Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum

Lei Qin

Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum


As a genre, installation art is totally dependent on art world institutions and viewing spaces, especially museums. My final paper will mainly discuss how installation artists use their artworks to mediate, to question or to reaffirm the function of the museum. The focus of this paper will be on the evaluation of different approaches of interventions in a museum taken by installation artists. My paper will not cover all types of interventions in the art world but rather, it will be a kind of phenomenological responses to installation arts in the museum. I will bring together three case studies: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koon’s balloon dog installations in Versailles and Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Diverse as these cases may seem, all three artworks have at least one thing in common: artists who have made these artworks intervene in museum exhibitions. Research questions such as how installation art has evolved as an art genre in the art world, how museum installations can affect the nature and message of installation art and how are the artworks organized to create a dialogue and context for viewers to make connections and create some basic meanings will be explored.


In the modern world where so many different art forms have been born, evolved, explored and even forgotten over time, almost no other practice of art is more impressive and immersive as installation art. Compared to traditional painting, sculptures or any other art form, installation art has a natural advantage in engaging spectators, activating viewer’s perceptions and encouraging participation. The visitor is no longer a passive recipient of content, but an actor in a dialogic multisensory process of communication with his/her surroundings, in which he/she is fully immersed. The ‘gaze’ towards the object in the museum ’treasure house’ (Witcomb, 2003) becomes one aspect of an enveloping bodily experience within a complex environment. The museum no longer acts primarily as a place for presenting the pre-existing objects or the authoritative representation of a given context, but for the gathering of different forms of experience (Falk & Dierking, 1992).

Installation artists’ involvement with intervention may take various forms. It can take the form of using museum itself as an art form, as in the case of Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei discussed below. Alternatively, artists can question and reaffirm the function of the museum by changing the infrastructure setting of museums, such as light, sound or scent. One such example is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Another way of intervention is Jeff Koon’s exhibition in Versailles.

A short history of installation art

Although a marginal and experimental art practice at the beginning, today installation art has become the mainstream in contemporary artistic practice. Roots of installation art can be traced back to the great Conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp, the first to place a standard urinal into the “fine art” setting, and Kurt Schwitters, the artist who created an environment of several rooms created in his own house in Hannover. Duchamp’s “readymades” and Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau thus became precursors to this genre along with other early influencers like the avant-garde Dadaists, who were the first Conceptual artists who chose to focus on making works that generated questions rather than crafting aesthetically pleasing objects. Those artists’ emphasis on real materials and everyday life rather than depiction or illustration remains the prevailing mode of communicating ideas in today’s installation art. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp set his famous installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York, threading the entire space of the gallery with his so-called “Mile of String”. The gestures of Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, and other precursors gave utopian ideals to artists at the time to create three-dimensional environments. About 1957 onward, the earlier version of installation art emerged out of environmental installations made by artists such as Allan Kaprow and Yves Klein. In Kaprow’s Words (1961), he constructed an Environment of painted words with rolls of paper on the wall of galleries and played audio recordings for the audience as they moved through the room. Yves Klein was another pioneer of the curated environment, although his approach was a much sparser one. In The Void, an installation made by Klein in 1958, Klein emptied the room and painted it white. Guards were sent to stand outside the room. Anyone without invitation was charged entrance fee if he or she wanted to go inside. By doing this, Klein wanted to validate space as an object worthy of artistic attention. From the 1960s the creation of installations has become a major tendency in modern art. By the end of the 1990s, there were a considerable number of artists creating installation art in Europe and the United States.

Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942 Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by John D. Schiff

What does the term ’installation art’ denote exactly? During its early stage, installation arts has been created under various headings. In 1958, Allan Kaprow coined the term ’Environment’ to describe his room-sized multimedia works. From the 1960s, a few scholars began to identify an increasing tendency for artists to create the room-sized works of art. They variously called these works environments, happenings, art spaces, or situations. In the 1960s, the word ’installation’ was employed by magazines such as ArtforumArts Magazine, and Studio International to describe the way in which an exhibition was arranged. For example, the photographic documentation of this arrangement was termed an ’installation shot’. For artists associated with Minimalism who rejected the messy expressionistic ’environments’ of their immediate precursors such as Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, the neutrality of the term ‘installation’ was important. Gradually, artists used the word ’installation art’ to describe the works that occupied the whole space. The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) defines installation as a “term which came into vogue during the 1970s for an assemblage or environment constructed in the gallery specifically for a particular exhibition.”

“Words” by Allan Kaprow at Smolin Gallery, New York, 1962. The image is part of the Getty’s recent acquisition of the archives of Robert McElroy, a photographer who documented New York’s performance-art scene in the 1960s. Photo By Robert T. McElroy / The Getty Research Institute

Even though the term ’Installation Art’ has been extensively used, it remains ambiguous and unspecific in the definition. Reiss (1999) writes: “It refers to a wide range of artistic practices, and at times overlaps with other interrelated areas including Fluxus, Earth art, Minimalism, video art, Performance art, Conceptual art and Process art.”  Certain characteristic features of installation art, however, have been discussed and analyzed in detail from different angles by several scholars. The essence of installation art is, according to Reiss, spectator participation. In Julie Reiss’s book From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, she highlights some of installation art’s salient features, one of which is that ‘the spectator is in some way regarded as integral to the completion of the work’. In her further explanation, spectator participation ‘is so integral to Installation art that without having the experience of being in the piece, analysis of installation art is difficult’. Julie Reiss and Claire Bishop believe that an installation is not completed until it has been taken by recipients. Thus, the viewer or spectator’s participation becomes a constitutive and decisive element in installation art. Another feature of installation art is site-specific. Unlike sculptures, paintings, and similar pieces, installations are usually dependent on the configurations of certain sites, from rooms in galleries and museums to outdoor spaces. The physical characteristics and properties of the space thus play important roles in communicating the meaning of an installation work, that is to say, if one installation artwork gets removed from its original location it loses all or a substantial part of its meaning.

In recent years, development in information and communication technology have influenced the conventional concepts of space and time inside installation art greatly. Consequently, much installation art has become more compounded evolving into interactive multimedia events. Displays of work now combine a flexible method and it contains a product of machine-based audiovisual technology, such as video projection and computer-generated images. However, some installation artists argue that because contemporary multimedia installation art contains electronic media, (existing only as light or electronic signal), which is considered non-physical material, it cannot be categorized with previous forms of installation art.

 From Object to Project: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei

With the growth in consumer goods after the World War II, the art world has witnessed an artistic tendency to gather together large quantities of society’s found objects. From early instances of the Surrealists’ urge to use supplies of working materials such as castoffs from streets and dustbins, to pop artists’ practice of borrowing the materials, techniques, and imagery of mass production for their art, the ideas and systems traditionally embodied in the museum display, archiving, classification, storage, curatorship have been challenged greatly by contemporary art practice. Installation artists appropriated and interpreted the way they present their work in their own ways to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion and to trigger a public inquiry.

Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography

In Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) 2008, Ai Weiwei filled the enormous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, an industrial building-turned-contemporary art space, with more than 100 million tiny, handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. The seeds installation tipped the scales at 150 tons. For viewers whoever entered Turbine Hall, the scenery was a marvel, at least mathematically, considering the millions of facsimiles of the titular item cast in porcelain, then decorated by hand. Each is both a mass-produced multiple and an individual painting. The audience was invited to physically walk over and lie on the seeds covering a vast expanse of floor to the depth of about four inches. The black-and-white sunflower seeds crunched delightfully underfoot, and the whole thing resembled an indoor pebble beach, with people strolling about and then plunking down to sit or recline.

A demonstrator surrounded by posters lies in Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds exhibit in the Tate Modern. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Sunflower seeds evoke a warm personal memory for the artist, who recalls that while he was growing up, even the poorest in China would share sunflower seeds as a treat among friends. Sunflowers also represent the citizens of the People’s Republic of China because Communist propaganda optimistically depicted leader Chairman Mao as the sun. Ai Weiwei asserts the sunflower seed as a symbol of camaraderie during difficult times. These sunflower seeds were hand-crafted in China,shipped across the oceans and presented in London. Viewers can freely walk and play in the sunflower seeds beach. Many of them may not have the memory of the Cultural Revolution in China, nor do they understand the warm feelings that Ai Weiwei have with friends in his childhood. But when viewers interact with the work inside Tate museum, they were just like kids come to the beach and sit down, play, and grind. This kind of inspiration and interaction span culture, politics, and language. Compared to more traditional types of art, installation art regards its viewing subject not as an individual who experiences art in isolation but as part of a community. In this way, communication between visitors who are present in the space is generated.

Looking through the lens of technology: Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik

Artists like Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol explore an obsessive repetition of form in their installations and sculptures. While some installation artists focus on combining contemporary technology such as videos with art, or altering the infrastructure that once enabled visitors to simply gaze at objects on display, such as light, image, sound or scent. Visitors who stepped in the third floor of American Art Museum in the east wing found themselves facing a fantastic sensory overload — Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. The exhibit is a map of the United States. Each state is outlined in the neon light tubing and filled with closed-circuit television screens. Non-stop TV programmers are chosen specifically to represent the states. Some screens are tilted to better fit the state (such as within New Jersey and Wisconsin), and television size varies depending on the size of the state. Colorado and New Mexico, for example, each have six screens of equal size. TV programmers also vary according to 50 states’ features. For example, Iowa’s appears to be a tourism ad featuring celebrities and politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is perhaps an homage to Iowa’s essential role in our political nomination process. Kansas plays The Wizard of Oz and Missouri’s is Meet Me in St. Louis. Texas’ video consists of cowboys and horses. New York is not representative of the whole state, but rather an image of the Empire State Building.

Consisted of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing, the only thing you can do it stare at it in awe when you first see Electronic Superhighway. When I first saw this masterpiece, I felt my brain was working as hard as the generators to make sense of the quick, flashing screens and competing sounds. This masterpiece is the only artwork in the alcove. Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway works against the tendency of formal categorical groupings that sort individual pieces into cohesion in American Art Museum (for example, the grouping of color field works together in museum), focusing viewer’s attention on the singularity of the objects on display and avoiding effacing the differences between digital media sources displayed in the work.

Unlike other artists’ video installation work, this work does not immerse the viewer in whole darkness. In Claire Bishop’s book Installation Art, he explained that “Dark space (with its mystical and mystifying atmosphere) would run counter to the focused rationality and concentration needed to investigate and elucidate these narratives.” The neon light outlines and nonstop TV screens stand out against the dimly lit background in the whole room, seducing and simultaneously producing a critically perceptive viewer. Due to its massive size and abundance of digital media, viewers are invited to walk through the map and to enjoy the content of every television programmers according to the state. Nam June Paik’s use of multicolored neon light, TV screens and curator’s use of background highlight the approach of every viewer to the work. When I visited, many viewers would step close to move along neon light borders of states and focus on on-going TV programs on the screen.

Commonly known as the father of video art, Nam June Paik transformed video into an artist’s medium with his media-based art that challenged and changed our understanding of visual culture. As Paik wrote in 1969, he wanted “to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo, as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.” Paik’s installation just like a painting that uses electronic media as a brush to draw and to depict what we used to leave home to discover. With audio clips from screen gems, Paik suggests that our picture of America has always been influenced by film and television. In such installation, certain materials and medium that compound the artwork become activated, generating the dialogues between artist and viewers, between artists and curators and between museum and viewers.

The beauty of contradiction: Jeff Koons’ exhibition in Versailles

Like Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway intervention that engages viewers in a hypnosis surrounding in the American Art Museum, Jeff Koons’ large-scale balloon sculptures, including Balloon Rabbit, Balloon Swan, and Balloon Monkey in Versailles also evokes viewers of an unrealistic dream. The artist’s intervention with space is so important that it would be impossible to understand and interpret the exhibition Jeff Koons Versailles without understanding the institution or space surrounding it. All his works presented in this exhibition have been selected specifically to be situated in different rooms in the Royal Apartment (Les grands appartements ) in Versailles and in the gardens of the Castles, highlighting an inner relationship between each artwork and the theme of the room, or the specific features of the work and the decorative details and the furnishings of the location.

“Balloon Dog” by Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles exhibition. Photo ByThe New York Times

Balloon Dog, one of his huge polished steel sculptures that imitate the balloon sculptures made for children’s parties, posed amid the solemnity of allegorical paintings and marble veneer of the Salle d’Hercule.

Balloon rabbit was located in Le salon de l’Abondance, the antechamber of the ancient cabinet des curiosités ou des raretés. The work is one of the most well-known and emblematic Koons’ creation. Cast in mirror-bright stainless steel, an inflated cartoon bunny reflected the futurist, utopian aspirations of modernism. The small salon de l’Abondance (Drawing Room of Plenty) was built in 1680 for Louis XIV to store his rare paintings. Under Louis XVI, the room became le salon de jeux du roi (the games room of the king). Salon de l’Abondance was reserved for au buffet les soirs d’appartement on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. In its childlike vulnerability, innocence and eagerness to please, it exudes a feeling of new possibility.

Jeff Koons’s “Lobster,” in the palace’s Mars Salon. He called the exhibition “so profound — the high point of my artistic life.” Photo By Alcock for The New York Times

Lobster was hang from the ceiling at Le salon de Mars, dedicated to the Greek god and, at the same time, to the planet. The colorful shape and design of the work derive from the inflated children’s pool toys, but the material used by the artist – polychromatic aluminum – transforms this everyday object into works of art.

Mr. Koons’s “Split-Rocker,” now residing in the palace gardens. Photo By The New York Times

The exhibition will also include the gardens of the Castle, in which one important work Split-Rocker, a sculpture created by ten of thousand flowers, was installed in the Parterre de l’Orangerie. Flowers are recurring elements throughout Koons’ work: they are a symbol of life and grace. The work combined two different profiles of rockers – a blue rocking horse and an animated dinosaur – and these split parts are sustained by an interior architectural structure. Koons said he was inspired by the Sun King when he created Split-Rocker. In a video, Koons said that “this is the type of work that Louis Quatorze would wake up and have a fantasy that he’d want to see and he would tell his staff, and voila! He would come home and in the evening, there would be Split-Rocker.”

Even though Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques. The contradict itself between Koons’ sculptures and the surroundings make the exhibition unforgettable. On the walls of the queen’s antechamber hang portraits of Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children. In the middle of the room is Koons’ exhibit, Hoover Convertibles, a collection of 1960-style vacuum cleaners. A marble statue of Louis XIV shares space with some unlikely interlopers: Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, sculpted in porcelain. There can be thousands of interpretations of Jeff Koons’ work in Versailles. The statue of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles before a statue of Louis XIV could be a gentle reminder that pop stars are today’s royalty. The Balloon Rabbit, again in stainless steel, stands on a marble plinth amid Baroque portraits, black marble busts, and green velvet, like a bunny laughing at the pomp of official portraiture. The touching personal intimacy that Balloon Rabbit has could suggest the function of the room as a game room. Koons also put his white marble Self-Portrait, the artist’s head in a mass of marble shards, popping up cheekily in the Apollo Salon. The piece in the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the palace, seems rather conservative compared to his works in other rooms. He has hung a three-meter-wide round balloon at the far end in the sparkle of all its mirrors and chandeliers and sheer scale of its 73-metre length. Interestingly enough, as you admire your reflections in its convex form, it does feel a little like being in a ball at the court of Louis XIV.

As with any juxtaposition between historic and modern, the contrast with Koons’ colorful shiny world is also a chance to rediscover the château itself and of course its gilded decorations, colored marble, crystal and oil paintings. These hilarious, oversize sculptures are still viewed as subversive mock commodities, satirizing the infantilism and banality of contemporary imagination. The dialogues between Jeff Koons and viewers of his works can only be generated by understanding the surroundings, Versailles.


Many installation artworks, in which so much money and energy are invested, are not made primarily for art collectors, but for the visitors who will perhaps never have an interest or enough money to buy art. As the art system is becoming a part of mass culture as an exhibition practice that combines with architecture, design, and fashion, it is becoming increasingly difficult today to differentiate between the artist and the curator. Thus, the idea of the artist’s intervention has been turned inside out by collaborative practice. From an unwelcome intrusion into the museum by artists, the intervention has become a curatorial practice of the museum itself. Institution and intervention are bound together in this process. Whatever forms of artists’ intervention with museum might be, the aim of such interventions is quite similar – to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion, trigger public inquiry and to generate dialogues.