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Taking your first steps into higher education
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4 Analysing sculpture and installations

In this section, you will broaden your use of the study diamond to cover the analysis of sculptures and installations. Some of the techniques that you have explored in the context of analysing painting – for example, the use of medium and colour – also apply to the analysis of sculpture and installations.

You will also learn about an additional technique – the use of viewpoint. A summary of all three techniques, as they apply to sculpture and installation, follows.


Different media offer different possibilities for an artist to create an effect and express meaning. For example, stone is more difficult to carve than wood, and polished metal offers more potential to reflect light than stone does. Different media can also create differing effects: for instance, an artwork made of barbed wire will produce different effects and will suggest different meanings from one made using feathers.


When analysing the effects of colour in a sculpture or installation, it is worth considering whether any colour that is present in the work results from the natural colour of the material, or whether it has been applied later, and, as ever, what the effects of this are.


The spectator’s experience of viewing sculptures and installations can differ from their experience of viewing paintings as the former are often three-dimensional and displayed in very specific ways. When analysing sculptures and installations, consider whether the spectator is encouraged to look up, down or straight at the artwork (or a combination of these possible viewpoints), and what physical positions the viewing can take place from. The effects of all these should be taken into account.

In brief, there are three main types of viewpoint:

  1. High: the spectator is looking down on the artwork, as with Tracey Emin’s My Bed (Resource booklet [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] Plate 3). This can give the spectator the feeling of being in control, or of having a complete overview of the work.

  2. Eye-level: the spectator’s eye is approximately level with the artwork. This can convey a feeling of equality or connectedness with the work (disturbingly so in Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided).

  3. Low: the spectator is looking up at an artwork (as with Tracey Emin’s In my family when someone dies they are cremated and their ashes are thrown across the sea (Resource booklet Plate 8). A low viewpoint can prevent the spectator from gaining an overview of the composition and instead might make them feel overwhelmed by, or in awe of, the viewed subject matter.

It is also important to consider whether the artist appears to be encouraging the spectator to stand close to the work, to view it from a distance, to view it from one side rather than another, or to walk around (or even into) it. You might also like to consider whether an artwork is more effective from one position than another.

This introduction to some of the techniques that might be explored when analysing sculpture and installations, in addition to your earlier work on the techniques used in painting, gives you a good basis for beginning to interpret Tracey Emin’s The Perfect Place to Grow (Resource booklet Plate 9), which is shown in a video clip.

Activity 6 Working towards an interpretation of The Perfect Place to Grow

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes
Download this video clip.Video player: he1s_1_wk3_vid001.mp4
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • a.Watch the video ‘The Perfect Place to Grow’, which gives some footage of Tracey Emin’s installation The Perfect Place to Grow. This artwork can also be seen in the Resource booklet Plate 9. Make a note of the artwork’s initial effect on you, the spectator.

  • b.Play the clip through again, as many times as you need, and make some notes about the relationship between techniques and effects in the artwork.

  • c.Note any ideas that you have about the possible meanings of the work.

When responding to part (a) above, you only need to give single word answers, but your response to (b) will need to be more detailed, considering those techniques mentioned at the beginning of this section. Do not spend too long deliberating on (c), as it is likely that you will revisit and revise your interpretation later. Do not worry if you do not yet have a clear interpretation of this artwork. Be prepared to speculate about what it might mean, perhaps just noting a list of your thoughts and ideas about it.


How did you get on? Did you find it easier or more difficult to analyse an installation rather than a painting? You might like to record your feelings about this in your notes. Table 4 includes some of the notes that I made when first visiting The Perfect Place to Grow, when it was displayed in Tate Britain, London.

I did feel at times as if I was clutching at straws when attempting to guess the possible meaning of The Perfect Place to Grow. But, as I have suggested above, it is important to start to offer interpretations. If you do this, more ideas are likely to follow.

Table 4 The relationship between techniques, effects and meaning in The Perfect Place to Grow
TechniqueEffectPossible meaning
Medium: bare wood of the shed and live plants – everyday objects.Gives a homely, natural feel.Possible link with the title and either growing up or growing plants.
Medium: use of low-quality, grainy film showing inside the hut.Again, gives a homely feel.Again, might be connected with growing up/childhood.
Colour: natural colour of wood.Makes the hut feel ordinary and unadorned.Not sure. Might refer to an ordinary, no-frills childhood.
Viewpoint: the spectator initially looks up at the hut but needs to climb the ladder in order to see the film. At this point they are at eye level with the footage. This makes the film feel inaccessible and private. We have to make an effort in order to see it and can only do so through a tiny hole.Might be intended to suggest the privacy of family life.

Hopefully, you found these activities stimulating, and illustrative of the intellectual challenge of developing personal responses and critical readings when studying the Arts in HE. It is worth reflecting on possible changes to the understanding of art (and poetry, as an example of broader arts provision in HE) you had at the start of the course, and the extent to which an approach used in HE contributed to that.