Tuesday 9 May 2017


Installation art is said to have its discreet origins in the 1960's, with the environments of Allen Kaprow and later with the minimal interventions of people like Donald Judd.
Although this does not seem to make any historical sense, as one could say that all the common elements of what is called installation art are already present in Marcel Duchamps Twelve Hundred Coal Bags Suspended from the Ceiling over a Stove from 1938, or Kurt Schwitters Merzbau from earlier in the same decade. Before that, there is El Lissitzky's Proun Room and before that there exists the Peacock Room, finished in 1877 by James McNeill Whistler. But the retracing of installation art's history doesn't stop there. If one is willing to accept the definition of installation art as dealing with the specifics of space, then Bernini and Michelangelo did this all the time, most notably in L'Estasi di Santa Teresa and the Sistine chapel, respectively.
But why stop at the specific western history of art? The famous terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang seems to perfectly fit the description, as does the pyramid of Giza and even the cave paintings in Lascaux. In fact, 'installation art' in the commonly attributed definition is hardly novel at all and seems, if anything, to predate any other kind of art.

Yet it is also true that the term installation art didn't surface until the late 1960's and early 1970's. So the rise of installation art must not be linked to a change in art, but a change in something else. I believe this something else is the practice of publishing art. Up until the 1950's and 60's, it was common for publications on art to mask out unwanted background clutter and print only the singular object. This means that for a painting the frame would not be shown and a sculpture would seemingly float in mid air. This practice works fine for something like Degas' Petit Danseuse or Lissitsky's Proun room, where the structure is equal to the work, but it is wholly inadequate to correctly interpret a stack by Donald Judd.

As you can see, environmental cues are absolutely necessary to make sense of a Stack in print. Yet to make clear that the work was not part of the architecture a caption was also needed: Installation view.
This period of the late 1960's was the first time when the word installation was directly linked to a certain kind of sculpture, one that could not be reproduced without including the geometry of the room it was presented in.
In the following decades, this original connotation was lost and all that remained was the idea of a 'new' art, installation art.

The persistence of this term without any associations to its reproductive origins seems to lie in the fact that in that era there was hardly any distinction made between an object and its representation. The inability to reconcile the two has since been given much more attention, but by then a strong belief in the false pretenses that surround the term had already been established.