Indeed, art which engages with current events, whether exhibited in galleries or public spaces, have been a major source of news coverage around the world. Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbours project, for example, placed fences in public spaces around New York in order to highlight the city’s diversity in the face of the then-recent presidential election.

But what is it about these sorts of installations which make them so effective as an artistic response to the world around them?

Installations take up space

The key thing about installations is their sheer size; compared with a canvas, or even a sculpture, installations can take up whole rooms of galleries, giving viewers an infinite number of perspectives through which to view a given work. Consequently, installations give their artists the opportunity to create extremely detailed installations which reward an extended period of observation.

Judy Chicago’s seventies installation The Dinner Party, for example, aimed “to introduce the richness of women’s heritage into the culture,” including a 39-seat dinner table to represent significant women in history, as well inscribing the names of over a thousand important women elsewhere in the work. Likewise, You Are Forever, a work by contemporary installation artist Owais Husain, is made up of forty eight steel suitcases, projecting a video that portrayed cultural shifts from one place to another.

Installations are public

Husain’s installation was particularly significant because of where it was exhibited—in various public spaces, including the Central Station Terminal at Mumbai, further emphasising the work’s theme of travel and displacement. Art installations such as this have really only been displayed in public spaces for the last half-century, as marked by an exhibit at the Museum Of The City Of New York to mark the occasion.

However, public art installations can also ensure that an artist’s message is seen by the widest group of individuals as possible in a targeted location. For example, in the case of Olafur Eliasson’s Umschreibung—an ornate, double-helix-like staircase which ostensibly goes nowhere—that location was the courtyard of the KPMG building in Munich, providing an oblique commentary on the futility of the rat race. 

Installations are immersive (and spark debate)

By inviting people to climb the stairs, Eliasson’s piece also highlights another reason that installations are so engaging—they are (usually) interactive works, designed for observers to get up close and personal. Of course, public installations can also be disruptive, with Tilted Arc, a site-specific sculpture by Richard Serra, a 120-by-12 foot rusted steel plate which bisected Manhattan’s Foley Federal Plaza.

While the sculpture took two years’ planning, a court hearing saw that it was removed after eight years due to complaints from workers in the surrounding offices. The city official who spearheaded the campaign to have the piece removed celebrated “a new artform: open space”, while Serra himself had the piece destroyed, as he believed it could not be exhibited anywhere else.

Ultimately, by erecting almost unavoidably large-scale artworks in public spaces, artists are confronting their potential audiences rather than waiting for the audiences to come to them in a gallery setting. While this does often involve planning permission and the approval of local authorities, the process is arguably the most engaging way for people to view art and come face to face with new ideas.