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Art educators are laser-focused on preparing students to think and work creatively. One way we can achieve this is to introduce students to a variety of artists and mediums. We know that many artists have been innovative throughout history. We celebrate those who have pushed the limits of what is possible through their artwork. We identify and study the pioneers of different artistic movements. However, creative and innovative thought is not exclusive to the past. We can also share contemporary artists as examples of thought-provoking creators. One way is to share installation art.
The Tate Modern defines installation art as “large-scale, mixed-media constructions, often designed for a specific place or for a temporary period of time.” Considered more contemporary in general, installations are designed to take viewers out of the traditional two-dimensional plane. Installations range from the stunning and ephemeral to the overwhelming and vexing.
In particular, students are fascinated by installations as they take what is considered “traditional” art and turn it on its head. Showing the possibilities of installation art will inspire your students and introduce a variety of materials. It will show how art can change how people see the world around them. Below are just some examples.
In 2019, A professor of architecture, Ronald Rael, and a professor of design, Virginia San Fratello, collaborated to create an art installation titled Teeter-Totter Wall. Custom-built teeter-totters were placed on both sides of a slatted steel border fence between Mexico and the United States. The two creatives wanted to use “humor and inventiveness to address the futility of building barriers.”
Individuals from both sides of the border came to this art installation to play and interact. Children and adults alike laughed and chatted as they played on the bright pink teeter-totters. Rael commented on Instagram that the event was “filled with joy, excitement, and togetherness at the border wall.”
For the art classroom: After you introduce students to this art installation, consider asking them to reflect on the artists’ choice of materials. The teeter-totters were created out of steel, the same material as the border fence that divides Mexico and the United States. How can an artist’s choice of material communicate meaning? Rael explained, “Steel can divide, or it can bring people together. Same material, different outcomes.”
In 2017, plans were revealed to build a permanent wall on the border between Mexico and the United States. Artist, JR, responded by creating a giant installation above the border fence in Tecate, Mexico. Supported by scaffolding, JR shows an image of Kikito, a toddler from the city of Tecate. His house overlooks the border fence. In the installation, the giant image of the toddler peers over the fence at the United States.
Before the work was to come down, the artist organized a picnic on both sides of the border. He invited Kikito and his family, as well as hundreds of guests from Mexico and the United States. Stretched across both sides of the border was a long table for people to gather. Stamped on the table was an image of JR’s image of eyes. People on both sides of the border shared the same food, water, and music played by a single band. One half of the band performed on the United States side, while the other performed on the other side of the fence, in Mexico.
For the art classroom: As you share images and videos of this art installation with your students, ask them to think about how the imagery and the event go hand-in-hand. We often think of art as a finished product: a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture. While JR created imagery at the border fence, he also organized an event that caused people to interact and reflect. How is art more than a product? These installations may open your students’ minds to new possibilities.
Three Native American artists created Repellent Fence in 2015 across the United States/Mexico border of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora. The two-mile art installation is made up of twenty-six tethered balloons. The balloons feature iconography and colors used for traditional indigenous medicine—the same graphic used by indigenous people from South America to Canada for thousands of years. In indigenous cultures, this eye means an open eye. It symbolizes an eye that is aware and knowledgeable.
This work of land art that these artists created symbolically communicates how the Americas are connected. The installation recognizes how our countries are interconnected by “the land, indigenous people history, relationships, movement, and communication.”
After showing images and videos to your students about this installation, you can open a class discussion about the use of symbols. How have the artists used indigenous iconography in their artwork to communicate a message? Students can research the history and ways the Americas are tied together on both sides of the border. They can reflect on how this art installation represents interconnectedness.
For the art classroom: You may thoughtfully facilitate a discussion of cultural appropriation. The artists of Postcommodity are Native American, and they are referencing indigenous history and issues through their work. How might students appropriately apply iconography of the past to respond to current issues in their own lives?
Border Tuner, or Sintonizador Fronterizo, is an interactive art installation created by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in 2019. The installation consists of bright searchlights that beam across the sky from Juárez, Mexico to El Paso, Texas, and El Paso to Juárez. These powerful lights connect people on both sides of the border between Mexico and the United States. Along with the lights are microphones and speakers. As the searchlights intersect across the sky, participants can speak and hear each other from a distance.
This interactive art installation allows participants to make new connections across the border and demonstrate the relationships between these two cities. El Paso and Juárez make up the largest bi-national metropolitan area in the western hemisphere.
Like many art installations, Border Tuner creates an environment for interaction, thought, and reflection. The visual component of this installation is the intersection of searchlight beams across the night sky. The border divides people and relationships across the two countries, but Lozano-Hemmer’s work helps to unite them with his visual switchboard.
For the art classroom: Students may question this artist’s methods and materials. Many students have only experienced art through traditional media. How was Lozano-Hemmer’s use of technology (Xenon 7kW robotic searchlights, dials with digital encoders, webcams, GPS, speakers, microphones, custom-software) different from an artist who uses paint on canvas? This is a great aesthetics question to pose to your students. What is the purpose of art? Why do artists create? You can guide your students to conclude that the purpose of art may be expression or response to one’s environment. If so, then Lozano-Hemmer took an innovative approach in creating Border Tuner.
As part of her doctoral work and research, Lizbeth De la Cruz Santana created The Playas de Tijuana Mural Project in 2019. She posed the question, “Who counts as a childhood arrival to the United States?” The plan for the mural was influenced by stories from both the DACAmented and Humanizing Deportation archives.
The mural consists of 300+ Quick Response (QR) codes plastered on a fence on the border between Mexico and the United States, along with seven portraits. The QR codes allow visitors an opportunity to listen and watch the digital stories of childhood arrivals. The project helps generate awareness about immigrant life in the United States and what life is like after deportation.
De La Cruz Santana plans to continue her project in the summer of 2021. Portraits will be painted in Fresno, California in August, and again in Tijuana, Mexico in September. These murals will portray the stories of childhood arrivals and undocumented immigrants who currently hold a non-citizen status in the United States.
For the art classroom: The use of QR codes to tell digital narratives is a great example of how contemporary artists are incorporating technology. Have your students experience this mural as if they were visiting the work in Tijuana, Mexico. Have students listen to, read, and watch the digital narratives included with the QR codes. You can share a digital version of De La Cruz Santana’s mural here.
Many contemporary artists are taking their work outside the gallery and creating installations. These conceptual works of art are often interactive to challenge or encourage visitors to think about their own experiences. As you share contemporary art installations with students, you can facilitate discussion on aesthetics, artist intent, and personal interpretations. Pose the question to your students, “How might this installation change one’s perception? How might this installation change the world?”
What art examples do you share with students when teaching installation art?
What subject matter have your students communicated in their own installations?
How do you engage students in aesthetic discussions about art?