The everyday meaning of installation refers to the hanging of pictures or the arrangement of objects in an exhibition. The less generic, more recent meaning of installation is a site-specific artwork. In this sense, the installation is created especially for a particular gallery space or outdoor site, and it comprises not just a group of discrete art objects to be viewed as individual works but an entire ensemble or environment. Installations provide viewers with the experience of being surrounded by art, as in a mural-decorated public space or an art-enriched cathedral.
Precedents for installations date mainly from the Pop art–era of the late 1950s and 60s. The most notable are Allan Kaprow’s “sets” for Happenings, Edward Kienholz’s tableaux, Red Grooms’s theatrical environments such as Ruckus Manhattan, Claes Oldenburg’s Store filled with his plaster renditions of consumer objects, and Andy Warhol’s enormous prints in the form of wallpaper.
Unlike many of the works mentioned above, most installations are unsalable. Some examples: Judy Pfaff creates dramatic environments comprising thousands of throwaway elements that evoke undersea gardens or dreamlike fantasy worlds. Daniel Buren makes installations of stripes applied to structures that comment by their placement on the physical or social character of the site. Donald Lipski brings together hundreds of manufactured objects to create witty three-dimensional variants of all-over painting.
Installations generally are exhibited for a relatively brief period and then dismantled, leaving only documentation. Their unsalability and their labor-intensiveness proved an unsatisfying combination in the increasingly market-attuned art world of the early 1980s. The “crash” of the art market at the end of the 1980s and a reawakening of interest in Conceptualism, led, in the early 90s, to a proliferation of installations, often composed of salable parts. Today the term installation is sometimes applied to permanent, site-specific, sculptural ensembles created for corporate or public settings.
Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.