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The Genre of Installation Art
© 1997 by Lawra S. G. Conklin

An installation presents a visualization of interior experience 3-dimensionally

Following is not exactly an "article", but rather a collection of recent e-mail from me to non-artists, dealing with Christian art and attempts by me to explain to non-artists what the genre of installation art comprises. This is in no way intended to be a formal exhaustive definition.

(from an e-mail to Garry Adkins)

A Definition Of Installation Art for Garry Adkins.

Dear Garry, I am glad you asked. The interesting thing is you are the first to ask. I am certain that many other people are also not aware of installation art, and so I will attempt a definition for you.

Installation Art Is Not New. The first instance of installation art that I can recall from art history would be some of the work of Marcel Duchamp, known primarily as a Dada-ist and for his scandalous "ready made" sculpture, a urinal. Apart from all utilitarian associations and the undeniable awareness on the part of Duchamp of how naughty it would be to present a urinal as art, or rather sculpture, the fact remains that a gleaming white ceramic urinal truly has marvelous sculptural qualities and can be seen as a thing of elegant beauty.

However, Duchamp's urinal was not an "installation", any more than any other single man-made or machine-made single object is an installation, even though it may be "installed" on a pedestal. Other works by Duchamp which could be termed "installation art" involved groupings of objects in 3-dimensional space, which could be walked around or through. A sculpture of bronze, wood, metal, plastic, etc., also exists in 3-dimensional space, and can be walked around, but is essentially a "discrete", meaning unitary, or isolated, one-part, kind of work. An "installation", however, is usually formed of many components, or at least several. Materials are diverse and complex.

During the 70's there began to be a number of "video installations" by artists. These would utilize one or any number of video monitors and would present:

  • images of the artist involved in some kind of activity which might be quite commonplace and mundane, or an activity quite out of the ordinary and/or bizarre, beautiful or the opposite, fascinating or endlessly tedious;
  • the focus of a camera in a "video installation" would be directed away from the artist toward the outside world and would depict images from the real world, in real time, involving real people and real places.
  • or the camera would be directed toward the artist to document some kind of other reality envisioned and made see-able (hopefully) by the artist.

These "video installations" were and still are presented anywhere and everywhere from isolated locations where they might be seen by almost no one, or on a street or other public "non-art" location, to legitimate galleries and museums.

Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, John Baldessari and Doug Davis were some of the first artists in my awareness making video installations. Through school I met Acconci, Davis (and also Christo and his wife, who were not video artists). Their purpose was to present a different reality, respond to political occurrences, or to heighten awareness of the everyday actions or locations. Some of my classmates exhibited with some of these artists and also did very interesting and often beautiful work.

Today numerous permutations of video installation art exist. However, it has gone far beyond banks of monitors and snarls of cables, to a much expanded vocabulary of materials. And many installations do not involve video at all. Mine do not, although years ago, I did utilize this medium by itself and as part of "installations".

Basically what an installation always does is present a visualization of interior experience 3-dimensionally, in real time and space. Frequently very elegantly, sometimes disgustingly, sometimes a combination of the two. Any material is fair game for use in an installation. Quite often, the artist him or herself will be present in the installation, in which case the installation becomes "performance art". Video is still used frequently, but with much more sophisticated, imaginative and elegant presentations than those of the 70's.

If the artist is present, he or she may be alone performing some bizarre or enlightening kind of act, or the artist may involve any number of other people in random action or non-action, or highly choreographed movement or dance. Even the most, on the face of it, horrifying visualizations can also be unbelievably beautiful, if beauty is the artist's concern, which it is not always. Sometimes juxtaposition of these two elements, horror and beauty can work to heighten the truth of the experiential reality being presented.

If people are not part of the installation, then what is present is simply materials, any kind of material from dirt to steel bleachers to animals, you name it.

My focus is Christian art installations for churches in the form of sculpture/painting combinations depicting the entering in- transformative experience ordained by God and described in the Old and New Testaments (my mission statement).

"Entering in-transformative experience". As you read through the old and new testaments of the Bible, the promise of "entering-in" begins very early, in Genesis actually. It is a promise that follows upon obedience to God. A brief paraphrase and summary of God's message about entering in would be as follows:

"If you go where I tell you to go, if you do such and such that I am instructing you to do, you will enter in to my physical, here-and-now, on the face of this earth, promised land. And also by this obedience you will enter in to my spiritual promised land. Through this process of obedience and trust and belief in my son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, Yeshua Hamashiah, you will be transformed and conformed to His image and likeness."

And you will enter in to His, (God's) rest. Read especially, the third and fourth chapter of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, about entering in to God's rest.

Garry, I hope this helps. I could give you specifics of various installations, materials, imagery and proposals, but this has been long enough. Probably, much longer than you actually have time to read, from what you said in your e-mail.

(From e-mail to my brother-in-law, an engineer)

One could say that "installation art is created by an artist for a site", but such a definition would not exclude traditional sculpture.

Even "discrete" vs. "non-discrete" is not a useful distinction. Clearly The Valley Curtain and other works by Jean Claude Christo are "installation art", however the curtain was a discrete, unitary, single object, albeit composed of cable, anchorages, hardware, and more fabric than you can conceive.

A reason why Christo's works should be classified "installation art" is because they do not exist apart from the site. Once installation art is removed from a site, even if components remain stored somewhere, the work itself no longer exists. This may be the clearest distinction to be made or definition of "installation art", other than, "I know it when I see it."

(From notes to my brother-in-law about a work in progress for a local church in the round):

"These drawings are sketch illustrations for the "entering in" series I am working on. They represent a few variations on "veils" to be walked through, and also possibilities for supports for the veils ranging from:

  • a simple rope or cord between two screw eyes;
  • a curtain rod arrangement;
  • (free standing) wooden supports carved on the table saw set in concrete/plaster containers, for which I have begun prototypes; and
  • (free standing) portals constructed from 1x4 pine, square hollows, covered with Mexican tile.

The veils themselves represent stages of transferring from normal everyday reality, represented here by a thumbnail sketch of my tiny cabin in the woods, through various visualizations from scripture, including hand painted maps of the middle east, into the blood of Jesus, and ultimately into the holy of holies, before the Lamb, the Great White Throne, and the paving stone, "as of sapphire", according to the Revelation of St. John.

These are all images I have already used in other mediums and installations, just not as a progressive series.

There are a number of intermediate veils, but I don't have them drawn into the computer, or even completely worked out, since this process of conceiving what to illustrate is also a process of understanding and illumination for me.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum