This genre of contemporary art came to prominence in the 1970s. Many trace the roots of this form of art to earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and his use of the readymade or to Kurt Schwitters' Merz art objects, rather than more traditional craft based sculpture. The intention of the artist is paramount in much later installation art whose roots lie in the conceptual art of the 1960s. This again is a departure from traditional sculpture which places its focus on form. Early non-Western installation art includes events staged by the Gutai group in Japan starting in 1954, which influenced American installation pioneers like Allan Kaprow.
Installation as nomenclature for a specific form of art came into use fairly recently; its first use as documented by the OED was in 1969. It was coined in this context in reference to a form of art that had arguably existed since prehistory but was not regarded as a discrete category until the mid-twentieth century. Allan Kaprow used the term “Environment” in 1958 (Kaprow 6) to describe his transformed indoor spaces; this later joined such terms as “project art” and “temporary art.”
Essentially, installation/environmental art takes into account the viewer’s entire sensory experience, rather than floating framed points of focus on a “neutral” wall or displaying isolated objects (literally) on a pedestal. This leaves space and time as its only dimensional constants. This implies dissolution of the line between art and life; Kaprow noted that “if we bypass ‘art’ and take nature itself as a model or point of departure, we may be able to devise a different kind of art… out of the sensory stuff of ordinary life” (Kaprow 12).
The conscious act of artistically addressing all the senses with regard to the viewer’s experience in totality made a resounding debut in 1849 when Richard Wagner conceived of aGesamtkunstwerk, or an operatic work for the stage that drew inspiration from ancient Greek theater in its inclusion of all the major art forms: painting, writing, music, etc. (Britannica) In devising operatic works to commandeer the audience’s senses, Wagner left nothing unobserved:architecture, ambience, and even the audience itself were considered and manipulated in order to achieve a state of total artistic immersion. In the book "Themes in Contemporary Art”, it is suggested that “installations in the 1980s and 1990s were increasingly characterized by networks of operations involving the interaction among complex architectural settings, environmental sites and extensive use of everyday objects in ordinary contexts. With the advent of video in 1965, a concurrent strand of installation evolved through the use of new and ever-changing technologies, and what had been simple video installations expanded to include complex interactive, multimedia and virtual reality environments”.(Themes, 199)
In “Art and Objecthood,” Michael Fried derisively labels art that acknowledges the viewer as “theatrical” (Fried 45). There is a strong parallel between installation and theater: both play to a viewer who is expected to be at once immersed in the sensory/narrative experience that surrounds him and maintain a degree of self-identity as a viewer. The traditional theatergoer does not forget that he has come in from outside to sit and take in a created experience; a trademark of installation art has been the curious and eager viewer, still aware that he is in an exhibition setting and tentatively exploring the novel universe of the installation. A number of institutions focusing on Installation art were created from the 1980s onwards, suggesting the need for Installation to be seen as a separate discipline. These included the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh and the Museum of Installation, London, among others.
The artist and critic Ilya Kabakov mentions this essential phenomenon in the introduction to his lectures “On the “Total” Installation:” “[One] is simultaneously both a ‘victim’ and a viewer, who on the one hand surveys and evaluates the installation, and on the other, follows those associations, recollections which arise in him[;] he is overcome by the intense atmosphere of the total illusion” (Kabakov 256). Here installation art bestows an unprecedented importance on the observer’s inclusion in that which he observes. The expectations and social habits that the viewer takes with him into the space of the installation will remain with him as he enters, to be either applied or negated once he has taken in the new environment. What is common to nearly all installation art is a consideration of the experience in toto and the problems it may present, namely the constant conflict between disinterested criticism and sympathetic involvement. Television and video offer immersive experiences, but their unrelenting control over the rhythm of passing time and the arrangement of images precludes an intimately personal viewing experience (Kabakov 257). Ultimately, the only things a viewer can be assured of when experiencing the work are his own thoughts and preconceptions and the basic rules of space and time. All else may be molded by the artist’s hands.
The central importance of the subjective point of view when experiencing installation art, points toward a disregard for traditional Platonicimage theory. In effect, the entire installation adopts the character of the simulacrum or flawed statue: it neglects any ideal form in favor of optimizing its direct appearance to the observer. Installation art operates fully within the realm of sensory perception, in a sense “installing” the viewer into an artificial system with an appeal to his subjective perception as its ultimate goal.