Installation is a term which has come to be used in art in two senses, i. e. referring to the form of display of works of art within the exhibition space, but also to a certain form of sculpture consisting in the creation of situations that confront and involve the viewer. In this second sense, the term installation has come to occupy an important part of critical discourses since the 80s, although its roots can be traced much further back, to the beginning of modern art. The installation, by the way it introduces the viewer into an involving, artistic context, has come to question the traditional paradigms of contemplative aesthetics, suggesting situations in which the viewer sees his status reshaped. Installation often resorts to devices which are not traditionally sculpture, such as the projected image in film, video or slides. Sometimes, the installation acquires specific contours, depending on the place of exhibition and presentation, or is even conceived for a specific exhibition context. In this sense, it is called site specific. The preponderance of installation in art in the last decades transformed this artistic device into a genre, with diverse modulations and variations – from installations which are clearly sculpture to interventions in open spaces or even on the landscape.
Modern art brought particular attention to the space issues of its presentation, finding in the definition of the exhibition space one of its fundamental determinants. This emphasis on space is connected to two aspects which, although distinct, often cross: the setting up of the exhibition as an artistic device which considers that the display of the works of art in space changes its relation with the viewer - the artistic discourse, or even the ontology of the work of art -; and a concern with the viewer’s involvement with works which are no longer objects but situations.
In the first case, the conception of the building of the Vienna Secession by Hans Marie Olbrist and the exhibition project by Gustav Klimt, along with the exhibition 0,10, in Petrograd in 1915 (in which Malévitch and Tatlin, among others, took part), are founding moments.
Other critical examples are the Abstract Cabinet designed by Lazar Lissitzky for the Hannover Landes Museum in 1926 – which redefined the exhibition space as an interactive space – as well as Marcel Duchamp’s installations for the surrealist exhibitions of 1938 (Paris) and 1942 (New York). In any of these cases, the installation of works of art in the exhibition space reveals the understanding of the exhibition space as an autonomous device which creates meaning for the works and questions the protocols of artistic enjoyment.
In the second case (installation conceived as situation which embodies the very notion of work of art), we can find roots in the painted panoramas created since 1787 by Robert Barker who invented the device and registered its patent. The painted panoramas were huge paintings (with over 100 meters in length), set up in cylindrical buildings conceived for that purpose, which presented city views, battle scenes or landscapes in a carefully realist manner. The viewer entered the inside of these rotundas – extremely popular during the nineteenth century in London and Paris – and was involved by an image which surrounded him and occupied his visual field all around.
This possibility of creating an absolutely involving, pictorial situation for the viewer would come to hobble with the birth of film – which fulfilled the absence of movement of the whole -, but influenced some developments in eighteenth century painting, as evidenced in Monet.
For a history of installation (and of the viewer’s involvement with the work of art), it is essential to refer to the 3D effort of suprematist painting, made by Lazar Lissitzsky in the definition of his 1923 project, “Proun Space”. This was a room, presented in the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstelung that same year, where the viewer was completely surrounded by suprematist elements, very close to the forms present in Malévitch’s paintings. However, they acquired here a space condition and assumed themselves as a real, architectural space.
Also Kurt Schwitters’ project Merzbau, which the Hannoverian artist developed since 1921 and which kept him busy all his life, represents a founding moment of installation as device. Schwitters applied the use of collage to space and built a huge, cumulative work which gradually took up the space of his workshop until it was transformed into a cave filled with objects, different elements, sculpture and architecture bits and pieces. In the words of the artist, this was “a cubist sculpture to which one could go and return” , i. e. a penetrable sculpture, inhabited by the viewer. In 1936 the artist had to abandon Germany and exile to Norway where he restarted the project, having painted all the inside of the work in white. However, the complete work was lost with the invasion of Norway by Hitler’s army in 1940. The artist had to exile to England, although a reproduction can be visited in the Sprengel Museum of Hanover.
Other important forerunners of installation are found in the project Ambiente Nero, by Lucio Fontana (presented at the Galleria del Naviglio in 1949). This was an absolutely darkened space, lightened by black light, where all that was visible were the forms painted with fluorescent lights which came out of the walls. Another important example can be found in the exhibition Le Vide (1958), by Yves Klein, for which the Galerie Iris Clert was left completely empty, leaving the viewer confronted with the exhibition space itself.
With Edward Kienholz comes the version closest to the contemporary understanding of installation: Kienholz created the environmental sculpture Roxy’s (1961) which would come to be presented in Kassel, in the 1968 Documenta 4. In this environment the viewer was confronted with a situation of ironic and decadent brothel.
During the 60s, also in Brasil there are decisive contributions to the building of a paradigm of penetrability in art, mainly with the work of Hélio Oiticica, an artist who developed a series of works which he called, precisely, “penetrable”. The most famous of these is the Tropicalia penetrabale (having baptized the cultural movement with the same name), a huge installation which assembled elements dispersed in space, socializing areas for the viewers, other areas which changed throughout the exhibition process and incorporations of local contributions. Its pioneer character was pointed out at the time his installation was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, in 1969 (although the work dates from 1964).
During the 70s, other artists developed different forms of installation, whether within the gallery or the museum (the case of Vito Aconcci or Joseph Beuys), whether exiting to the outside, redefining the idea of landscape (the case of Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark), whether yet using the projected image for the creation of environments (Anthony McCall or Robert Morris). In this respect, in 1979 the North-American critic Rosalind Krauss calls attention to the fact that a transformation of sculpture into an expanded field is taking place - everything fits into this historical category which freed itself from the uniqueness of the object to assert itself as situation lived by the viewer.
Therefore, there is a new paradigm in installation, a paradigm on the relation between the work of art and space and between the former and the viewer. Hélio Oiticica suggested, in this respect, the replacement of the idea of “viewer” by that of “participant”, thus reinforcing the active and self-conscious character which the installation and its penetrability model suggest.