Research - Installation / by Ally McGinn

Ally McGinn (2017) Painting Installation Test. Mixed media, size varies.

Ally McGinn (2017) Painting Installation Test. Mixed media, size varies.

Installations are works that occupy a larger space than a single artwork. Mixed media assemblages that have the potential to include anything, or nothing. The descriptive term can, and often is, exchanged for ‘environments’. (Tate, Undated) Often, but certainly not always, spanning a large space that a viewer has to step into to experience, installation art explores the relationship between object and space. (Oliveira, Oxley and Petty, 1998) A hybrid art form that embraces the interconnected nature of art, installation has increased in popularity and validity. Installation can be seen as a manifestation of the heterogeneous reality of art and life. Post-structuralism argues that object purity is a myth and that nothing is without the influence of the things that surround it. Installation art is a useful tool in the exploration and display of that ideology.  

Julie H. Reiss claims that installation was born of a rebellion against commercialism, following the work of environmental artists like Allan Kaprow and Richard Long. (Reiss, 2001) These artists were looking for a way to remove art from the commercial market, eliminating the art object. (Reiss, 2001) These are forms of art that, in their concept and creation at least, are ephemeral and difficult to move, resisting the art market and the growing symbiosis between art and economics.

When Kaprow spoke about his work, he described the desire to create an environment inside the gallery, a term that would evolve into installation. (Reiss, 2001) Like all great ideas, the evolution of installation can be traced to many sources, including the development of room-filling artworks by Kurt Schwitters and El Lizitsky. (Reiss, 2001)

When choosing to create an installation an artist chooses to focus on the full experience of the viewer. A desire for an intense experience is a dominant theme in installation art.

Ilya Kabakov, a prominent installation artist, said, “The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.” (Tate, Undated)

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2017)  Not everyone will be taken into the future.  [Exhibition] Tate Modern.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2017) Not everyone will be taken into the future. [Exhibition] Tate Modern.

Installation art has been a common medium since the 1960’s, primarily minimalist artists of the time. (Oliveira, Oxley and Petty, 1998) Minimalism calls for understanding and appreciation of space, something necessary for installation. (Oliveira, Oxley and Petty, 1998)

The mixed media definition of installation leads to a vast variety of materials and can be broken down to any arrangement of objects in space. The defining factor in the definition of a work as installation is the focus on a unified experience.

Artists working with installation include Martin Boyce, whose installations familiar spaces in everyday life. These recreations seem almost theatrical, lit in the exhibition setting, or staging. (The Modern Institute, Undated)

In contrast, Karla Black creates abstract artworks that sit somewhere between paintings and sculptures and seem to balance between stability and collapse. (Saatchi Gallery, Undated) They are often made in response to the space in which they will be displayed and use a variety of unconventional art materials including soap, eyeshadow, and toothpaste alongside conventional art materials such as cellophane, paper and plaster. (Saatchi Gallery, Undated) She allows these works to sprawl across gallery floors in a state of incompletion, or hover just below the ceiling, suspended with invisible thread.

Cathy Wilkes makes haunting installations that recall domestic spaces by bringing together assemblages of familiar objects that she has been collecting for the past 25 years, including fish tanks, shop mannequins, children’s’ toys and jam jars. (Tate, Undated)

Ilya Kabakov's installations explore narratives that the viewers can follow, or merely be intrigued by. Often covering multiple rooms the arrangements expand the potential of the artwork, to include a physical narrative that the viewer can experience. (Reiss, 2001)

Kabakov wrote about installations in the anthology ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’. (Kabakov, 2000) In the text, he begins by highlighting the difference between ideas of art in western (here meaning Western Europe and North America) and those found in Russia. Kabakov notes the obsession of the west with the object, and the neglect of the interrelationships between those objects, and the surrounding space.  

The space the art object is situated in has one purpose (further explored in my page about the studio and the gallery) which is that is must not interfere with the object. Which, according to Kabakov, “On a utilitarian level, this presupposes protection and the creation of comfortable circumstances for these objects… On a visual level, this means good, even light, neutral paint on the walls, but the main this is that the space shouldn't draw attention to itself, it shouldn't impede concentration on the object.” (Kabakov, 2000: 1176)

In effect, regarding the artwork, space is non-existent other than as a tool.

In an interview with Robert Storr (from the same text) I found the following question and answer extremely important;

“Robert Storr - There are people who happily spend hours with allegorical or Surrealist painting, figuring out the relation of the parts within the picture, but the same people are often disinclined to think about a three-dimensional installation in the same way.  Is there something in the nature of the experience that is so different?


Ilya Kabakov - I think that today everyone familiar with art knows how to look at a painting. Even if a nail is hammered into it or a stool is hanging before it, everyone knows that it is a painting and there exists a means for looking at it, one developed historically and gained individually by education and a lot of experience. Painting is like a senile grandmother living in a family.  She has been crazy for a long time, she urinates and defecates, but everyone in her own family knows how to treat her, how to talk to her. No one is surprised at what she does.  It is a completely different situation with installation art, which is like a little girl who has just been born: she is still an infant, and no one knows what she will grow into.  Moreover, she has been born into a family in which a grandmother is already living.” (Kabakov, 2000 : 1179)

Kabakov continues with a rather intense comment that the family would dispose of the infant if she misbehaves….which I don't agree with on many levels, but continues with;

“I know from experience that virtually no one knows how to see the installation as a work of art. The spatial elements pose the same problems as in painting. But these problems have long been studied in painting…..but when viewers see a special combination of light and space, they think that it is either an architectural feature or a poorly painted room.” (Kabakov, 2000: 1179)

Storr organised a series of installations at MOMA, titled ‘Dislocations,' in 1991 (Kabakov, 2000). He was criticised for not having explanatory text about how to view the installations. To Storr, however, part of the purpose of an installation is that the viewer enters a space where they don't know how to act, look or interpret. (Kabakov, 2000) He calls this unknown experience the surprise of installation, saying that the “surprise of modern painting has been made official, whereas the surprise of installation art has not. In a way, learning how to look at installations might teach people what they have forgotten to see in paintings.” (Kabakov, 2000: 1179) This standpoint resonates with me, while I don't feel as confident in saying it I believe it is true. Experience with my work has shown me that my work can encourage people to look at the space around them differently, although this is due to subject as well as medium, which to me means that my work as installation is a perfect match and a terrible one.

Installation is made to make the viewer acknowledge the space which I believe a focus on the studio itself, and the marks found in it, do as well. There is a distinct possibility that my installation explorations only work in a space that is both studio and gallery.

The interview between Storr and Kabakov draws to a close with a few short, interesting questions, one of which is;

"RS: Installation may save painting rather than kill it off.

IK: Absolutely. In installations, people actually stand and look at the paintings contained within them." (Kabakov, 2000: 1180)

This is, of course, a biased view from an installation artist but the point remains valid. Whether or not installation will save painting, it has had an impact and the expanded field of painting relies heavily on installation as an art form.


For me, installation is not only a considered choice for presentation but also a part of my process. My studio walls often contain various installational forms, and the narrative of my work is one of transition from studio to gallery. To remain true to the work installation remains a crucial factor, and when reversing the narrative installation is the most honest result.

Installation allows for the disembodied viewer to become the embodied one, the viewer is inside the artwork and surrounded by it. Their presence in space is vital to their perception of the work.

The discussion of space is always present in installation work.


Bishop, C (2005) Installation Art. London: Tate Publishing.

De Oliveira, N. Oxley, N and Petty, M. eds. (1998) Installation Art. 2. Singapore: Thames and Hudson.

Kabakov, I. (2000) ‘Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) on installations’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. Art in Theory:1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell: 1175-1180.

Reiss, J. (2001) From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art. London: MIT Press.

Tate (Undated) Cathy Wilkes [Online] Available from: [Accessed 02.10.17].

Tate (Undated) Installation Art [Online] Avaliable from : [Accessed 02.10.17].

The Modern Institute (Undated) Martin Boyce [Online] Available from: [Accessed 03.10.17].

Saatchi Gallery (Undated) Karla Black [Online] Available from: [Accessed 03.10.17].