David Levine — Installation

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David Levine

David Levine, an artist working in theater, video, and performance, is Professor of the Practice of Performance, Theater, and Media at Harvard University.

Installation means less today than it used to. In its heyday it referred to a style of art making that, much like performance, threatened to become a genre in its own right: books were written on the subject; Museums of Installation Art were envisioned; artists claimed to specialize in it. Nowadays, of course, hardly any artists refer to themselves as installation artists, just as very few refer to themselves as performance artists. In the twenty-first century installation has been downgraded from a genre to a technique. The art world, furthermore, has expressed a certain discomfort with the term itself, preferring, whenever possible, to describe room-based works as sculpture or, when pressed, as sculptural installation. Ironically (or inevitably?) this has coincided with an uptick in the use of both the term and its techniques in the world of the performing arts.

The genealogy of the term is well documented, as are the technique’s formal roots in the minimalist activation of the exhibition space and, even further back, in the act of hanging the abstract expressionist exhibition and its photographic documentation, the “installation view.”1 Although art historians locate the roots of installation as far back as Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (ca. 1923–37), the soi-disant installation really came into its own in the 1980s and early ’90s, with the parafictions of Ilya Kabakov and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the synesthetic environments of Cildo Meireles, and the noirish, seemingly abandoned “scenarios” of Mike Nelson. The outlines of the “experience economy” were coming into view, and it was a prime moment for artworks that focused on the viewer’s experience of a total environment.

The problem was that, on closer examination, this experience was always the experience of suspending disbelief. It was one thing to be standing in a bare gallery looking at a cube by Tony Smith; one became acutely aware of one’s separation from both the gallery space itself and the sculpture “activating” that space. But it was quite another thing to be in a total environment by Kabakov or Mike Nelson and having to convince yourself that you were actually of that world, looking for clues to its meaning. And precisely because the tone of these environments was so tasteful—honoring the museum’s promise of quiet contemplation rather than assaulting the senses like a haunted house—it was that much more difficult to believe that you were actually there. Somehow one always felt more real, more ontologically dense, than one’s environment. Thus these immersive works were still generating the alienated, floating spectators of minimalism; only now they were asking you to subsume that alienation into belief. It was as if simply by postulating immersion, artists expected that the art would be experienced as such. But to the extent that the spectator is the real material of installation, the spectator deserved more careful consideration as material. Put another way, installation literalized the anxieties that Michael Fried articulated in his antiminimalist jeremiad “Art and Objecthood”2—if minimalism had turned art into theater, installation had turned it into set design.

As soon as spectatorial immersion revealed itself as unconvincing, contemporary art’s antitheatrical impulses began to kick in. Strangely enough, the most elegant way out was advanced by grossout virtuoso Paul McCarthy (a former performance artist himself), not only because the impoverished reality of his early sets was built into their pedigree (they were frequently acquired from TV and film lots) but also because, in contrast to the wall-to-wall environments of Kabakov or Nelson, McCarthy’s structures almost always “floated” within the gallery. That is, he made sure that you could see the outside of the structure before you walked into it and thus could survey it as sculpture—a kind of metastasized minimalist cube—before you entered it as an environment. This maneuver incidentally made a notoriously hard-to-sell art form easier to bring to market; conceived as sculpture, installation was much easier to imagine buying, selling, or exhibiting: you were no longer buying space; you were buying stuff. And the room no longer had to be tailor-made to fit—it just had to be big enough to contain.

Environments, of course, continue to be made, but they are not thought of as installations, and Christoph Büchel, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller, and Andrea Zittel are referred to as sculptors or, more generally, artists. Installation, like performance, is something any artist gets to do, indulge in, or resort to once in a while. Unlike painting or sculpture, it is generally not thought of as a medium in which one needs to train or specialize, which has perhaps enabled its adoption by the performing arts.

Cross-fertilization between immersive visual art environments and the performing arts has been going on at least since the happenings, and given the way in which spectators tend to experience such environments, this makes perfect sense: one is always aware of the fictitiousness of such environments, and indeed the pleasure to be had from such environments is precisely the pleasure of suspending one’s disbelief. This form of pleasure, anathema to contemporary art, is the pleasure of being at the theater. Traditionally this experience has been confined to the proscenium and its variants, although attempts have been made in experimental circles to create total spectatorial environments since at least the early twentieth century. More widespread adoption of installation as a technique has, however, been stymied by the fact that most theaters just are not built for that kind of environmental experience, so there has been no way to monetize it.

All this changed with the arrival, in the US, of the English company Punchdrunk, specifically with the overwhelming commercial success of Sleep No More, their installation-based version of Macbeth, where spectators wander from room to room of New York’s McKitrick Hotel, encountering various scenarios loosely based on Shakespeare’s play. Sleep No More is, essentially, the apotheosis of installation as an idea. It is what installation art was always waiting to become. Installation art may have been born in the visual arts, but it is finally gravitating toward its rightful home in theater.


  1. See Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005), and Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). 

  2. Michel Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5 (June 1967): 12–23. 


For Further Reference

Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (Routledge, 2005).

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976).

David Levine, Habit, 2011.

Punchdrunk, Sleep No More, 2011.

Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959.

Queen of the Night, directed by Christine Jones, Paramount Hotel, New York, 2014.

Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995.

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space, 1981–88.

Mike Nelson, The Coral Reef, 2000.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Dark Pool, 1995.

Christoph Büchel, Dump, 2008.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Cavemanman, 2008.

See Also

Act — David Levine

Collecting — Philip Bither

Media — Pauline Oliveros

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Dark Pool, 1995. Immersive mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Courtesy of the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Jeremy Deller, Valerie’s Snack Bar, installed as part of “Jeremy Deller: Joy in People,” Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2012. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.

André Lepecki, reinvention of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2006, as part of “Allan Kaprow: Life as Art.” Photo © Paula Court. Courtesy of PERFORMA, Allan Kaprow Estate, and Hauser & Wirth Zurich / London.

Punchdrunk, Sleep No More, 2011–. Performer: Luke Murphy. Photo: The McKittrick Hotel, New York.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.