Art installations are not a new concept in the art world. In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp set the roots for future artists to create site-specific pieces that made viewers redefine what they know. For instance, in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism he hung several hundreds of feet of twine throughout the exhibition space, creating a weblike veil between that separated the viewer from the artworks hung on the walls.
Some critics claimed it symbolised the difficulties of trying to understand surrealist art, but Duchamp stated that there was no such intention, and that the focus of the piece was on its functionality. Duchamp, who was fascinated by how we look at art, challenged and changed the roll of the audience by creating obstacles within the space; he activated the viewer within the piece, which inspired other artists to explore how visitors could be part of an art installation.
Art lovers will always go to museums and galleries to see their favorite artists and pieces. However, many people still think that going to see art is usually a boring experience. Artists like Miguel Chevalier, Yayoi Kusama, Lucas Samaras, and many more are changing this with their installations. Today, immersive installations have become a huge attraction for people all over the world. For instance, more than two million people went to spend forty-five seconds in Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life” during the two years it toured in Central and South America.
So what makes them so sought after? The answer to that is simple. As humans, we have an inherent desire to escape from the confines of our reality. Every form of art, be it literary or visual, could be an example of our escapism. If you’ve ever seen the infamous Disney movie, Mary Poppins, you would remember the scene in which Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane, and Michael all jump into the sidewalk chalk paintings. Immersive art embodies that fantastic ideal. It creates a physical alternative reality which allows the participant to transcend known perceptions of reality and experience a completely new and unknown environment. Gallery, museum, and art fair visitors are no longer viewers; they are activated within the piece and through interactaction, they become immersed.
Being surrounded by an installation is one thing, but what separates this genre from any other type of arti is what the artist does to activate the individual and make them completely engaged. In Lucas Samaras’s “Room No. 2” (1966), one walks into a space that is covered in mirrors. The room has concrete, finite limitations, but it is completely transformed into endless reflections, forcing the viewer to redefine their perceptions of space. Artist Yayoi Kusama, like Sumaras, uses mirrors to create her surreal installation “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins.” She inserts her well known, psychedelic pumpkins into the space and they, along with the participant, expand into an endless vision.
“Dear World…Yours, Cambridge” (2015), by Miguel Chevalier, is another example of an installation that challenges the perception of space. It took place in the historic King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, and was commissioned to commemorate some of Cambridge’s renowned alumni. Chevalier filled the chapel with projected images linked to specific alumni. For instance, he used images of vast galaxies and black holes to honor Stephen Hawkins. People walked into what they knew to be a chapel and were transported into a space that was an awe-inspiring visual experience. The manipulation of the known chapel created an aesthetic environment which reconstructed a different reality.
In 2012, Random International –a collaborative experimental studio based in London- created an immersive environment entitled “Rain Room”, where water is continually falling, like rain, but pauses over an individual as they walk through the space. It completely challenges the human experience of being caught in the rain, and that is what makes the installation immersive.
In 2015, Japanese art collective teamLab created an installation that was also based on people’s movement through the exhibition. In the piece, entitled “Floating Flower Garden”, 2,300 flowers hang from the ceiling and whimsically recess as individuals walked through. This surreal environment entices the participants’ senses and uses their bodies as the interface by having the environment react to them. Such unrealistic physically experiences make visitors respond in new ways before an artwork and, in a way, their reaction becomes the actual piece of art.
It may be fair to say that the popularity of these immersive installations stems from the idea that, though we don’t know what to completely expect, we know that we will be experiencing something completely different from any other aspect of our life. Our perceptions are challenged in ways that create emotions of wonder and awe; we are thrown into an abstract reality like Mary Poppins jumping into a chalk painting.