Installation Art: Kara Walker & Anne Hamilton
For this art class, similar to the Performance Art class we diverged from out standard three artist/three project structure. So many of the artists that we have learned about so far such as: Yayoi Kusama, Christo and Jeanne Claude, James Turrell, and Sol Lewitt are installation artists so we brought them up again since so many students had already learned about them. Installation Art is more a category of art than a movement, so it was helpful to look at artists from different movements who are categorized as installation artists even though they use different mediums and their art looks radically different.
Installation art began as an art movement in the 1960’s. It sort of sprang up organically from Conceptual Art and from artists in the 50’s and 60’s trying to make art that created “expressionistic environments” that could be walked through and absorbed by the observer. Installation artists wanted to make work that was displayed unconventionally and often used all of the observers senses.
In 1961 Alan Kaprow made one of the first art installations called Yard in which he filled the backyard of a gallery with tires and objects wrapped in tarpaper and let the audience walk all over and around it.
Kaprow also created an installation called Words in 1961, in which he hung rolls of words all around the gallery space with jumbled words and phrases and played audio recordings.
Originally installation art was made to be site specific and ephemeral, it could only exist for a time in that space and it wasn’t about anything concrete and it didn’t try to prove anything. However, as time went on people used installation art to do all sorts of things including talking abut social concerns and using cultural contexts.
Today installation art generally follows at least one of these rules (though it is good to remember art rules were made to be broken): it is site specific, utilizes conceptualism, is interactive and immersive, and happens on a massive scale.
A good example of site specific work is Christo and Jeanne Claude, who use the natural world to show their massive works.
Another site specific work is Andy Goldsworthy who paints walls with clay and mud and lets it crack and dry over the time it is installed so the viewer can watch it erode and change in real time.
Installation art and conceptual art have a lot in common, since conceptual art is a precursor to installation art. They both prioritize the importance of ideas over the work’s technical merit meaning it is more important to conceptual and installation artists that they portray what they want to over it following traditional aesthetics or being a perfect example of the technique or medium they are using.
An example of conceptual installation art is Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds where there were nearly a billion tiny porcelain sunflower seeds piled in the museum of which visitors were allowed to take one each. The seeds did not exist to be perfect specimens of porcelain work, the action of each visitor taking a seed back to wherever they lived was the concept and reason of the installation.
Art is always interactive, but installation art has the unique ability, since it is often made at a large scale, to be physically interactive. There are so many fun examples of interactive installations but here are a few of our favorites.
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room and Obliteration Room are great examples of large-scale interactive installations. The Obliteration Room was made up of completely white walls and white furniture and guests were given sticker dots which they could place anywhere they wanted to in the room. Below is a great video showing the installation and how the public interacted with it.
Kusama’s Infinity Room is made of mirrors and lights in different rooms that the observer can walk around in and see themselves going on for infinity in the mirrors. Below is another great video of someone walking through the rooms so you can see a little bit what it would be like to interact with it.
An art collective called Numen/For Use created an interactive 50 meter long tape tunnel network called Tape Paris, that people could climb around and sit in. You can watch a video of it here.
The last rule of Installation art is that it happens on a massive scale. Most of the installations we have seen so far have been on a massive scale, but here are a few more anyway.
Christo and Jeanne Claude use massive scale to create all of these environmental installations. They once wrapped a 2.4 kilometer section of the Australian coast in fabric.
They also once wrapped the Reichstag, a German government building, for 2 weeks in 1990, to erase the landmark.
With all these different types of historical and modern Installation art in mind, we will now look at the two modern installation artists we focused on for our class.
Our first artist is Kara Walker is a New York based artist whose work explores race, gender, sexuality, and violence through the use of silhouetted figures. She was born in 1969 in California and knew she wanted to be an artist when she was 3 years old. One of her earliest memories is watching her dad draw.
Silhouette art is a traditionally Victorian medium, which she uses to great effect to make an almost theatrical space which shows her figured enacting violence on one another. She juxtaposes the scenes of true racial violence and the romantic or fairytale-like medium she uses to portray them. *If you do use her art to teach children make sure you are thoughtful of the scenes you choose as they can be upsetting or graphic.*
She uses her plain black figures on the plain white wall background to tell stories, often encircling the entire room, without using any words to say what is going on.
For our Kara Walker artwork we used large sheets of black butcher paper, white crayons, and scissors and had the students create a room full of silhouettes.
Many of them decided to trace each other so they could put life-size figures on the walls. They also cut out shapes of trees and plants to make an environment around them.
If you don’t want to get or don’t have access to such large pieces of paper you can do this on a smaller scale and cut out smaller, more detailed silhouettes.
Our last artist is Ann Hamilton, a visual artist from Ohio who was born in 1956. She attended St. Lawrence University, received her BFA from the University of Kansas, and an MFA in sculpture from the Yale School of Art.
Anne Hamilton makes immersive, often interactive, art installations that are experienced with multiple senses. She is a great example of an installation artist who follows the previously stated rules (or suggestions) of what makes a piece installation art: her work is site specific, conceptual, interactive, and is made on a large scale.
We watched this video of a piece done by Hamilton called the event of a thread in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory in 2012. As we watched it as a class we looked at the senses it uses and the ways it was interactive to the public.
After learning about Anne Hamilton each student planned and then created, on a small scale, their own installation. They thought about if they wanted it to be interactive or something to just be looked at, how they wanted their museum patrons to feel when they were in the installation, and what senses they would use.
After they sketched their ideas they had full use of everything we have at the art center to make whatever they wanted in their cardboard box which acted as their installation room.
We have them about an hour to make their installation but they definitely could have gone for longer! They got to planning it start to finish and then make whatever they could think of and be thoughtful about the experience they wanted people to have if they really walked through their installation.
If you have a big space and the time to make a real interactive installation it is always something students enjoy doing — even simple things, once they are seen and learned about as an installation, become more exciting.