Art Term Tuesday: Installation

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

If you’ve been to the museum in the last few years, you’ve probably seen one of the installations artists have created in our gallery spaces. Most recently, in spring 2018, we had This Marvelous and Turbulent World: New Work and Installation by Andrew Schoultz, where the artist placed a one-sided chess game in a space he and his assistants created in the middle of the gallery. Or maybe you saw Fort Wayne, American Monologue: A New Body of Work and Installation by Brett Amory in winter 2016/2017, where a whole house was installed in the gallery, complete with 24-7 TV playing and hints of popular Fort Wayne locations. It would be hard to forget the fall 2016 show Paroxysm: A New Body of Work by Crystal Wagner, where her central Spire took two weeks to create and wove through the space and 24 feet up into the air. Each of these exhibits encouraged visitors to get into, walk around, and experience the space in different ways. What makes these pieces of art installations? Read on to find out!

Artist Crystal Wagner stands next to her large-scale installation at FWMoA. Abstract, the sculpture uses multiple colors to construct a spire that nearly touches the ceiling.
Artist Crystal Wagner next to her site-specific installation Spire at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, August 5, 2016 – October 23, 2016. Photo courtesy of Crystal Wagner.

Installations as art forms have been around for several decades, sometimes called “environments” before the 1960’s when they truly found a foothold in art history. Installations are often larger-than-life works of art, site-specific, and transform a space from a display area into an interactive experience. While sculptures can be larger than life and viewed in-the-round, they are not made to occupy a specific space or be incorporated into a viewing area. Instead, they are on a pedestal or platform separated from each other. Sculptures may have a visual connection or a theme, but they are not one piece in and of themselves. When you visit the museum and see exhibits like Daniel Clayman: Shift that inhabit one gallery, look at the pieces on display.

Glass pieces by Daniel Clayman stand separate from each other, denoting that they are not an installation but were brought as individual pieces.
Daniel Clayman: Shift exhibit at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Binkley. This is not an installation as each piece is separate from all the others and stands alone.

There is either a spotlight on each individual piece or they are atop platforms spaced far away from each other. You can have individual pieces on display in addition to the installations and still have it be clear they are or are not part of the overall installation. Crystal Wagner’s Spire stood in the middle of the room and was made of a different material than her pieces on the wall, two factors that help to distinguish where the installation begins (see photo below).

Here, an example of stand-alone pieces mounted to the wall by the artist are next to their site-specific installation.
Paroxysm by Crystal Wagner. Photograph courtesy of FWMoA. Here you can see an example of stand-alone pieces by the artist next to their site-specific installation.

When you enter a gallery space, the art is not typically much larger than you. Paintings can take up a significant amount of wall space and sculptures can reach above your head, but in the periphery of your vision you can always see the edge of the frame or the top of the pedestal. Entering a site-specific installation, the work takes up your entire view, surrounding you from head to toe and wrapping around you like the art is a living thing. Crystal Wagner’s Spire reached to the cavernous ceiling above the Edward M and Mary McCrea Wilson Foundation Gallery in the museum, but also wrapped around and had pockets of space where you could walk deep into the arms of the structure. School groups who visited loved to sit in the pink section of Spire because almost all of the gallery was blocked out by the rest of the installation, making them feel completely surrounded by art!

Children inside the "pink" part of Crystal Wagner’s site-specific installation <em>Spire</em> in 2016.
Children inside the “pink” part of Crystal Wagner’s site-specific installation Spire in 2016. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Some installations use audio to help immerse you even further into the experience or add to the story the artist is trying to tell, like in the installation by Johnny Coleman in Winter 2013-2014, Variation Upon a Theme: Song of the Underground Railroad. Coleman used both a prerecorded audio file and the rocks on the floor of the installation, which visitors were encouraged to walk on!

An installation by Johnny Coleman features a house on a pallet, with stools around it.
Installation by Johnny Coleman Variation Upon a Theme: Song of the Underground Railroad. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

An installation can be made of almost anything and artists often combine many different materials together, use unconventional material, or use material unconventionally to create their works! It all depends on the artists vision. In Brett Amory’s American Monologue, he chose the colors and objects in his house to represent two time periods: black and white for the middle of the century and full color for the modern day. Inside the house, the objects help to express the idea of “same but different,” with an old knob and tube TV next to a flat screen digital TV on the wall; a tall floor lamp with incandescent light bulb across the room from a slim LED desk lamp; a picket fence lines one side of the yard while cement blocks protect the other half. Each object alone is not a piece of art, but together they tell the story of the artists intent. The gallery as a space also conveys that these objects, while you could find them in your own home, are not the same when placed inside the museum. Your desk lamp is useful, but it is probably not expressing the same story as the one Brett Amory chose. Yours is a tool, his is the medium for artistic expression.

An installation by Brett Amory shows a house with an American flag and mailbox, street signs atop a stop sign, and walls with graffiti painted on them.
Brett Amory’s installation Ft. Wayne: An American Monologue. Photo courtesy of Brett Amory.

So, the next time you visit a gallery and see something unexpected, ask yourself if what you’re looking at is an installation. Now you have the tools to find out! Is it larger than life? Does it stand alone from anything in the room or fill the space like it was made to be there? Can you walk into or around the piece? If the answer is yes to these questions, you might just be looking at an installation!

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