In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Installation Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Space
  • Video Installation
  • Cultural Address
  • Medium Debate

Art History Installation Art
Julie Reiss
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0026


“Installation art” is a term applied to room-sized works of art that are large enough for the viewer to enter. While the term has been in use since the end of the 1980s, large-scale spatial works appeared sporadically in Europe beginning decades earlier and have been retroactively seen as precursors of this contemporary practice. In the 1960s and 1970s, a few scholars began to identify an increasing tendency for artists to create room-sized works of art. They variously called these works environments, art spaces, or situations and proposed art historical lineages for them, particularly the work of the Italian Futurists, El Lissitzky, and Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau. Initially the holistic ideals that led De Stijl and Russian Constructivist artists to create three-dimensional environments were cited alongside the gestures of Dada artists and Marcel Duchamp. A distinction between the latter and Modernist sources is more evident in recent scholarship. By the end of the 1990s, there were a considerable number of artists producing installation art in Europe and the United States, and the literature soon caught up, growing rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century. Initially, emphasis in the literature was on installation art’s formal qualities. Encyclopedias and glossaries of art identified ephemerality and response to the properties of a physical site as its key characteristics. However, this focus shifted as installation artists increasingly began engaging with cultural and social contexts, expanding the discussion of space to include these less tangible concerns. In recent years viewer participation has emerged as a central critical issue for installation art. While an emphasis on the viewer’s experience was discussed in response to some 1960s and 1970s installations, by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, viewer participation was foregrounded as a major entry point for analyses, and recent scholarship has continued this trend. Installation art defies traditional divisions between specific mediums, which continues to earn it both support and criticism. As a medium it challenges not only critics but historians as well. Ephemeral in nature, installation art initially posed similar difficulties to the historian as performance and body art, leaving few material remains. This has changed to a degree, as installation art is no longer assumed to be uncollectible. Conservation and preservation issues have also captured significant attention in recent years. Projects involving the sharing of information by international teams of curators, conservators, and artists not only have addressed practical concerns but also have raised questions about the essence of an installation that was conceived for a given space at a particular moment in time. The debate on reinstallation is a testament to installation art’s challenging nature and is an important consideration for the art historian.

General Overviews

The overviews in this section all employ the term “installation art.” In general, authors have offered classifications for installation art that cover its diverse manifestations and definitions that highlight one or another of its aspects. Zurbrugg 2001, originally published in 1991, asserts that three-dimensional space is the primary characteristic of installation art. De Oliveira, et al. 1994 finds a wide-ranging lineage for installation art based on concepts rather than formal qualities. Reiss 1999 is the first book-length study of installation art and defines installation art in terms of the viewer’s experience and the space. Gonzalez 1998 suggests that installation art’s contribution lies in its disruption of boundaries between audience, art, and space. De Oliveira, et al. 2004 focuses on contemporary immersive installations that completely transform a space. Bishop 2005 focuses on the specific types of participatory experience offered to the viewer of installation art. Coulter-Smith 2006 situates installation art in a critical framework that emphasizes its transgressive aspects. Ran 2009 finds installation art to be a new art form exemplary of postmodernism.

  • Bishop, Claire. Installation Art: A Critical History. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    A critical history of installation art that analyzes the nature of the different experiences offered to the viewer. International in scope, the book offers various frameworks including the psychoanalytic and the phenomenal as a means of characterizing the viewer’s experience of installation art. Reductive in its categorizations, yet useful as a starting place for considering critical entry points for any given installation.

  • Coulter-Smith, Graham. Deconstructing Installation Art: Fine Art and Media Art, 1986–2006. Southampton, UK: CASIAD, 2006.

    This online book locates installation art in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Uses the term “deconstructive art,” a lineage Bürger dates back to Marcel Duchamp, Dada, and Surrealism. Emphasis is on the transgressive aspects of installation art and its potential to close the gap between art and the viewer. Somewhat dense but worth the effort.

  • De Oliveira, Nicolas, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry. Installation Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

    Well-illustrated general overview for the nonspecialist of the beginnings and development of installation art as an emerging art form. Presents the idea of artwork as an environment that must be inhabited by the spectator instead of merely being looked at. Almost too all encompassing to be useful in defining the genre.

  • De Oliveira, Nicolas, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry. Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

    A follow-up to Installation Art (De Oliveira, et al. 1994), this well-illustrated volume includes installations by a wide range of international artists, organized by theme. Written at a moment when installation art had recently become ubiquitous, the book overall captures the energy of contemporary installation art. Interesting introduction by Jonathan Crary contextualizes the artwork in relation to contemporary experience.

  • Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Installation Art.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Kelly, 503–508. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    A comprehensive encyclopedia entry on installation art. Discusses the meaning of this art form as well as citing texts dealing with the subject, such as Victor Burgin’s “Situational Aesthetics” (Burgin 2009, cited under Installation Art Experience). The article also talks about landmark exhibitions and important works in the development of installation art. Available online by subscription.

  • Ran, Faye. A History of Installation Art and the Development of New Art Forms: Technology and the Hermeneutics of Time and Space in Modern and Postmodern Art from Cubism to Installation. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

    Ran regards installation art as the preeminent postmodern art form and situates it in relation to technological and cultural shifts in the 20th century. Dense and at times convoluted but contributes new ideas regarding installation art’s sources.

  • Reiss, Julie H. From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art. Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1999.

    Identifies installation art’s salient features. Using critical reception, interviews, and photographic documentation, Reiss traces the history of installations in New York from the marginal alternative spaces of the art world to mainstream museums by the early 1990s. Clearly written, the book offers a methodology for the art historian addressing installations that are no longer extant.

  • Zurbrugg, Nicholas. “Installation Art: Essence and Existence.” In What Is Installation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation Art. Edited by Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio, 25–31. Sydney, Australia: Power Publications, 2001.

    Originally published in Australian Perspecta in 1991 (Newton, Australia: Contemporary Art Resource). Zurbrugg presents the use of three-dimensional space as the defining characteristic of contemporary installation art.

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