Research point – Some notes on installation art

Notes taken on reading the article But is it installation art? by Claire Bishop, published on 1 January 2005 on Tate Etc. issue 3: Spring 2005, accessible at:

The article deals with how the concept of installation art was born and how it developed through the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties till today.

Today  installation art has come to denote almost any arrangement of objects in a closed or open space and being so general seems to have almost lost any meaning.

But in the Sixties the word installation was more specific and described the way in which an exhibition was arranged, whereas the photographic documentation of this arrangement was called an installation shot. So the term had a neutral quality, especially in connection to Minimalism, which drew attention to the space where the exhibition was staged and to the direct engagement between the objects and this space.

Since then, the distinction between installation art and an installation of works of art has become blurred. Both point to a desire to heighten the viewer’s awareness of how objects are positioned (installed) in a space, and of our response to that arrangement. But there are important differences. In installation art the environment in which the objects are installed is also part of the work: the whole situation in its totality claims to be the work of art —> totalising approach. Whereas in an installation of works of art the objects exist as separate entities.

The totalising approach of installation art creates for the viewer an immersive experience. In Kabakov‘s words:

‘The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.’

In the Seventies, the involvement (‘activation‘) of the viewer is seen as an alternative to the passive (‘pacifying‘) effects of mass-media television, mainstream films and magazines.  Interactivity could function as an artistic parallel for political activism.

In the Eighties, by contrast, installation art was more visual and lavish, often characterised by giganticism and excessive use of materials.

The way in which installation art insists upon the viewer’s presence in a space has necessarily led to a number of problems about how it is remembered. You have to make big imaginative leaps if you haven’t actually experienced the work first hand.

In the Nineties, we see its glorification as the institutionally approved artform par excellence, best seen in the spectacular pieces that fill museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Some critics have argued that this trajectory signals the final capitulation of installation art to the culture industry.

But installation art is rarely acquired by museums, which prefer to buy painting, sculpture, photography and even video as forms of safer investments. Instead, installation art is used to create high-impact gestures within huge exhibition spaces: wall-size video/film projections, oversize photographs and overwhelming sculptures. Rather than ‘inducing awareness and provoking thought’, wrote Meyer, this type of art is ‘marshalled to overwhelm and pacify’.

Another increasingly visible aspect of installation art is the artist-curated exhibition (Mike Kelley, John Bock).

Conclusion of the author, Claire Bishop: installation art means many things, the term describes ‘a mode and type of production rather than a movement or strong ideological framework’ (Gillick). It is still characterised by a desire to activate the viewer – as opposed to the passivity of mass-media consumption – and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves. 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.

Installation artists mentioned in the Tate article, for further study:


Gabriel Orozco – Allan Kaprow – Claes Oldenburg – Ilya Kabakov – Vito Acconci – Hélio Oiticica – Bruce Nauman – Olafur Eliasson –  Ann Hamilton – Cildo Meireles – Martin Creed – Anish Kapoor – Matthew Barney – Liam Gillick –  Thomas Hirschhorn – Paul McCarthy –  Dominique Gonzales-Foerster – Rirkrit Tiravanija – Christine Hill – Carsten Höller – Jorge Pardo – Michael Lin –  Gregor Schneider – John Block – Mike Kelley – John Bock –


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