In the modern era of art galleries, particularly those with a focus on contemporary art, it’s hard to imagine not seeing example of installation art, but the concept only truly began to emerge in the 1970s, as the modern art era was fading and a postmodernist era was beginning. As a term installation art applies to anything that needs to be installed; typically sculptural, architectural, or conceptual, and usually created for a specific site and setting, they are often amongst the most critically and publicly discussed pieces of art. Contemporary major galleries, such as London’s Tate Modern, set aside a vast area for temporary installations from a wealth of great contemporary artists.
Installation art grew from a merging of ideas reaching back as far as Dada, through movements like conceptual, video, and performance art, and focused heavily on evoking feelings, atmospheres, and responses in the viewer. Often using “readymade” materials and subjects, much like Dada, it diverges from traditional sculpture by focusing on conceptual meaning and idea over form, and always hopes to surprise the viewer. It is also by nature anti-commodification; site specific installations are a difficult if not pointless thing to sell and relocate, all round making this difficult art to value in the traditional sense.
Perhaps the most direct ancestors of installation art were artists like Allan Kaprow who experimented with ideas in performance art and art happenings, and conceived environments as works of art, curating entire gallery spaces displaying different works and playing audio recordings and sounds.
The 1970s saw the emergence of installation art in earnest
Many would argue that the concept of installation art had always existed, but it only gained a name and a focus of it’s own in the 1970s; it was a decade of upheaval and change socially as well as artistically, and artists increasingly found themselves wanting to take into account a viewer’s complete sensory experience. Boundaries blurred between art forms as installations drew mediums from a range of movements, incorporating video, sound, LED displays, and performance in their original artworks.
After almost a century of modern art, critics and audiences finally stopped asking “but is it art?” and sought to understand this new thing in terms of it’s site specificity or general feeling. Artists rapidly evolved installations in a more conceptual direction though, looking to reference cultural and social concerns, with many contemporary art pieces critiquing themes such as consumerism, censorship, and social repression. Conceptualism would join with ideas like scale as essential tools, with pieces taking up multiple floors in an art gallery or vast space, striking an immediate visual impact and a true opportunity at immersion into a different atmosphere or world.
Interaction also became a crucial element, particularly as technology advanced, with virtual reality, AI, and the Internet becoming available as subject, medium, or mechanism to deliver the artwork experience.
Technology and interaction in contemporary installation art
All art interacts in some way with the viewer, but Installations are the first movement to seek full immersion and direct interaction through a range of techniques, which are becoming all the more diverse as technology advances, and installation art remains hugely popular in contemporary art galleries.
Cameras, screens, software, and computers link together to create fascinating effects; art pieces that respond and change according to the movements of the viewer’s body, others that ask the viewer to ‘catch’ a projection in order to trigger another, and in virtual realities almost anything is possible, even removing the laws of physics.
Installation art is a movement that has never really died, warmly embraced by art galleries, critics, viewers, and the press, people quickly appreciated what the art form was trying to achieve; they felt it as they walked into the space, a very different experience from looking at colours and forms on a canvas or art print in a frame on a wall.