (more a backdrop to activity than the “main event”
    • Personal response: In the case of Hill and Pardo, still not clear as to why this is art. What differentiates Hill’s creativity from that of another vintage shop owner, or Pardo’s interiors from those of a successful designer? The labeling here interests me. Is this just an example of self-defined and institutionally-recognized artists “deciding” (to recall Grayson Perry’s “What is art” lecture) that what they’ve done is art instead of something else?
  • Mike Kelley’s The Uncanny 1993, reflects the trend toward “artist-curated expositions”.
    • exposition operates doubly as a display of standalone objects by multiple artists and as a single object/piece by the artist-curator.


  • Installation art is many things, “a mode and type of production rather than a movement or strong ideological framework.” (Liam Gillick)
  • While there’s no “manifesto” per se, certain themes and ideas persist:
    • Artist’s desire to activate the viewer (as opposed to passivity espoused by mass consumption).
    • Artist’s desire to raise awareness of the viewer’s physical space.
  • Installation art’s institutional “popularity” is coming under more question as its manifestations tend to imitate/recreate/represent our daily experiences/transactions.

The best installation art is marked by a sense of antagonism towards its environment, a friction with its context that resists organisational pressure and instead exerts its own terms of engagement.

Summary of text:

Installation art is an overused term, often confused with any art that has been “installed” in any way, and it’s difficult to define. It refers and gives importance to the interaction between (art) objects and the space they occupy, but also to how the spectator experiences both those elements together. Installation art emerged alongside the Modernist movement as a desire to consider the (typically bare) space surrounding a work, or works, as an integral part of the work itself. It evolved as artists sought to engage, activate and offer a fully-sensorial experience to viewers, often as a response or antidote to cultural pacification. Installation art gained momentum and institutional love in the 80s and 90s; big works gave way to big crowds gave way to big market value. One major current trend in installation art is in recreating immersive environments that imitate scenes from our daily activities. Today many critics wonder about the cultural value of most installation art, accusing a once-revolutionary form of art of pandering to the market and the masses.

Relation to my own work:

While I’m not sure this piece has a direct correlation to my own work, for the time being at least, it certainly informs my experience of contemporary art. I’ve often wondered what the term “installation art” actually means (although I had some clear-ish ideas), and I think this article does a great job of hashing out the Minimalist values it emerged from, how the kinds of work that fall into this broad category have opened up and evolved over time, and why the movement (the proverbial victim of its own success) is considered by some to have “sold out.”


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