from the genesis of the concept to its critical contemporary context
In 1979, Rosalind Krauss framed, in her text titled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, artistic practices that, in the mid-1960's, challenged audiences and critics in terms of their definition as disciplines, precisely because such practices tried to occupy a space that the notion of discipline, as up until then painting and sculpture were known, no longer accommodated. To justify in a historicist way this “expansion” of the terms ‘painting’ and ‘sculpture’ seemed to the author questionable and insufficient, but simultaneously inevitable, in order to carry out said framing. In effect, as subsequent developments which we will mention further on would demonstrate, the confinement of the artistic practice to a discipline became obsolete, even an embarrassment, in the search for a sense for the objects produced by artists, and whose nature became progressively “stranger” and, therefore, more difficult to justify historically.
In “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, Rosalind Krauss takes us on a journey (see scheme) from traditional figurative sculpture, whose monumental logic is played in the connection - effected by the pedestal - between the representational sign and the site to which it is commissioned; all the way through modernist sculpture, turned nomad and mobile by the absorption of the pedestal; to arrive at post-modernist practice, in which a new radicalism is drawn, namely in what concerns the designation site-specific, that occupies us here.
For this journey, Krauss presents and discusses other crucial notions, such as, for example, the notion of expanded field, in which , on the one side, the critical questioning of disciplinary limits - an area in which post-modernism is very prolific - has no place without questioning a whole range of issues which dismantle the need and urgency for a clearly privileged medium of a practice defined “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." ( Krauss, 1979: 42).
Equally important for Krauss is the positioning of the artistic practice as a result of the artist’s individual operativeness, with its implicit intentionality, determination and continuous ability to relocate itself (Fig. 1). On the other hand, and beyond the multiple possibilities of the work’s emplacement, Krauss mentions the understanding of the space of artistic practice “through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation” (Krauss, 1979: 43).
In this scenario, and since artists are free to occupy different positions in the operative and cultural expansion that takes place, the notions of ‘multiple subject’ and ‘experiencial site’, which would come to acquire importance for art that derives from site-specificity, begin to take shape. However, this does not happen without an intermediate moment that will radicalize this practice and reveal what Douglas Crimp, talking about Richard Serra, describes as the “political specificity of the site”” (Crimp, 1995: 182); and without the redefinition of a set of relations which this critic defines as follows:
“When site specificity was introduced into contemporary art by minimal artists in the mid-1960's, what was the issue was the idealism of modern sculpture, its engagement of the spectator's consciousness with sculpture's own internal set of relationships. Minimal objects redirected consciousness back on itself and the real-world conditions that ground consciousness. The coordinates of perception were established not only between the spectator and the work but among spectator, artwork, and the place inhabited by both.” (Crimp, 1995: 154)
Site-specific practice, in its genesis, was therefore connected to Minimalism and to the perceptive interrelations which re-oriented the sense of presence of the observer, establishing a radical interdependence between the terms of that trilogy: observer, work and site.
But, as Crimp refers, if the idealism of modern sculpture, in its un-rootedness and aspiration for autonomy, seemed to be at the origin of a new relationship between the work of art and the other two terms, thus foreseeing the advent of the site-specific practice, the latter, in fact, ends up “extending art's idealism to its surrounding site.” (Crimp, 1995: 154).
The aestheticization of the site thus becomes, in a sort of antithetic motivation, the engine of what would be established as the territory of institutional critic. The idealistic abstraction of the Minimalist work exposes the non-neutral character of the museological space, that is, it demonstrates its material condition of subordination to the commercial system of circulation of “portable art objects.”
Reviewing the nomad condition of modernist art, and when rooted in a given place (museum or landscape), site-specific art intends to implement a model of refusal for the commodification of the work of art. But, just as it would be demonstrated during the subsequent decades, this model is not directly applicable to the experienced place, on the one hand, because the modes of institutional critique intrinsic to the art system (inside or outside the museum) still revealed their resistance to forms of contamination coming from the real world, but also because the work as it is revised through a radication to place, and destabilized by the multiple nature of a third party – the observer – creates the conditions for the trans-historical character it intended to revoke to be idealized a second time.
Questions that involve the artist's hegemony, the aesthetization of the site, the observer's abstraction, return, processed by a series of destabilizations but nevertheless remaining without critical developments. For this reason, site-specific practice contributes for a profound critique of the conditions that determine the circulation and ratification of works of art, but it also demonstrates that it doesn't escape them. As said above, by exposing the nature of the art system as a space of trade (commodification), the site-specific work also carries out a derivation for a critique of space as a producer of political meanings, dislocating institutional critique into an incorporation of “mobility acts” of idendity in reference to subjects and places, which characterizes countless forms of contemporary practices place oriented.
To try to explain these recent derivations, let us consider the notions and differences between “literal site” and “functional site”, presented by James Meyer, who says about the first:
“The artist's intervention conforms to the physical constraints of this situation, even if (or precisely when) it would subject this to critique. The work's formal outcome is thus determined by a physical place, by an understanding of the place as actual. Reflecting a perception of the site as unique, the work is itself 'unique'. It is thus a kind of monument, a public work commissioned for the site.” (Meyer, 2000: 24).
This is how traditional site-specific practice would radicalize its relation with the site to which it is produced, as famously epitomized by Richard Serra’s sentence, when speaking about his “Tilted Arc”: “To remove the work, is to destroy the work.” This is also how the relation of minimalist sculpture with the monumental condition of traditional sculpture is maintained. James Meyer goes on to establish the differences between this approach to site, in effect idealized, and the “functional site”, about which he writes:
“In contrast, the functional site may or may not incorporate a physical place. It certainly does not privilege this place. Instead, it is a process, an operation occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and textual filiations and the bodies that move between them (the artist's above all)." (Meyer, 2000: 25).
This format, that implies a fluidity of meanings and an understanding of institutions as places where a critique of the notion of “nomadic subjectivity”, of interstitial location, is processed, corresponds and reflects the parameters of ways of working, in which the contingency of the subject and of the space(s) of exhibition and experience actively intersect. The functional site also updates the notion of site-specificity, inasmuch as it incorporates the dimension of the emplacement of the work, artist and medium in the crossroads of a system of cultural positions just as Rosalind Krauss associated with the notion of the expanded field, helping to understand the artist's positioning (or of those who reflect on cultural processes) as from within contexts, a position that appears as decisive for contemporary critical thought which proposes notions of identity, culture and, consequently, artistic practice that are not sustainable within fixidity (Fig. 2).
Crimp, Douglas, “Redefinign Site Specificity” in On the Museum’s Ruins, (MIT, Cambridge, Mass., London, 1995 (1993)), pp.150-186
Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, (October, Vol.8, Spring 1979), pp. 30-44
Kwon, Miwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity” in Suderburg (2000), pp.38-63
Kwon, Miwon One Place After Another, Notes on Site Specific Art and Locational Identity, (MIT, Cambridge, Mass, London, 2002)
Meyer, James, “The Functional Site; or The Transformations of Site-specificity” in Suderburg (2000), pp.23-37
Suderburg, Erika, Space, Site, Intervention, Situating Installation Art, (Uni. Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2000)
Weyergraf-Serra , Clara e Martha Buskirk, eds. The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents (MIT, Cambridge, Mass. 1991)