About Space, Site-Specific Art and Weeds
This essay is will explore art that appropriates the space as a medium and a potential instrument of social and political change. First, a historical overview should help grasp history in the art-site relationship on the last six decades. While modernist approach to surrounding was closer to a denial of it, reinforcing an idea of purity so that the artwork could exist on its own, something changed in the 60’s that made artists produce work specifically to their site. How has Art appropriated (public) space since then and what made spacial politics become such a popular theme since the late 1970’s? I will explore how site-specific art has suffered changes of meaning, as from physical, phenomenological aspects of the context, through the concerns of institutional critique and into new-genre public art.
In the first section, definitions of space, ideas about ‘spacial politics’, diverse definitions of ‘public’, some of Lefebvre’s ideas on ‘production of space’ will be briefly presented. As for the art realm, I will present a summarized genealogy of site specificity in art, from the late 1960’s comprehension of site as physical attributes; through the investigations of institutional critique and, finally, in more recent projects, in which site is redefined and frequently exists in more “public” realms.
It would take a lot more than a two thousands word essay to discuss the entire range of space-related Art practices. Therefore, by the end of this essay I will focus on those of political relevance and that aim to challenge the possibilities of art - and its potential of social change - among the complexities of the present time. I will analyse how two selected site-specific artworks ‘To the Population’ (Haacke, H. 2000) and ‘Empty Lot’ (Cruzvillegas, A. 2015) in relation to Deleuze’s and Guatari’s idea of striated and smoth space.
According to ‘The Production of Space’ (Lefevbre, H. 1991 - p. 3) Space can be defined as a “mental thing” or “mental place” in modern epistemology. The author then carries on to define specific spaces - private and public - as social spaces, categorized according to their use. He sustains there is a specific code to space and the relationships between them that creates a sort of “system of space”. His then sustains the proposition that “(social) space is a (social) product” and that “space serves as a tool of thought and action… a means of production, control and […] of power”. All spaces produced, art related or not, serve a purpose and a power, which also leaves room to imply there is no “innocent” space.
“The idealism of modernist art, in which the art object in and of itself was seen to have a fixed and transhistorical meaning, determined the object’s placelessness, its belonging in no particular place, a no-place that was in fact the museum…. Site specificity opposed that idealism – and unveiled the material system it obscured – by its refusal of circulatory mobility, its belongingness to a specific site”. (Crimp, 1993, p.17)
The refusal of placelessness proposed by Site-specific Art in the 1960’s has opened up a variety of new possibilities and relationships to space, which the museum alone could not offer. The perception of the artwork became intimately connected to its physical context and required the viewer’s presence in a specific space and time. Once aware of the boundaries imposed by traditional sculpture and painting, as well as their placement in the supposedly “neutral” environment - the “white cube” – and, again, aware of how capitalism had those art objects as commodities, the new-avant-garde’s found an alternative by rooting the artwork the intrinsic characteristics of each site.
The lessons of minimalism culminated into a wide range of aesthetic experiments including land art, installation art, performance and other kinds of institutional critique in the 1970’s and expanded the meaning of site from the previous phenomenological – physical space - model to one that was also conscious of the social and cultural aspects of the context. In ‘Evictions: Art and Spacial Politics’ (Deutsche, R., 1998) the author notices since the 1980’s the “urban-aesthetic” or “spacial-cultural” discourse were increasingly on the spotlight. The same period also witnesses an impressive growth in urban development and in public art commissions, among other urban and aesthetic events. Those can be distinguished according to the paradigms presented by Miwon Kwon in ‘Public Art and Urban Identities’ in which the author lists “art in public spaces” as distinguished by its beautifying function in urban space, usually those combined with either governmental or corporate buildings; Art as public spaces, as in Art that engages with Architecture and Landscape in permanent urban redevelopment projects; and “New Genre Public Art”, made in the interest of the public while involving specific social groups and minorities and aiming to raise political consciousness and strengthen communities.
In New Genre Public Art, issues such as gender, class and race emerged as central to the work of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Image 1). Author of the ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’, she is known to have performed washing the stairs of the museum and to have become a sort of resident at New York’s Department of Sanitation as she decided to shake hands of sanitation workers as practice.
Even though a number of artists that worked site-specifically will be left out of this essay, it would be almost impossible not to mention Richard Serra. Author of the controversial ‘Tilted Arc’ (1969), he played and important role in the discussion of the meaning of site and the meaning of public. His famous claim that “To remove the work, is to destroy the work” made the ‘Tilted Arc’ a source of long discussions among art theorists and curators, until it was finally removed. His practice remained orientated towards institutional critique and site specificity along the following decades. However, the irreproducibility of his works, ironically, became less convincing as his ‘Splash piece: casting’ from the 1969 was re-made in 1990 and in 1995 as (See image 2) ‘Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift’.
Deleuze’s writing on political anthropology mention a dialectic of the state and the nomad in which the nomad acts as a creative transformation agent, and the state acts as a consolidator that absorbs those innovations into the system for its own benefit, generating new ground for the nomad to intervene in an endless a cycle. It could be said that was the case with the mobilization of site specificity. Site-specific works, once made to critique the Art market and escape its pressures, have been recreated as new originals for museums and galleries and sold to private collectors. The re-presentation of such works of art was perceived as problematic, but still the domestication of critical art triggered the creation of new strategies of resistance.
Painter and conceptual artist Hans Haacke was born in 1936 and studied in Kassel, Germany. ‘Condensation Cube’ (1963) was part of his exploration of natural processes and the unveiling of the conditions of the space surrounding the artwork, commonly associated with institutional critique. It consisted of a sealed Perspex box with a small amount of water, that condensates according to the temperature of the room. “From the beginning, the concept of change has been the ideological basis of my work.” Haacke’s trajectory in conceptual art has long been associated with politically engaged art and it was not different in the case of his site-specific artwork inside an internal patio of the Reichstag, in Berlin. ‘To the Population’ (2000) was part of the renovation of the building proposed by Norman Foster.
Not without generating debate among different political parties, the artists proposal was approved and accomplished with the participation members of the parliament, who brought 25 kilograms of soil from their respective regions to fill the floor space from where the luminous text rises: “Der Bevölkerung”, meaning “to the population” (See image 4). The text refers to the main façade of the building, where the “Dem Deutschen Volke”, (To the German People) 1915 inscription remains a reminder of the violence practiced against ethnicities under the myth of superiority of one “race”.
While the text makes subtle gesture of historical correction by changing people to population, it includes all peoples - including immigrants - in German soil. And soil is as important as the text in this work of art, given that some of it was taken from a “former concentration camp, a Jewish cemetery and a place where immigrants were murdered” (Léger, M. 2000, p. 37). The symbolism of the soil is strengthened by the fact – foreseen by Haacke – that it could contain seeds that would germinate into weeds, and they should not be considered intruders, instead they should be left to grow.
Recently exhibited at Tate Modern, as the Hyundai Commission 2015, a site-specific artwork named ‘Empty Lot’ (2015) was conceived by Abraham Cruzvillegas, a Mexican artist who grew up in an invaded land in Ajusco, next to Mexico City. As such, he experienced his community’s struggle for basic rights, the same one that built a strong social tissue with politicized individuals that learned to act together to overcome difficulties. In a video for Tate, Cruzvillegas explains his previous work -‘Autoconstrucción’ (2014) - means self-building, as in building one’s own house, a very common practice in many Latin American cities, especially in invaded land. He claims it emerges from one’s failure in the process of becoming a consumer, building a house from what is available, what is left, recycling unwanted objects. He affirms it is also a metaphor for identity, as in building oneself.
‘Empty Lot’ extends throughout the length of Tate’s Turbine Hall, raised from the floor by scaffolding, a triangular segmented wood platform with soil containers (See image 5). The soil, brought from 36 different locations around London, has been lit by a variety of lamps made of found objects – as usual in Cruzvillegas’s work- and watered constantly since it was installed. Although the artist himself did not plant anything in those soil containers, he knew they could contain seeds from their original places. During the six months of its installation, despite the absence of natural lighting and the time of the year, the triangles were filled with wild plants.
There are some things about both artworks that resonate with Deleuze’s and Guatari’s concepts of the smooth and the striated applied to space, in which they take the form of nomadic and sedentary. While in ‘Der Bevölkerung’ (2000), there is no need to represent the state more than the building already does, the element of chance and change are literally implanted inside. In the case of ‘Empty Lot’ (2015), the grid of triangles is separated by corridors resemble the model of an urban space, with blocks of buildings and streets for circulation. I could not think of a better image for the concept of striated space, as in a consolidated space of order, control. However the element of transformation is infiltrated in the homogenous structure. The soil, in both cases, can be read as the nomadic space, where paths are not predefined, where heterogeneity also means potential for creativity, as if the seeds existed there as resistance and germinated only to disobey.
I would not like to transmit the sensation that creative forces at last took over two buildings that symbolize power and implanted artworks that criticize them as if they would cause a symbolic conceptual implosion. Or, worse, the sensation that the German Parliament - (and maybe all governments) and the Tate Modern (and maybe all worldwide known galleries supported by multimillionaire corporations) domesticated the art of Haans Haacke and Abraham Cruzvillegas (and maybe all anti-establishment Art). There are still many politicized spatial practices outside the institutional spaces and often without their validation as Art. Graffiti artists, guerrilla gardeners, squatters and hackers (cyber space), still find their ways to carry on their practices despite the law and its surveillance mechanisms. There will always be forces willing to tame that which cannot be tamed and when that wild creativity is nearly tamed and absorbed by the sedentary tissue, there will always be another strategy of resistance in order to transgress it, like weeds that grow out of asphalt.
Image 1. Ukeles, M. (1973) Brooklin Museum [Online] Avaliable at: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/mierle-laderman-ukeles [Accessed on April 2016]
Image 2. Serra, R. (1969-1995) , SFMOMA [Online] Avaliable at:
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Image 3. Haacke, H. (1963) Condensation Cube. [Online] Avaliable at: http://artobserved.com/2009/07/go-see-london-boule-to-braid-at-lisson-gallery-through-august-15-2009/
Image 4. Haacke, H. (2000) [Online] available at: http://www.berndfabritius.de/festakt-zur-erdeinbringung-in-das-kunstprojekt-der-bevoelkerung/ [Accessed April 2016]
Image 5. Cruzvillegas, A. (2015-2016) Hyundai Comission 2015 TATE MODERN. [Author’s own]
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