Allison Smith, an artist, curator, and producer of participatory projects, is associate professor and chair of the sculpture program at California College of the Arts.
Installation is an act, a time period, and a period room.
Installation refers to the act of setting up an art show, similar to set dressing. When you see a sign that reads, “Closed for Installation,” it means that things are happening backstage, behind the scenes, and out of public view. You may see caution tape or velvet-covered ropes and stanchions, or the glass door of the gallery might be curtained with white paper while the installers are setting the stage for your experience of art. Often the artist will fly in for the install but not always. Caring curators and gallery proprietors work with preparators on all the prep work that goes into arranging the artist’s props and/or products, framing the art and the artist. Installation is physical, contextual, and potentially incriminating. A cast of characters perform each role in the preparing, positioning, connecting, and arranging of the works for maximum impact and flow, constructing the walls, mounting the works, adjusting the lighting, managing the art, and fixing it into place. It is art work. Installation is about taking the artist’s output and, with input, giving it center stage. Installation is an investment that affects the audience’s investment in the artwork and the instillation of faith in art, its affects; it’s special effects. If the dealer has put up money for production costs, there may be more to the setup, in terms of shared property, proppery, or puppetry. The artist is dealing with the unveiling. Either artist or dealer may feel put upon, but that’s the deal. It’s happening offstage, appropriately.
Installation is also the period of time between shows, the intermission, so the gallery can take on a different character. It can take a week or a month, more or less. It is the time after the closing and before the opening. It overlaps with deinstallation, a time of dismantling the previous exhibition, distilling it, and discussing how it went. It is the rehearsal and delivery period, in which art exists as potential and prototype. Negotiations take place regarding whether the works work or not as well as their place in the space. Exchanges are made; deals are cut. Some works are destined to be understudies and don’t ever make it onstage. Critics, collectors, and consultants can arrange private previews. Websites are dusted off, e-blasts are blasted, Facebook posts are posted, tweets are Twittered, and résumés are regularly updated before regular hours resume. Gallery receptionists rehearse their lines, readying to receive guests at an opening reception and remain throughout the show. They can gauge viewers’ receptiveness to the work and send radio signals to the dealer or artist; they can also set the tone. Sometimes there is a soft opening to cushion the otherwise hardness of the opening reception, which is like a grand opening but without balloons, giveaways, searchlights, or fireworks. And usually there isn’t wine served in stemmed glasses like you see in the movies. That only happens in a dealer’s office and greenroom. And it can happen any time, not just during installation and opening time.
Finally installation is an art form in which the artist, often a sculptor, can take up an entire room. It is a way that artists install themselves temporarily in museums, gallery spaces, and other territories. Installations are displacements to other worlds, real or imagined, often taking up the politics of institutions, sites, contexts, and audiences. Installations are like outposts for self-stationed artists. Warning: sometimes the artist will be present, and you may have awkward interactions as you might with costumed interpreters at a living-history museum. But usually they are not. Instead you are the subject on view in the spotlight. You cross your arms, walking around slowly, but instead of staring at a sculpture, the installation stares at you. You may feel as though the artist is setting you up for something, putting you on. Why else would you be asked to take off your shoes? Installation is the stage set and the scenery, and if you are up for it, you are the performer. Some performances must be done in socks. Just picture yourself in the comfort of your own living room. That is an installation too.
Ilya Kabakov, Incident at the Museum or Water Music, 1992. Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
Gregor Schneider, TOTES HAUS u r, 1985–2001.
Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Empty Room, 1995–96. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Pepón Osorio, Badge of Honor, 1995.
Yayoi Kusama, Compulsion Furniture (Accumulation), 1964.
Lucas Samaras, Mirrored Room, 1966.
Mark Dion, The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division), 1992.
Sandy Skoglund, Radioactive Cats, 1980.
Liza Lou, Kitchen, 1991–95.
James Turrell, Pleiades, 1983. Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.
Sam Durant, Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching, 2006.
John Bock, Klütterkammer, 2004. ICA London.
Theaster Gates, Tea Shack, 2009. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
ai weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London.
Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.
Yves Klein, Le Vide (The Void), Iris Clert Gallery, Paris, April 1958.
Arman, Le Plein (Full Up), Iris Clert Gallery, Paris, 1960.
Mike Kelley, Day is Done, 2005–6.
Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum, 2007. Essex Street Market, New York.
Kurt Schwitters, Hannover Merzbau, ca. 1923–37.
Edward and Nancy Kienholz, Sollie 17, 1979–80.
Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013. Forest Houses, Bronx, New York.
Ann Hamilton, Indigo Project, 2000.