The term installation art is used to describe mixed-media constructions or assemblages usually designed for a specific place and for a temporary period of time

Cornelia Parker, 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View' 1991
Cornelia Parker
Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991
Mixed media
unconfirmed: 4000 x 5000 x 5000 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1995© Cornelia Parker

Introduction to installation art

Installation artworks (also sometimes described as ‘environments’) often occupy an entire room or gallery space that the spectator invariably has to walk through in order to engage fully with the work of art. Some installations, however, are designed simply to be walked around and contemplated, or are so fragile that they can only be viewed from a doorway, or one end of a room. What makes installation art different from sculpture or other traditional art forms is that it is a complete unified experience, rather than a display of separate, individual artworks. The focus on how the viewer experiences the work and the desire to provide an intense experience for them is a dominant theme in installation art. As artist Ilya Kabakov said:

The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.

This time-lapse video shows how visitors interact with Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials – commissioned for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2004. The sound installation, presented through speakers fixed along the length of the walls, choreographs visitors’ progress through the vast space.

The beginning and development of installation art

Installation art emerged from the earlier form of the environment which artists such as American artist Allan Kaprow, one of the originators of environments, made from about 1957 onward. (Though there were important precursors to environments, such as Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau 1933, an environment of several rooms created in the artist’s own house in Hamburg). In an undated interview published in 1965 Allan Kaprow said of his first environment:

I just simply filled the whole gallery up…When you opened the door you found yourself in the midst of an entire environment…The materials were varied: sheets of plastic, crumpled up cellophane, tangles of Scotch tape, sections of slashed and daubed enamel and pieces of coloured cloth…five tape machines spread around the space played electronic sounds which I had composed.

In 1961 in New York Claes Oldenburg created an early environment, The Store, from which his Counter and Plates with Potato and Ham comes. 

Claes Oldenburg, 'Counter and Plates with Potato and Ham' 1961
Claes Oldenburg
Counter and Plates with Potato and Ham 1961
Painted plaster
object: 117 x 1073 x 578 mm
Presented by E.J. Power through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1970© Claes Oldenburg

From the 1960s the creation of installations have become a major strand in modern art. This was increasingly the case from the early 1990s when the ‘crash’ of the art market in the late 1980s led to a reawakening of interest in conceptual art (art focused on ideas rather than objects). Miscellaneous materials (mixed media), light and sound have remained fundamental to Installation art.

Further reading

The world in twelve rooms
Meschac Gaba’s twelve-room installation, the Museum of Contemporary African Art, took five years to create. Simon Njama explores this mammoth installation in this Tate Etc. article.

Meschac Gaba Art and Religion Room From Museum of Contemporary African Art Installation at Tate Modern
Get your tarot cards read in Meschac Gaba's Art and Religion Room in his Museum of Contemporary African Art

Cold Dark Matter: An exploded view
An in-depth exploration of Cornelia Parker’s spectacular installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View: Discover how the humble garden shed full of junk inspired the artist…and how the army were called in to help make the artwork happen!

Installation artists in focus

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern
This video made for Kusama’s 2012 exhibition at Tate Modern provides a fascinating introduction to the life and work of artist Yayoi Kusama whose installations are described by gallerist Richard Castellane, as ‘breaking all boundaries of space’.

Kusama’s Obliteration Room not only provides an immersive environment into which viewers can walk and interact, it also allows visitors to contribute the actual making of the installation. Watch it unfold!

Browse more Kusama
We’ve pulled together more videos, blogs and articles about Kusama, her ideas and her work.

Olafur Elliason

The Unilever Series: Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project
Find out what happened when Olafur Eliasson brought the sun to the grand industrial space of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Olafur Eliasson The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern 16 October 2003 - 21 March 2004
Olafur Eliasson

The Weather Project, 2003

Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson

TateShots: Olafur Eliasson
Tate Shots visited the artist to talk about his spectaular installations and projects.

Little Sun blogs
Read the blogs about another of the artist’s ambitious projects.

Mike Nelson

Mike Nelson: Coral Reef
Mike Nelson’s labyrinthine installations, made of interconnecting corridors and chambers, are intentionally disorientating. Explore the installation Coral Reef and the artist’s ideas behind it. 

TateShots at the Venice Biennale 2011: Mike Nelson in The British Pavilion
Critic Ben Lewis meets Mike Nelson in Venice and talks to the artist about his installation in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011.

Audio Arts: Volume 20 No 3
Listen to Mike Nelson discussing the effect of success on his working practice and the viewing experience of his installations, in this audio recording.

Installation art in context

How are large scale installations built? Watch installations going up (and coming down!) in the context of the spaces they were created for, in these fascintaing behind-the-scenes videos documenting their construction.

Other perspectives

Tate Debate: Is viewing art a social experience?
As immersive spaces, installations are often artworks that are experienced socially. What do visitors feel about this shared experience of artworks?

TateShots: Contemporary responses to Kurt Schwitters
Contemporary artists Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost were commissioned to make new works in response to the legacy of Kurt Schwitters’s large scale environments.

Installation art in detail

Martin Creed The lights going on and off
Martin Creed
The lights going on and off 2000

But is it installation art?
This article explores the history and development of installation art with the aim of pinning down exactly what the term means.

Cildo Meireles
Award-winning director Gerald Fox’s documentary film presents an intimate portrait of the life and work of 1960s pioneer of installation artist Cildo Meireles.

‘Are We as a Society Going to Carry on Treating People This Way?’ Michael Landy’s Scrapheap Services
Curator Sean Rainbird discusses Michael Landy’s installation, Scrapheap Services 1995 made against the backdrop of social change, labour market reforms and political ideology at the tail-end of the Thatcher era in Britain.

Inside Installations
Conservation research project examining how installation art can be safeguarded and presented for future generations.

Shifting Practice
Listen to these conference recordings which explore the dividing line between installation artist and curator.

Related glossary terms

Environments, site-specificsound artmixed media, conceptual art, interactive art, art intervention