- Jacqueline Pennell – Press release
- Foreword, Mirror Mirror: Jacqueline Pennell – Rear Window
- The Other Site, Towards a Definition of Site-specificity – Jean-Paul Martinon
- From a Rear Window — Extract from a Journal – Peter Cross
- Mirror Mirror: Jacqueline Pennell – Rear Window
The Other Site, Towards a Definition of Site-specificity – Jean-Paul Martinon
Rear Window Publications
1996 ISBN 0 9521040 6 7
© Jean-Paul Martinon
Any form of art questioning the status of art generally takes place during economic recessions. For example, the surrealist movement took place between two wars. The ’70s conceptual and land art movements also took place during a period of economic crisis (partly generated by the energy crisis and the Vietnam War), which forced commercial galleries to concentrate exclusively on saleable work. The same thing happened again as soon as the eighties were over. To take only British examples, with exhibitions such as: The Edge Festival organised by Rob La Fresnais, London (1988); the Four Cities Project (Derry, Glasgow, Newcastle, Plymouth) TSWA (1990); a number of early Art Angel projects or closer to us and more simply, Morgan Doyle’s Between Points, Public Lavatory, Spitafields, London (1993). The main characteristic of these acts of questioning art rests on a renewed interest in the type of site chosen by the artist or the curator: temporary, recently vacated and/or transitional spaces. These specific types of sites essentially respond to two criteria: firstly, the work always depends on the site’s relevance (its social, cultural, architectural, and/or historical idiosyncrasies) and secondly, the work does not survive (or loses most of its resonance) outside its site. The questions this short essay would like to address are these: How does one understand these sites for art that curiously seem to emerge during economic recessions? What does site-specific mean and does it really question the status of art? Where exactly does it come from? What unites the “specific” practices of these artists?
1. Re-Site and Destroy
It is common knowledge that the origins of site-specific art rest in the 1960s with land and conceptual art. However, several earlier one-off pieces come to challenge this supposed origin. These pieces in no way form what we now call site-specific installations, but their concepts to some extend opened the path to the dematerialisation and resetting of art performed by ’60s and ’70s artists. Because of the broadness of this concept, it is impossible here to give an exhaustive history of pre-’60s works or artists who risked themselves in such an extreme form of art practice. I will only give four examples that curiously highlight specific components of what we now call site-specific installations. The first component questions the placing of art, the second tackles the ephemerality of art objects, the third our preconceived notions of installation, and the last example, in contrast with the second one, deals with the permanence of the art object. This arbitrary selection does not constitute a history of site-specificity, but perhaps an inventory of its areas of work.
Rosalind Krauss and others have already explored the shift between a paradigmatic art based on the relevance and complexity of a medium (a bronze sculpture, for example) and a syntagmatic art primarily based on the shift between medium, structures, and sets of signifiers (a multi-media installation, for example). As she says “For, within the situation of post modernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium —sculpture— but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium —photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself— might be used.”(Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), p. 288.) It is now well admitted that, in contemporary art practice, artists no longer work on a sculptural or pictorial body of work, but within and through a variety of syntagmatic fields of work. And that the whole notion of site-specificity, which I’ll try to approach via another angle, primarily rests on an essential shift, which is constituted by the juxtaposition site/visual sign. It is not my intention here to represent this transition between object and structures, for we all agree that the twentieth century saw, as Jean-Michel Foray has said, an “extension of the field of art”(Jean-Michel Foray, Du musée au site—et retour (Paris: Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, 1989), p. 266, my translation) and that site-specificity fits within this extension.
Finally, I do not wish to discuss here the problematic of sculpture, monument, or architecture that is inherent in site-specific installations. The following examples therefore assume the evolution from sculpture as a historically bounded form of art towards, for example, installation as an expanded time and medium-specific expression. It seems to me that, ever since minimalism, contemporary art can rarely be understood simply as a sculpture, and/or a monument and the examples given in this essay are no exception. As Rosalind Krauss said, “it is obvious that the logic of the space of post modernist practice is no longer organised around the definition of a given medium, ... but through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.”(Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, p. 289)
With these parameters clearly in mind, I will now approach these four examples.
The first example is Duchamp and his 1927 Porte, 11 rue Larrey, Paris. A door is hinged between two adjacent frames so that it is simultaneously closed and open. This piece constitutes perhaps the first conscious attempt at site-specificity. Attempt only, because the endlessly open door does not represent a response to a site, but what could be called “a site interference.” This door, by never really closing, endlessly opens up into another space. The door, by separating the viewers, by closing them off or letting them see, questions for the first time our preconceived ideas about the positioning of art in space and our perspective on such positioning. In a way, Porte unceasingly separates the gallery from the world, the viewer from the work, the white cube from the endless multitude of possible sites. Not literally—the door was sited strategically—but metaphorically in order to emphasise the site of art. This curious piece, made at the peak of modernism, announces the revolutions which began 60 years later and which saw a radical reappraisal of the traditional art space. The door, by its hermetic qualities —it openly refused the viewer the liberty of moving around— represents the cunning gate that separates modernism and post modernism in the ideology of the art space, and opens up, discreetly, intermittently, a redefinition of the site for art.
The second piece is Jean Tinguely’s event Homage to New York of March 17th, 1960, which took place in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While Duchamp closed and opened the door to art, questioning the viewer’s sense of space, Tinguely, in this complex piece, abolished the notion of permanence in art. On March 17, 1960, he constructed Homage to New York, a self-destroying work of art made of scrap metal, gunpowder, fireworks, and motors. At 7:30pm, the sculpture was set on fire and within the space of twenty-three minutes destroyed itself. Homage to New York, with its Neo-Dada overtones, constitutes an homage to the nihilistic and materialistic aspects of modernism. It also attacks both our notions of sculpture and the role of the museum. At once site-specific, multi-media, installation, kinetic machine, sculpture, assemblage, public art, performance, environment, robotic drawing machine, and live action painting, this Homage is unique in its indeterminateness and in its provocative critique of the materialisation of the art object. Sited in the garden of the New York MOMA, outside but close to its pristine white walls, Tinguely’s piece is a challenge to the museum ethos. While using the museum authority, the sculpture self-immolated itself on the altar of the most venerable (and at the time the most powerful) museum in the world. Its ephemeral site-specificity was unique inasmuch as it directly responded to the site in which it took place. A self-destructing machine in an abandoned warehouse in the East Village would have never had such dramatic impact on the audiences of the time.
The third piece is not an installation, but a painting, West Wall by William Anastasi. This painting, a silk-screen made from a photograph of one of the walls at the Dawn Gallery in New York, was shown in 1967. It only represents, on a slightly smaller scale, two ventilation shafts, a picture rail, three sockets—one of them covered. As Brian O’Doherty said in his 1976 essay on the ideology of the gallery space, “covering the wall with an image of that wall delivers a work of art right into the zone where surface, mural, and wall have engaged in dialogues central to modernism.”(Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (San Fransisco: Lapis Press, 1976-86), p. 34) By questioning the relevance of the gallery’s characteristics and status, West Wall interferes with our preconceived notions of the role of painting as ornament, concept, reproduction, and object. The painting forces us to look around, to notice the ventilation shafts, the lights, the sockets; in other words, to assess a space whose essential ideology is its presupposed neutrality. The viewer is in fact blinded; forced to move his/her eyes from real socket to socket represented, from white wall to white wall represented until the surface and the subject matter fuse to form a void between representation and object. This void constitutes retroactively the painting itself as site and specific object. Anastasi’s painting resembles a site-specific installation by its unmovable qualities—again, as with Tinguely and Duchamp, outside the Dawn Gallery, West Wall would be meaningless. By marking that space, that specific wall, he provides all the elements for a reappraisal of what is commonly understood as a gallery space.
The fourth piece is Richard Serra’s Splashing and Prop 1968, Castelli Warehouse, New York. This famous masculine piece consisted of tossed molten lead hardened in situ—i.e. neither painting nor sculpture. Temporarily imposed onto Castelli’s warehouse floor, Splashing obviously questioned the life of art-objects once they are placed in a dealer’s storage space. It also questioned, through its attachment to the site, our preconceived notions of the mobility of art objects. This early piece is in complete contrast with Serra’s subsequent and more mature pieces. The heavy industrial materials he generally uses are a disruption of the concept of artist’s materials, but his recurring use of these same materials justifies his exclusion from the “site-specific” category. In addition, I would say that most of his post-“splash” works, instead of “responding to a site,” in fact hold the site hostage. His work tirelessly imposes an aesthetic assumption above the characteristics of the site in which it is contextualised. The most vivid example of this is his famous Tilted Arc of 1985 so controversially placed on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The artist who perhaps contributed the most to the notion of site-specificity is Gordon Matta-Clark. Here I am not only referring to his Cuttings and Anarchitectural work, but to his earlier work, his gallery excavations and notably his first installations in what was then an alternative space for artists, the Holly and Horace Solomon gallery-loft. Although he did not formulate it as such, all his work was in essence site-specific. I would like here to take two examples of his work, the first for its anti-modernist approach and the second for its complex site-specificity.
His installation of 1971 at 112 Green Street in New York—an alternative studio warehouse space—consisted of a hole eight feet long, four feet wide, and six feet deep dug into the building’s foundations and into which he planted a tree. The remaining mound of excavated earth he seeded with grass. He installed infrared lights above it. The show was on for three months, until the tree died. As a metaphor for his life, it constitutes a vivid example, which can perhaps be conflated rapidly in this way. The relationship with his father, the great modernist painter Robert Matta (the tree, planted in a hole he dug up, the modernist dream dying), his work (the grass he seeded on what he dug up, his adolescent male intervention) and the whole problematic of art made in studios (i.e. these modernist settings) speak for themselves. They show us his path, his unique and very masculine way of rebelling against the prescribed aesthetics of the time. And the way he chose to do so was by using the space as a component for his work.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s perhaps most site-specific cutting piece is Conical Intersect, cut in 1975 through a building about to be demolished, next to the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This cutting “responds” to the famous intentions of Beaubourg’s architects (Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers) of exposing the bowels or the works of the museum to concentrate on the spaces inside. Not unlike Tinguely’s kinetic sculpture, Matta-Clark, by revealing the “insides” or the “workings” of an old building behind the Pompidou’s open structure, questioned the problematic of the site for art. This cutting is both a self-referential critique of museological practice and a poignant site-specific exploration of the poetics of space both in architecture and in art.
These examples show that the break between traditional art made in studios and shown in galleries and alternative avant-garde art questioning the status of the latter, happened not exclusively in the late 1960s, but throughout the twentieth century and I am sure other examples could have been found that predates the twentieth century. What matters in this fuzzy history is not a turning point or a hinge, but the fact that the whole notion of art slowly became perverted, dematerialised, and re-sited outside what took 200 years to formulate: the gallery-museum. Already prone to incisive critiques, these ephemeral interventions remain by the weight of their absence landmarks in the questioning of the Enlightenment/modernist project where art is viewed in silence, within a secluded space, free of exterior interventions, and as part of a historical or thematic reading.
These arbitrary examples show that artists have tried several times to remove art from its traditional setting, the gallery/museum. These attempts have created a revolutionary concept: the site-other-than the gallery space. In order to define the notion of site-specificity, the question is therefore: How to define a site for art other than a gallery?
2. The other site:
The concept of the gallery space has been extensively explored from for example, Quatremère de Quincy’s critique of the museum in the early nineteenth century to Brian O’Doherty’s essay on the ideology of the white cube. Inversely, the whole notion of art outside the traditional gallery space has also been extensively researched, at least since land art and theorists such as Robert Morris or Robert Smithson. Rosalind Krauss and Miwon Kwon have also provided us with a clear understanding of the conditions that led to the resetting of art outside the gallery frame.
It seems then that our understanding of both the gallery space and of art shown outside traditional white cubes is by now quite well established. However, I would like to add a few ideas to this body of work in order to attempt a new angle of analysis when studying the positioning of art outside traditional spaces. In order to do that, I feel that it would be good, but perhaps with a certain weariness, to go back to Kant. The American critic Greenberg calls Kant the father of modernism, because of all philosophers, he is the one who did a critique of the means of criticism, which for Greenberg constitutes the foundation stone of the modernist approach to art. As Greenberg said: “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic method of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself—not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” (Clement Greenberg, Arts Yearbook, No. 1, New York, 1961) So, with the aim of attempting a definition of the site other than a gallery, I shall use here briefly, in perhaps the least scholarly way, Kant and his concept of space to hopefully spark off some new thoughts on it in relation to exhibition practices.
Anyone using Kant for a specific argument has to avoid a Cartesian perspective, otherwise one automatically falls back onto traditional historicist approaches, which I have already put aside. When I say Cartesian perspective, I am referring to the separation Descartes creates between the external world and the mind’s internal world, between the world that appears to us in experience and the world whose existence is dependent on our experience of it. This dualism generates an understanding of space as an exterior phenomenon, therefore turns the world into something other than ourselves, and independent of how it appears to us in experience. The fact is that, as is well known, Descartes’ distinction between the external world and our perception of it, is in fact only two aspects of a single thing. So to stick to the principle by which there is only one world (instead of two) and that it manifest itself through a series of intertwining affects (in a Deleuzian sense) will help us to define the approach to a different understanding of the site for art shown outside the gallery.
For this purpose, I will just mention here Kant’s essay on space in the Transcendental Doctrine of Elements, his Chapter I of the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant defines space as a non-empirical concept, i.e. my understanding of this painting, of this room or of the space around this book doesn't necessarily make it real. What “makes them real” is my a priori intuition of them. This pure intuition constitutes the foundation of all representation of space. This means that at the root of any perception of a space (and therefore of an art space) lies an “a priori” intuition, which is not empirical but gives the space its dimension of reality. As Kant says: “Space is not an empirical concept. For in order that certain sensations may relate to something outside me (that is, to something which occupies a different part of space from that in which I am); the representation of space must already exist as a foundation.”(Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, ed. Vailis Politis (London: Everyman, 1993), p. 50. ) The a priori intuition of space forms the condition for the possibility of experiencing things and of describing what we experience, for example an art space. In other words, our a priori intuition of space constitutes the condition for an empirical understanding of space (i.e. this is a room), and this condition provides the basis for our perception of reality. It would be wrong here to imagine that this condition or this basis constitutes a foundation of experience per se. As I said earlier, we are here—and this would require lengthy developments which cannot be attempted in this context—in a situation where the representation of space is always already part of a series of affects that prevents it in any given context to establish itself as foundation strictly speaking.
So how is one to think this particular concept of space in relation to exhibition practices and specifically in relation to sites other than gallery spaces? An example, would probably be useful here. Imagine you’ve been invited to do a site-specific installation in your own room. While you start working, you realise that you cannot avoid the fact that this space has been built as a bedroom or a living room, and that it now houses you, the owner, or the tenant of the flat. However, before you realise that, you perceive the space a priori intuitively. You did that not only by looking at it, but by using your “capacity for receiving representation.” This provided you with a series of affects that complements your empirical perception of your space. In any art practice, these affects will then push the artist to unconsciously respond to the space he or she is working in. However, the artist’s response will be based on a) the a priori intuition of the space and its “infinite given quantities” and b) the multiplicity in it which he or she understands empirically, by realising the actual idiosyncrasies of the space being worked in.
My point here is not to apply bluntly Kant to the way artists respond to sites. My point is simply to highlight the fact that in any given case, our understanding of a site for art develops not from an automatic response to an empirical method of observation—or a phenomenological one for that matter—but always already a priori intuitively through a number of affects. And this a priori intuition creates our relationship to the site, our representation of it, our history of it. And it is that history—unique and constantly self-developing—which forms the unstable site for art. This modest—and in-need of further developments—neo-Kantian approach to space and consequently to sites, has the advantage of evading the ethos that usually structures the institutional critique put forward by artists and art historians. Its aim is perhaps to simply generate a different perspective onto the idea of the staging for art, the main one being a detachment from the ideology that sustains it.
Here I feel that I ought to take a concrete example to clearly illustrate this way of looking at, feeling, or appreciating a site-other-than-a-gallery-space. However, I am slightly cautious to do so, because I feel that I will inevitably misinterpret an artist installation or his or her intentions. I shall then take a personal example. Although I am not an artist, I did a site-specific installation for Rear Window Hackney Hospital show, Care and Control. My site was a small room in the administrative buildings. Until I arrived, it was used as a storage room for the hospital planner’s office. Although it was tiny (4’x7’), it had a fireplace and a heavy Victorian bench, indicating that originally it had been conceived as a waiting room.
If I had responded empirically to the site, I would have made enquiries to find out, for example, the exact purpose that particular room had been built for. However, having written a history of the workhouse myself, I entered the space with an already pre-conceived view of the space. My empirical experience of it was therefore already heavy with significance. The 250 pages of my book Swelling Grounds, A History of Hackney Workhouse gave me all the knowledge I needed to install a site-specific piece of work. But in fact, instead of recognising straightaway the space as being this or that (as I thought I did), I entered the space blind folded. To make things worse, I had already collected all the key elements for the installation. I had worked for several months collecting items and photographs and framing them. I had thus compiled a collection of eighteen framed pieces of work, all relating to Hackney Workhouse. In my mind, at the time, this constituted the closest you could get to a site-specific installation. No one could compete with my research; naively I thought that six months of research on a particular site would give me all the necessary ingredients for a good site-specific installation. Little did I know.
As soon as I started hanging the show, I realised that instead of a site-specific installation, I was only mounting a small display of workhouse memorabilia. My installation turned into a nice exercise in good taste around the theme Hackney Workhouse. In no way was it a site-specific installation. This made me realise that I hadn’t actually looked at the space, that I hadn’t allowed myself to perceive the space a priori intuitively. After an anxiety-ridden few days, during which, against my will, I forced myself to let go of my knowledge of the space, to surrender to the space and allow my own history of the space to develop within it, I came up with an installation.
Its specificity was based on two objects found on site. The first was the carcass of a black bird found in the fireplace rack. It was covered with soot and dirt that had fallen from the chimney shaft for decades. The second was a 1928 history book for schoolteachers. In it, under the chapter “How to teach young children social history,” there was a page recommending that teachers avoid topics such as pauperism because readings in history always vary, and that the history class should not aim at distressing young souls with such horrific themes. “If the history teacher deals with such topics he should remember that he has the responsibility of making it clear that every question has more than one side, and therefore that it is obligatory on him to see that no one side of any question is presented alone or in undue prominence.”(Board of Education, A Handbook of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers (London: His Majesty’s Stationers Office, 1928), p. 425) The carcass linked up a) with the plaque on the floor commemorating the opening of one of the hospital blocks and turned into a grave stone, and fittingly b) with the bird houses made by service users at the other end of the hospital’s exhibition route. Past and present collided together to highlight not just memorabilia, but an interwoven set of effects and affects unique to this place and time.
So there was, at last, my site-specific installation: The workhouse days had gone, their sorrowful remains left in dust and soot, a reminder of things to come once the last users leave the Hospital. The extract from the history book provided the viewer with the key to the installation. Like a library, the eighteen-framed pieces provided hints, mere suggestions in the reading of the history of Hackney Workhouse and its current demise. Surrounded by this museum-style display, the carcass and the history book offered the two sides of the coin of history: a subjective and empirical and an affective and effective understanding of history. The installation, with its various modern and old frames, ultimately criticised the multiple readings in history: glassed-in, placed in clean white mounts and framed; history became dry, distant, intangible, abstract and theorised. With the carcass and the history book, this museified history was put into question; the distancing (spatial and temporal) suddenly interrupted.
This retroactive evolution and this surrender not to empirical aspects of the space, but to its effects created in my view the a priori intuition of the site and, with my six months of research on the history of the hospital, generated the site-specific installation I wanted. I had entered the room with an idea, with a conformist history, with an empirical, but abstract understanding of space; I had abandoned it (partly) and worked my way towards an unexpected history of the room and of my site-specific installation, a unique history that a museum, gallery, or alternative space could never have offered. This does not mean that the piece was successful or interesting in all respects. This means in fact two things: Firstly, that the experience of a space and specifically of a well-determined site provides with an array of approaches that other spaces could not have provided. Secondly, that a site-specific approach is neither strictly empirical, architectural, social, or historical, but is always already subservient to an a priori intuition of them that is neither essential nor fixed in space or time.
As a conclusion to this short essay, I would like to propose a brief and open-ended definition of site-specificity, or more precisely, a definition of the notion of site-specific installation.
Although still quite vague and undefined, the meaning of installation remains dependent on the other words: site and specific. As Michael Archer said: “To call some disposition of materials, objects, or artefacts an installation with any degree of authority presupposes familiarity with a clutch of related terms: site, site-specificity, gallery, public, environment, space, time, duration. Consequently a definition of installation must also shed light upon the contemporary significance of this surrounding vocabulary.”(Michael Archer, “Towards Installation,” in Installation Art, ed. Nicola de Oliviera (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), p. 14) And like him I would apply Julia Kristeva’s definition of the Russian Michael Bakhtin’s term “carnival” to define installation: “It is a spectacle, but without a stage; a game, but also a daily undertaking; a signifier, but also a signified. ... The scene of the carnival, where there is no stage, no ‘theatre’, is thus both stage and life, game and dream, discourse and spectacle.”(Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Tori Moi (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 48) The term installation would then be referring simply, but most strictly to a stage in which language take place.
Site in this context is ground, a specific space of ground on which anything is, or is to be, placed, built, etc.—therefore a manmade space, the premise for the stage of the installation. The term specific is an awkward one: I take this word in its Latin etymology, i.e. that which refers to a common appearance, a shared characteristic, but also (specere) to look at (which gives in English species, i.e. a group of individuals with common attributes) and which in this context I would define as “to look at what is clearly defined.” I purposely transform specific into a verb, to provide the word installation with a passive definition. For this reason, installation will take on a passive connotation and could be read as “a signifier and/or a signified in the state of being installed.” Finally art, which I take not as a “set of principles in the applications of skills to the aesthetic expression of beauty,” but simply in its Greek etymology, which is to prepare, to make.
Therefore a site-specific installation is to prepare a space of ground for the act of looking at what is clearly defined. In other words, it is that which gives the viewer the possibility to see what is there, but also the potential affects that the work generates. This is how the juxtaposition of installation and site provokes. This is how one looks at a baroque church or the paintings on Pompeii’s inner city walls. This is how a juxtaposition (of architecture, art, site, and socio-cultural histories) trouble our gaze, how we respond to the relation between ornament and fresco, between the sculpture and the frieze, echoing one another, subtly, disrupting our attention, the eye of the beholder.