'One Place After Another' - essay
Miwon Kwon’s survey of site-specific art is thought-provoking in the context of participative and collaborative art. After all, this activity must take place somewhere. And as all aspects of the presentation of an art work become part of it, so do the semiotics of its site.
A central feature of ‘One Place After Another' is Kwon’s detailed analysis of Chicago’s 1970’s ‘Culture in Action’ programme. He analyses the eight projects within it and discerns four distinct categories based upon the kind of interactions between the artist(s) and respective community partner(s): ‘Community of Mythic Unity’, ‘Sited Communities’, ‘Invented Communities (Temporary)’, and ‘Invented Communities (Ongoing)’.
What interested me particularly about this was that there was no category along the lines of ‘Community of Artists’. Here works of art would be created in a genuine collaboration between the artist protagonist and the artist participants, and in response to the location.
In designing ‘Time Tubes’ I was mindful not only of the physical nature of the site but also of the characteristics of the people who would populate it. So, the creative collaboration would produce a work that could not have been made elsewhere by anyone else.
Miwon Kwon’s survey of site-specific art is thought-provoking in the context of participative and collaborative art. After all, this activity must take place somewhere. And as all aspects of the presentation of an art work become part of it, so do the semiotics of its site. As Kwon describes, the concerns of site-specific artists and the galleries and institutions which support them have evolved over time. And often in confusing, contradictory and diluting ways.
In the beginning there was a very tight interlock between the art work and its site. In its purest form it couldn’t exist anywhere else as in the case of prehistoric cave drawings of Aboriginal rock carvings. In the contemporary era David Nash’s ‘Ash Dome’ is literally embedded and growing in its own ground, though threatened by disease.
Then there were works which were inspired by a particular location and created for it. But then either removed as in the case of Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’, moved elsewhere, or the original was replicated and a copy installed in another place. Kwon describes this as ‘sedentariness’ versus ‘nomadism’.
Some of these works are commissioned and funded by public authorities, often a ‘planning gain’ as part of a development deal, and intended to enhance a building. The artist must respond to the brief and site, but it’s rare that the location has any genuine power to inspire. Indeed, it’s usually a key role of the artist’s sculpture to add the 'wow factor' to an otherwise humdrum built environment. Perhaps one of the best examples of achieving both the former and the latter, albeit a transient one, was Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ for the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square for 100 days in 2009.
Institutional patronage has extended into the use of site-specific art to go beyond aesthetic enhancement and attempt to educate communities, or even ameliorate conflicts. And a few have tried to co-opt ‘real people’ into the artistic process, either by exposing the 'artist at work', or by enabling actual participation in the creative process. Usually these attempts have been less than successful as in the case of Chicago’s 1970’s ‘Culture in Action’ programme.
Kwon analyses the eight projects within this programme and discerns four distinct categories based upon the kind of interactions between the artist(s) and respective community partner(s): ‘Community of Mythic Unity’, ‘Sited Communities’, ‘Invented Communities (Temporary)’, and ‘Invented Communities (Ongoing)’. While each has its individual characteristics, critic Grant Kester has characterised much community-based art as like “Victorian-era evangelism” which “envisions personal inner transformation and growth as the key to amelioration of social problems such as poverty, crime, homelessness, unemployment, and violence”.
Perhaps David Goodhart’s definition of people as either ‘Somewheres’ or ‘Anywheres’* encapsulates neatly the history and dynamics of site-specific art. Originally an artistic activity by and for ‘Somewheres’, it was rooted deeply in a particular place. The intervention related to local topography, history, and lore. It was implemented using the skills and the tools at hand for highly personal and communal reasons. Andy Goldsworthy’s works are often of this nature.
Latterly it’s sometimes become an inappropriate and patronising imposition by ‘Anywheres’ on ‘Somewheres’. Often publicly and/or commercially funded sculpture has the declared motivation of civic enhancement, but is actually driven by corporate ego with a patronising subtext of educating the masses in ‘higher things’.
Kwon’s book ends on a somewhat downbeat note. He quotes critical theorist Homi Bhabha who says: “The globe shrinks for those who own it, for the displaced or the dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across border or frontiers.” Then Kwon concludes: “This means addressing the uneven conditions of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person, one place, one thought, one fragment next to another, rather than invoking equivalences via one thing after another. Only those cultural practices that have this relational sensitivity can turn local encounters into long-term commitments and transform passing intimacies into indelible, unretractable social marks – so that the sequence of sites that we inhabit in our life’s traversal does not become genericized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another.”
However, I think there’s cause for optimism. The vexing factor in much of Kwon’s survey of site-specific art has been people, and specifically the ‘Somewheres’. Often the plans best-laid by ‘Anywheres’ have gone astray because they’ve been essentially top-down rather than bottom-up. In the discussion of the sites for art, perhaps too little attention is paid to the people who live in, visit, or otherwise engage with them. The ‘Tilted Arc’ was rejected by pedestrians not planners, while ‘One & Other’ was celebrated by the people embraced by the work, and the people who witnessed them.
If site-specific art was democratised would that lead to better art that would be more readily accepted in the locality? What if there a was a more engaged relationship between the artist and the Somewheres? Could the artist draw on the locals’ knowledge, experience, and beliefs for inspiration, and then create the concept for a work which is realised in collaboration with them and site-specific? Antony Gormley’s ‘Field’ 1989-2004 is an example of the local collaborative making, but less so in terms of inspiration and site-specificity.
A site-specific art work could be genuine in multiple sites if its focus is as much on the people who encounter it there, as the topography. Going further, a site-specific work which involves participation could be both generic in concept, but unique to a particular place and demographic. If there were to be art works resulting from these local encounters between the artist and collaborators, then surely these would constitute Kwon’s “indelible, unretractable social marks”? And site-specific art in “one place after another” would be differentiated and rejuvenated each time.
*David Goodhart: ‘The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics’ 2017.
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