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What Is_?Installation Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Installation Art

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Installation Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Installation Art is a broad term applied to a range of arts practice which involves the installation or configuration of objects in a space, where the totality of objects and space comprise the artwork. Installation Art is a mode of production and display of artwork rather than a movement or style. Installation Art can comprise traditional and non-traditional Media, such as PaintingSculptureReadymadesFound ObjectsDrawing and Text. Depending on the number of objects and the nature of the display, installation spaces can range from cluttered to minimal. The experience for the viewer of Installation Art is very different from more traditional artwork, such as painting, which is usually viewed from a single reference point. Installation Art requires the active engagement of the viewer with the artwork. This may involve the viewer entering into the space of the artwork and interacting with the artwork. By entering into the space, the viewer encounters the artwork from multiple points of view, rather than from a single Perspective more typically associated with looking at a painting. Installation Art may engage many or all of the senses – touch, sound and smell – rather than just the visual or optical sense. Installation Art also foregrounds experience and communication over the production of a finished art object.

Installation Art is characterised by the incorporation of the Site or space of display into the artwork. In some instances the site or location of the work is an intrinsic and non-negotiable element of the work. To move the work or recreate it in another site would constitute the destruction of the existing work and the creation of a new work, which may contravene the artist’s intentions. This type of Installation Art is called Site-Specific Art, where the creation of the artwork relates to, and is contingent on, a specific site. Many artists who create Installation Art impose conditions and provide detailed instructions with regard to the installation of the artwork, such as indicating where and how it can be installed, what materials are to be used, and whether it can be reinstalled in the same or any other site.


While the site is a central component of Installation Art, in some instances it may not be particular to the artwork; therefore the artwork can be reconfigured or reassembled in other similar sites or spaces in its existing state or in a reconfigured state, subject to the conditions of the artist. For example, an installation might be assembled and exhibited in various gallery spaces within an Art Museum or in a context outside the museum, such as a public space or in an Art Fair or Biennale.

Installation Art is mostly associated with the period from the 1960s to the present; yet there are many precedents, particularly in early twentieth century Avant-Garde movements, such as SuprematismConstructivismDadaSurrealism and Futurism. For example, the exhibition designs of El Lissitzky, Marcel Duchamp and the alterations made by Kurt Schwitters to the rooms in his home, known as Merzbau, suggest early prototypes of Installation Art.

The formative period of Installation Art, during the 1960s and 1970s, was a period of social, political and cultural upheaval. A number of avantgarde movements which have influenced the development of Installation Art, such as MinimalismEnvironmental ArtLand ArtConceptual Art and Performance Art, emerged during this period in reaction to the perceived limitations of Modernism – the Commodification of the artwork, the foregrounding of representation over experience and the constraints imposed by a singular, detached encounter with the artwork. By abandoning constructs such as the frame and the plinth, Minimalist artists resisted strategies of representation and transcendence characteristic of Painting and Sculpture, drawing the viewer’s attention instead to the totality of the actual experience of the artwork – its materials, context and site. Similarly, developments in Environmental Art, Land Art, Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Happenings and Video Art resulted in the creation of temporary, performative and site-specific work, subverting the commodification of the artwork and shifting consideration from what the artwork represents to what the artwork communicates. By revealing the material conditions of display, artists challenged the dominance of the conventional viewing conditions of the art institution.

Emerging critical theories during this period, in particular FeminismPostcolonial Theory and Poststructuralism, challenged modernist assumptions about a stable, predictable and singular viewing subject. These theories suggest that individuals are shaped by their cultural, social, political and psychological experiences and that these experiences inform their encounter with an artwork. As a mode of production and presentation, Installation Art offers a complex and multifarious engagement with the artwork, which reflects this representation of experience as fragmented and contingent.


The increase in new venues and large-scale, international exhibitions in the 1980s established the conditions for Installation Art to become a dominant format, particularly in the production of large-scale and spectacular work. Emerging artist-curated exhibitions placed a greater emphasis on the role of Collaboration in Installation Art. While site specificity was an important element of early forms of Installation Art, more recent forms tend to adapt to the interior conditions of the exhibition space. In this regard, site specificity has been displaced in favour of project-based, participatory or discursive forms of installation, where interaction with the viewer or audience is central to the artwork. This shift in emphasis towards discursive and participatory modes of practice was also influenced by the emergence of Socially Engaged and Participatory Arts in the 1980s and by Relational Art in the 1990s. These modes of practice emphasise the activation of the viewer through active engagement with the artwork.

The emergence of new technologies has also influenced the development of Installation Art, in particular Video and Film where many artists employ and subvert the conventions of the cinematic experience in terms of its use of space, narrative and engagement with the audience. More recent developments in Digital TechnologyVirtual Reality and the Internet as virtual space, have expanded the field of Installation Art. Installation Art continues to be shaped and influenced by developments in other fields and disciplines. The performative elements of Installation Art have been influenced by developments in avant-garde Theatre and Dance and similarly, developments in Architecture and Interior Design continue to inform consideration of the use and designation of public and private space.

The viewer’s direct experience of the artwork is central to the realisation of Installation Art, yet the display of Installation Art is often temporary. The documentation of the artwork may be the only evidence of its existence, and in some instances it may be the sole means by which the viewer engages with the artwork. The temporary and ephemeral nature of much Installation Art also presents a challenge to the art market to commodify and sell such artwork, wherein the documentation may come to represent the artwork and, consequently, it may acquire a commercial value in its own right. Equally, the temporary nature of Installation Art presents considerable challenges to museums and galleries to store and conserve such work, especially where the work employs potentially obsolete technology or degradable material. Despite these challenges, Installation Art continues to be bought and collected by public and private collectors and institutions, often resulting in the consolidation of temporary or ephemeral work. Rather than contributing to the decommodification of the artwork, the material conditions of Installation Art have effected changes in the display, acquisition, commissioning and conservation policies of exhibiting institutions, enabling them to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of such practice.

The term Installation Art is broad and all-encompassing and its prevalence and centrality in Contemporary Art is seen by some to suggest its imminent demise; however, artists continue to employ and adapt strategies of installation. Its versatility and flexibility as a mode of production and display, and its capacity to address the concerns of both the artist and the viewer, ensure that it remains a legitimate and relevant form of Contemporary Arts practice.


Reading List

Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the Twentieth Century, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Emma Barker (ed.), Contemporary Cultures of Display, London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 1999.
Andrew Benjamin (ed.), Installation Art, London: Academy Editions, 1993.
Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, London: Tate Publishing, 2005.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 1998.
Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2003.
Nicolas De Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry and Michael Archer, Installation Art, Washington DC and London: Smithsonian Books, Thames & Hudson, 1996.
Nicolas De Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Petry, Installation Art in the New Millennium, London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Claire Doherty (ed.), Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.
Editors of Phaidon Press, Vitamin 3-D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2009.
Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Roselee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art Since the ‘60s, London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Jennifer A. González, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2008.
Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking About Exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Ilya Kabakov, On the “Total” Installation. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 1995.
Lewis Kachur, Displaying the Marvelous. Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Surrealist Exhibition Installations, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001.
Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments & Happenings, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966.
Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, New York: Allworth Press, 1999.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge Classics, 2002.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Faye Ran, 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 Publishing, 2009.
John B. Ravenal, Artificial Light: New Light-based Sculpture and Installation Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2008.
Julie H. Reiss, From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
Mark Rosenthal, Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer, Munich: Prestel Publishing, 2003.
Erika Suderburg, Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Linda Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society, 1970s – 1990s, Litchfield, CT: Art Insights Inc., 1997.


We invited Niamh Ann Kelly, lecturer in Critical Theory, Department of Art, Design and Printing, in the Dublin Institute of Technology, to write an essay titled Here and Now: Art, Trickery, Installation which provides an overview of Installation Art. Kelly’s essay includes examples of artists and artworks, some of which are included in IMMA’s Collection or have been featured in IMMA’s Temporary Exhibitions.

By focusing on IMMA’s Collection and exhibitions we hope to draw attention to the range of artworks by artists such as Ann Hamilton, Gerard Byrne, Liam Gillick, James Coleman, Cristina Iglesias, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Abigail O’Brien, Fergus Martin and Anthony Hobbs. We also hope to highlight the potential of IMMA’s exhibitions and Collection as resources for further investigation and enquiry into the subject of Installation Art.






Video: What is Installation Art? Pt. 1


Video: What is Installation Art? Pt. 2


Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June. A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. There are three exhibitions to visit  Hilary Heron: A Retrospective; Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s shop, café and gardens are all open.