Just what is Installation Art? A Whistlestop Tour

Investigating Installation Art

One of the hottest trends in art exhibitions of the early 2020s was the immersive exhibition. These showcases, in which works by later nineteenth-century masters like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh seemingly come to life in all-enveloping spaces, dazzled audiences by engulfing each visitor in the beauty of each work of art. While these displays called upon cutting-edge technologies to create these captivating spaces, the idea behind such exhibitions was one that took root years before the advent of installation art. Today, installation art continues to be some of the most revolutionary art in production. What’s more, leading figures in the contemporary art world like Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama and Kara Walker have turned to the practice to make bold and powerful artistic statements.

So just what is installation art? Some might try to describe it merely as sculpture, but installation art is more than just a three-dimensional form. Rather, it speaks to the desire to create an all-encompassing experience. Generally speaking, installation art is a work rendered at an adequately large scale to dominate or at times consume a space and shift the way the viewer relates to and engages with the work. In other words, installation art creates its own environment and in doing so can explore marvellous manipulations of material and scale to leave the viewer feeling transported into another world altogether. In this article, we explore these otherworldly realms with a deep dive into the history of installation art. We’ll look at some of the key makers to understand why this field of artistic production continues to be so richly explored.

A History of Installation Art

The dynamic nature of installation art stems in part from its rich history derived from the intersections of several 20th-century avant-garde art movements. Let’s look briefly at some of these key junctures:


While the earliest works to earn the label of installation art emerged in the 1960s, the roots of the ideology can be traced back to the early decades of the 20th century when artists were grappling with how to reinvest art with new creative energy. For many of the previous generations, art had been defined by the pursuit of conveying a certain type of reality within the confines of a composition. Audiences celebrated oil paintings, for example, when they emulated the smooth, slick finish of Renaissance masters. Sculpture, meanwhile, garnered attention when it mimicked the idealized forms of the Classical body.

The artists of the early 20th-century avant-garde, however, wanted to accomplish more with their work. Rather than idealized forms, they wanted to reinvest their work with emotion and expression. In place of perfected surfaces kept at a distance, the Modernist avant-guard sought to question the nature of art itself, addressing how modern audiences could engage with it more directly. In short, these innovators sought a new path for art, one that spoke to a modern generation more directly and that changed the relationship between the viewer and the work of art.

Kurt Schwitters, The Merzbau reconstruction.

Kurt Schwitters, The Merzbau reconstruction. Image credit: cea + via Flickr.

Several artists of this period focused directly on this challenge. For example, Marcel Duchamp, a key French innovator of the Dada movement, was one of the pioneers of this new way of thinking. In the 1910s, he explored the potential of bringing unexpected objects into the gallery to confrontation an audience’s expectations of fine art. These installations, which later became known as “readymades”, consisted of elements manufactured for wholly practical purposes – for example, snow shovels, bottle racks, and bicycle tires – which were then presented in new combinations or with new titles that upended those functional roles. By creating these sculptures, Duchamp was tasking his audience with contemplating how the experiencing of these forms in the gallery space might change the way we look at them. On the one hand, he was pushing the definition of art; on the other hand, he was experimenting with our experience of it.

Also fuelling installation art’s development by this time were the powerful conceptual works by figures like German artist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was a fellow Dadaist who, by the 1930s, had pioneered his first Merzbau, an architectural experiment that transformed interior spaces into abstract, almost Cubist, interiors using geometric planes of wood. “Merz” was a term Schwitters coined to refer to his own brand of Dadaist thinking, so his Merzbau became, as New York’s Museum of Modern Art described it, “a walk-in collage” of forms to which Schwitters added continuously. The result was an interior landscape that was always shifting, meaning that those who entered the space would need to interact with its many surfaces and shapes with a new level of depth. 


As the work of Duchamp and Schwitters gained traction in the art world, even more dynamic examples of installation art began to emerge. Duchamp, for example, debuted in 1966 his installation art diorama entitled, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ), which featured a reclining female nude set within a fantastical landscape only visible through a peep-hole carved in a large wooden door. Via this piece of art, Duchamp nudged his work into the realm of Surrealism, while also transcending the bounds of a singular sculpture to create an environment where the clandestine mode of viewing enhanced its allure. With works like Given, Duchamp introduced 1960s audiences to the visual power of installation art.

Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ).

Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ). Image credits: Left-hand image: Regan Vercruysse via Flickr. Right-hand image: Darren and Brad via Flickr.

Sharing in that energy was French conceptual artist Yves Klein’s influential  The Void (1958). This work of art comprised a completely vacant gallery space – that Klein modified only by painting the walls white – as a commentary on the different sensations it is possible to feel within the shell of an exhibition space. At the same time, Klein was challenging notions of the modern museum, a critique picked up by Belgian Surrealist Marcel Broodthaers. In a similar vein, Broodthaers transformed part of his home into the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), an installation work designed to emulate a museum collection (but focused on eagles!) Like Klein, Broodthaers aimed for his installation to both change the way viewers engage with art and adjust thinking about the museum and its constructs. 

At the same time, the first wave of performance art pieces by figures like Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, and Allan Kaprow took place. Both Oldenburg’s early live performances, also known as “happenings,” and Nauman’s recorded performance works, like Wall-Floor Positions (1968), encouraged viewers to question the definition of art. At the same time, Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1968), included choreographed performances that were designed to include the audience, thereby making them active participants in the final manifestation of the work. 

These ideas were both essential to the evolution of installation art and would also eventually become roots of subsequent art movements. For instance, Oldenburg expanded his repertoire to include commentaries like those of Klein and Broodthaers in The Store (1961), where he created a fictional gallery space to sell his work along with other odds-and-ends. This work of art, equal parts conceptual, performance, and installation, ushered Oldenburg into the realm of the Pop Art movement that was just taking shape at the time.

Famous Examples of Installation Art

These essential figures – all of whom were pivotal in the development of such varied 20th-century art movements – pushed the space of the art gallery into new territory by showcasing that the experience could be more than a static display of art objects. Their work became a springboard for the following generations to continue to explore the realm of installation art. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more spectacular examples of installation art from the second half of the 20th century to today. 

Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961) 

American artist Alan Kaprow’s innovative contributions to the field of installation art were apparent in his work even before his landmark 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Evidence of that point comes in the form of Yard, which included numerous black rubber tires scattered in jumbled disarray across the garden space of the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. Paired with nebulous tar-paper-covered forms, these objects were unfixed such that visitors to the space could move, toss, or otherwise alter the rubberized landscape.

Yayoi Kusama’s Phalli’s Field (1965)

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s work is known the world over for its embrace of the polka dot and its repetitive organic forms. These are the characteristics, for instance, that earned her a prestigious collaboration with famed fashion house Louis Vuitton earlier this year, however, these same features launched one of her first iconic installations known today as her infinity rooms more than fifty years ago. Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field debuted in 1965 at New York’s Castellane Gallery and conveyed an endless repetition of forms thanks to her use of mirrored walls that fractured and replicated a sea of red polka-dots emblazoned on tufts, or “tubers,” of fabric. 

The result for viewers was the sensation of entering an endless landscape of these polka-dotted projections. Since that room’s debut, Kusama has created at least twenty different infinity rooms, including her recent Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013). This room employed the same mirror technique to create the sensation upon entering that the visitor is meandering through infinite space (despite the fact that the room is only a modest 196 square feet, the same size as the average American dining room).

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)

Still a popular landmark along the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson was influential as it carried the ideas of installation art into a new field known as “earthworks”. So named because they are constructed from the materials of the landscape in which they are installed, earthworks allowed for installation art to focus on the natural landscape with a new vigor. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was built from mud and basalt into a conical shape that extends along the noted lake’s north-eastern shoreline. Enhancing these materials are salt crystals that have formed over time to change the appearance of the work – an element enhanced by the ever-changing water line – resulting in an example of installation art that will forever change with the landscape. 

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty. Image credit: Elizabeth Haslam via Flickr.

Judy Chicago, Dinner Party (1972-1974)

Everyone’s welcome to dine on Judy Chicago’s iconic installation piece, Dinner Party, which features a massive triangle-shaped banquet table at which a place has been set for nearly 40 famous women from history. Celebrated figures like Emily Dickinson and Sojourner Truth sit alongside fantastical heroines like Judith and Ishtar as a statement of the incredible importance women have played throughout human history. The power of Chicago’s message made Dinner Party an early icon of the feminist art movement; the sheer scale of her work makes it a prime example of installation art as well.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979. Image credit: Neil R via Flickr.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

One of the first works to introduce the world to the controversy that installation art can incite, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc was a massive steel sculpture more than 100 feet long, commissioned for the Federal Plaza in New York. Serra designed the colossal work as a site-specific work (meaning he developed it for this specific location). This specificity showed in the work’s design, as the gentle arc of the steel behemoth created an artful geometric pairing with the plaza’s stonework when seen from above. The challenge to Tilted Arc, however, came from ground level. Soon after installation, professionals who worked in the two government buildings on either side of the plaza began to complain as the installation impeded their access between towers. This was part of Serra’s design; like other installation artists before him, he envisioned this rerouting as a means of audience engagement with or activation of the work. The public, though, thought otherwise. Following petitions and public hearings, Tilted Arc was taken down in 1989.

Nam June Paik, The More, The Better (1988)

Installation artist and widely accepted father of video art, Korean artist Nam June Paik rose to acclaim with works that toyed with the materials of modern technology. From his Robot K-465 (1964) to TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) created in collaboration with Charlotte Moorman, Paik enjoyed working at a colossal scale in a larger questioning of the role of technology in our modern world. Such was the theme of one of his most substantial installations, The More, The Better, which consisted of a staged tower of more than 1,000 cathode ray tube televisions that soar to a height of over 60 feet. Originally designed to celebrate the 1988 Olympics – hosted by the city of Seoul  – it still stands today in the halls of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Gwacheon in Gyeonggi.

Damian Hirst, Pharmacy (1992)

British artist Damien Hirst has never been one to shy away from provocative subjects, a testament to which was his formaldehyde-preserved shark at the centrepiece of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). This is perhaps why he’s a natural fit in the contemporary conversation over installation art. In Pharmacy, Hirst showcases his talents for manifesting seemingly real spaces with just a few hints of the absurdly contrived vision actually at play. As the title suggests, here he recreated a portion of a drugstore, with shelves lined with pill bottles and medical implements. His references recall a real pharmacy, but the streamlined sensibility that dominates the work reminds the viewer that all they’re seeing is a manufactured fantasy. Nevertheless, Hirst’s false world pulls us in with remarkable ease. Following works like Pharmacy, Hirst has continued to explore the potential of even more grand installation art. A case in point: his exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2017, where his vision for his showcase, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, towered over visitors.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy. Image credit: ACME via Flickr.

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003)

A massive glowing sun seemingly hovering over the hazy horizon might recall dawn on the Sahara or sunset over the skyline of a smog-riddled Los Angeles, but for Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson it served as the focal point of his massive installation at Tate Modern’s Turbine. Entitled The Weather Project, Eliasson’s work became a marvellous play of colour and light in another fantastic example of site-specific design. Using dim lamps and mirrored panels to create the illusion of a burning orb at the core of the gallery space, Eliasson convincingly created the sensation for visitors, when sprawled on the floor beneath, that they were floating weightlessly through the universe.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, L’Arc De Triomphe Wrapped (1962 – 2021)

Artistic couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude earned a reputation during the late 20th century for their wrapped works, but it is perhaps L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped that is their most, well, triumphant. Originally envisioned in 1962, shortly after the couple had met, L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped was to be their first colossal exercise in wrapping: their goal was to envelop the Napoleonic monument in the heart of Paris with more than 260,000 square feet of gauzy fabric. 

Unfortunately, their vision was met with bureaucratic pushback such that years would pass before their wrapped arch would materialize. In between, they completed numerous other similar installations, including among them Wrapped Coast (1968-1969), The Pont Neuf Wrapped (1975-1985), Wrapped Trees (1997-1998), and The Floating Piers (2014-2016). The reveal of L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped, though, unfortunately one year after Christo’s death, set a new benchmark for their innovative installations that will undoubtedly carry far into the future.

Christo et Jeanne-Claude, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, 1961 – 2021.

Christo et Jeanne-Claude, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, 1961 – 2021. Image credit: Retis via Flickr.

Michael Heizer, City (1970-2022) 

Sure to be one of 2022’s hottest installation art tickets, Michael Heizer’s City opens to the public in early September after fifty years of development in Nevada’s Basin and Range National Monument. It features a sprawling network of architectural forms built from rock, concrete, and dirt that are almost reminiscent of ancient temple ruins that both align with and yet are distinct from the surrounding mountain landscape. City is officially the largest sculpture on record – it consumes a footprint of more than 8,000,000 square feet – but truly is an installation experience half a century in the making.

The Afterlives of Installation Art 

As these examples have shown, installation art can run the gamut from massively imposing sculptural groups, like Michael Heizer’s City, to the more diminutive space of a Yayoi Kusama infinity room that nevertheless seems to carry on for eternity. From the collector’s standpoint, though, it is fair to ask what the longevity of these works is on the auction market over time. Like all other modern and contemporary movements, the popular appeal of installation art waxes and wanes depending on the trends not only in collecting but also in gallery showcases. That being said, installation art has proven itself over the past century to be one of the most central fields of contemporary art.

Perhaps this is thanks to shifts in technology – those immersive van Gogh exhibitions mentioned earlier, for example, rely upon virtual reality technology to make the illusion of the environment complete. At the same time, though, some of the most exceptional examples of installation art stand relatively unchanged from the point of their creation decades ago. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, for example, can still be enjoyed along the shores of the Great Salt Lake, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party continues to be a source of discussion when it comes to feminism and gender equality.

Why are these works so enduring in their popularity? Perhaps it is because they so deeply connect with their audience. At the root, this is the power of installation art: its ability to transport its viewer to another time or place and engage them in the fantasy that the work hopes to instil. If you are ready to escape into the world of installation art, let this article be your guide.