what lasts from site specific art barbara cueto
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What lasts from Site-specific Art?
New practices in monumental museums of the XXI century.
M.A. Arts & Heritage: Policy, Management and Education
Current Debates in Art and Culture
Professor: Emilie Sitzia
Table of Contents
Museological Context.................................................................................... 4
Site-specific art, a reaction .......................................................................... 5
Towards a new Paradigm ............................................................................. 8 Architecture Extravaganza in the Museums .......................................................................... 8 The Nomadic Site-specificity ..................................................................................................11 Architecture & Site-specificity // Architect & Artist.......................................................... 14 I am the artist, I am the protagonist...................................................................................... 15 What is site-specific art now?.................................................................................................16
Appendix .......................................................................................................20 Appendix I Annish Kapoor...................................................................................................... 20 Appendix II Cai-Quo-Qian Inopportune.............................................................................. 21 Appendix III Cai-Quo-Qian Head On................................................................................... 22
At its inception site-specific art was understood in its very constitution, as a
mode of refusal of the systems of art’s commodification. Almost 40 years afterwards, it
is included in museums, galleries and private collections. What had happened to this
“site-determined, site-oriented, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-responsive and
site-related art”? (Kwon, 2003)
Establishing a link between the evolution of the museum, this essay will try to
demonstrate the relationship between the process of institutionalization of site-specific
art with the development of architecture extravaganza in the museum of post-
In 1830, the Altes Museum in Berlin was opened. The architect, Friedrich
Schinkel, built what became a model and a reference for museums of the next century.
The neoclassical building was one of the first designed specifically to suit the
museological goals. This purpose-built museum took as models: Greek Temple of Stoa
in Athens for the outside; and the Roman Parthenon, for the inner rotunda. Both
epitomes of ancient shrines were used to inspire the new temple of the muses.
Schinkel's conception was based on the principle of Anschaulichkeit that can be
rendered as "transparency". “But Schinkel's use should not be limited to architectonic
or rationalist principle because he also asserted that Anschaulichkeit in architecture
could disseminate cultivation (Bildung) to the viewer, (…) which associates structural
clarity with Classical Greek architecture, and, indirectly, with the prestige of the
Classical education” (Moyano, 1990). This idea is related to the concept of
“knowledge-transfer script” of Noordengraaf (2004), where the museum’s aim was to
MoMa New York opened 99 years after. The world, the society and the
understanding of a museum had changed completely. This was the first museum
devoted to modern art, and its first exhibition was “Art of our Time”. As
Noordengraaf explains, the Façade is extremely plain and devoid of historical
references, the neoclassical “stair to the knowledge” at the entrance, disappears. The
orientation is inwards and the interiors undecorated. In these plain white halls the
explanatory labels are absent or minimal. The White Cube was born.
“Revered for its flexibility and neutrality, it concentrates the viewer's gaze on
individual masterpieces while objectifying any characteristics that may interfere with
such an aesthetic experience” (Birket, 2012). However, it did not take long for the
critiques to start. Artist and critics claimed that the experience in this “sterilized
operating rooms” (O’Doherty, 1976) was extremely mediated, and the environment
highly controlled. This was the breeding ground for site-specific art’s birth.
Site-specific art, a reaction
The ultimate effect of the White Cube was to dissociate the space of art from
the outer world. The site-specific art jumps out of the confinement of the museums’
tabula rasa to be situated in a real place. And with it, the site-specific art forced a
dramatic reversal of the modernist paradigm: “modernist sculpture absorbed its
pedestal/base to serve its connection to/or express its indifference to the site,
rendering itself more autonomous and self-referential, thus transportable, placeless and
nomadic” (Kwon, 2003). The site-specific artworks were intrinsically attached and
bonded to the space; they were created for that precise place, considering its physical
and historical characteristics. Because of this bound, they refused the circulatory
mobility. The artist Robert Barry declared, “it is made to suit the place in which it was
installed. They cannot be moved without being destroyed”(Rose, 1969). Artists like
Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke, Michael Asher or Robert Smithson were against the
“disintegration of culture into commodities”, asserted by Walter Benjamin (1979). And
site-specific art was titled “objective”, “disinterested” and “true” because of its anti-
James Meyer theorized about this kind of site-specific art under the name of
“Literal Site”. “The artist’s intervention conforms to the physical constrains of this
situation, even if it would subject this to critique. The work’s formal outcome is thus
determined by a physical place, by its understanding” (Meyer, 2000). However, what
makes the site-specific artwork unique was not just a concrete location, or the
determinism of its particular characteristics - it was the set of relationships created
between the piece, the space and the viewer that makes the artwork distinctive.
Donald Judd (1965) said, “The coordinates of perception were established as existing
not only between the spectator and the work but among spectator, artwork, and the
place inhabited by both. This was accomplished either by eliminating the object’s
internal relationships altogether or by making those relationships a function of simple
structural repetition, of “one thing after another”. So, again, if it was moved, so did the
relationships among the three.
Spiral Jetty, a site-specific earthwork, was created by Robert Smithson 1970 - it
was made by mud, precipitated salt crystals, basalt rocks, and water. The sculpture
forms a spiral of 460 metres long and 4,6 metres wide in the Great Salt Lake in Utah,
U.S. Created during an exceptionally dry year, the Spiral Jetty disappeared soon after it
was completed, and it remained submerged for three decades1. Nowadays it can be
seen, but it depends on the period of the year and the snowpack of the nearby
mountains. The rocks are now decolorized. The Spiral Jetty evolves, ages. It was not
meant to endure but to come down.
The site-specificity in its “phenomelogical paradigm” (Kwon, 2003) is essentially
united to the concept of Presence. The site-specific art is internally bonded to the
place where is located, intrinsically characterized by it and completed when the viewer
that is looking. This changeable “site-specific” presence makes the artwork part of the
inner characteristics of the surroundings; and therefore it cannot be removed without
altering the whole setting. Its nature is not to be stable but to progress out of the
sterilized environment of a white cube. The site-specificity was, in its very beginning,
dramatically anti-commercial, so much so to vanish when the climate change, the
viewer moves, or the piece decays. It was not in its nature to be permanent, what was
in its inside was a complaint against the art’s commodification.
This critique remained untouched for decades; despite that, the site-specific art
entered into galleries and museums. By altering their natural space, they conferred
critical overtones to the institutional blank. The white-cube became self-evident in the
moment the site-specific art was located within its walls, “it is no longer a neutral
place, a backdrop for the merchandising of portable art objects” (Meyer, 2000).
Allocated in a gallery, the site-specific art is able to decode and/or recode the
institutional conventions so as to expose their hidden operations and reveal the ways
in which institutions mold art’s meaning to modulate its cultural and economic value.
(Kwon, 2003). Daniel Buren (1968) used in his texts2 from the 1960’s Marxist
terminology and Broodthaers (1979) condemn “a system that could conceive of
culture only as another form of capitalist consumption”. As it can be seen, the critique
of the site-specific artists did not disappear, with political statements it denounced the
economical status of art and its (miss)usage.
In the moment the site-specify jumps into the museum and gallery space, it
alters as well its sense of Presence. It was no longer made to remain attached to a
1 In the article “Phenomenon out of the Deep” published in 2002 in New York Times, it is explained the last 30 years of the Spiral Jetty (Kimmelman, 2002) 2 Daniel Buren, “Peut-il Enseigner l’Art? Galerie des Arts (Sept. 1968).
place; its position was just a reflection of an institutional environment. Therefore, it
can be relocated in whatever place that could get together the same conditions; it
“refuses the intransigence of the literal site specificity” (Meyer, 2000). In 1973, Daniel
Buren exhibited “Within and Beyond the Frame” in the John Webber Gallery in New
“It was a set of nineteen black and white striped banners on which the stripes
on the left and right had been covered with white paint. They were suspended on a
cable strung across the gallery and the street outside the window. Nine pieces were
inside the gallery and nine outside. “ (Gallery Text)
The John Webber gallery works this piece in as a frame for the banners, however, this
duty could have been achieved by any other gallery. The meaning of the site-specific
piece here, won’t disappear, (as it would in a Smithson’s piece, for example) the
critique towards the almighty arty power of the white cube stays intrinsically attached
to the site-specific piece wherever is displayed. Nevertheless, Douglas Crimp points
out that this site-specific piece (as many others of Buren3) failed in their critique: ‘The
nine-and-one-half banners that extended out of the gallery “beyond the frame” did not,
in fact, escape a protective art context, that of SoHo’ (Crimp, 1976, p.76).
The museum fictions of Broodthaers demonstrated that the relation in the site-
specificy was no longer spatial, but discursive. His “Section XIXème Siècle” and his
“Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles” were itinerant: A37 90 80 in
Antwerp, Documenta 5 in Kassel or the Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf. It goes
against the institutional habits and desires, and continues resisting the commodification
of art. “The work no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verb/process, provoking
the viewers’ critical (not just physical) acuity regarding the ideological conditions of
their viewing” (Kwon, 2003).
What makes the site-specificity unique in this moment, were the viewers
engaging with the site-specific art piece? Since it is no longer bonded to, or determined
by the space; the public acted as verifiers, giving meaning to the site-determined art
piece, decoding its significance.
3 This thesis is supported by the essay “There is no outside” Someplace else for Institutional Critique?Daniel Buren at Modern Art Oxford. Edward Sanderson (2006)
Towards a new Paradigm
Architecture Extravaganza in the Museums
In the eighties the museums abandon the simplicity of MoMA, they renounced
its famous functionalistic unobtrusive building design and embraced the
monumentalism. The new architecture style creates symbols for a city, a location for
sightseeing. The museum is now another attraction and, therefore it calls for a
referential building that is able to attract millions of visitors. But not just that, they are
expected to become the driving force of a depressed region, the key in the renewal of
a city. And, ultimately, the architects are turned into the agents capacitated to bring to
life the area, its creativity and the economy.
The architecture of these museums is spectacular, playful, and impressive; “it is
the medium par excellence to redefine and rearticulate their institutional position as
well as their attitude”(Davidts, 2006). The museum is not a mere container and the
architects are not just engineers. This idiosyncrasy has conferred the museums with
the characteristic of Attractions; places whose needs to appeal to all types of publics.
The museum has become such an outstanding building with such an awe-inspiring
architecture that sometimes the magnitude and complexity upstages the art inside.
This claim, in any case, has been made since the XVIII century, when Alois Hirt
criticized Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin saying “the art objects are
not there for the museum; rather the museum is built for the objects” (Crimp, 1993 p.
From the eighties onwards, old factories and warehouses are reused as art
centres. Since the Minimalism, art (and exhibitions) has been done in industrial spaces,
such as lofts. Thus, the popularity of reconverting them stems from the idea that it is
an “original” or “authentic” space for arts (Foster, 2000 p. 184). Since the famous
Temporary Contemporary of the MOCA from Frank Gehry in 1983, many others have
being reutilized. One of the best examples of the higher quotes of splendour that these
types of buildings have achieved is, of course, the Tate Modern in London. Located on
the Bankside Power Station, it opened in 2000 to house the modern and
contemporary art from the Tate Galleries. The architects Herzog & De Meuron were
in charge of its reconversion into a museum. In their first design scheme of 1994, the
architects write that ‘the architectural concept for the conversion of the Power
Station is radically simple, economical and almost self evident. It takes the maximum
profit from the existing building structure. It really deals with the existing volume and
with the existing materials’. In spite of their intentions, the Boiler House and the
Switch House were completely refurbished and re-converted into a plain white-box,
forgetting the past of the building, which as “reduced” to the enormous Turbine Hall.
As Wouter Davidts (2007) remarks, “the colossal space apparently succeeds in
generating a perfect marriage of architectural ambitions and institutional desires on the
one hand, and architectural achievements and institutional triumphs on the other,
allowing both the institution and the building to emerge as vastly successful.”
The Turbine Hall was where all the machinery was placed in the old power
station; after moving it out, a great void was left in its stead. Herzog & de Meuron
designated it as a “wonderful exhibition space for temporary and special installation,
whose dimensions are beyond the possibilities of the display spaces in the Boiler
House”(Herzog and De Meuron, 1994). The overwhelming measures of the hall makes
it impossible for exhibiting conventional projects; in its very inception this colossal
space was allocated to the exceptional, to artworks that couldn’t be display anywhere
else but there; it was entrusted to site-specific projects.
On the other hand, hundreds of purpose-built museums opened in the same
timeframe. Their architecture tries to convey the outstanding, these museums are
almost wild architectural fantasies. Guggenheim Bilbao is the best-known example.
Built in 1997, soon became a milestone and the emblem of a cultural and economical
renewal. The “Bilbao effect” is now in manuals around the world, explained and used
as an example of what can do a museum for a city. The museum functions as “the icon,
sign, and logo all at once” (Davidts, 2006). But, when it comes to the building itself, the
first critics arise; this spectacular architecture runs the risk of upstaging whatever is
inside. This incredibly complex titanium structure of the outside creates all sorts of
odd angles, strange curves, and enormous heights in the inside. The museum was
heading, in its very inception, for site-specific artworks that could cope with the
Praised and condemn, the Guggenheim Bilbao have become a highlight in the
history of architecture and museology. Artists and critics respond, of course, to this
situation in different ways. One of the most renowned artistic counterclaim was made
by performance artist, Andrea Fraser4. In her site-specific video performance, “Little
Frank and His Carp”, she stages a “comically masturbatory performance” in the halls
Guggenheim Bilbao while listening to the ten-minute audio guide’s ode to the
magnificent building. The museum has commissioned pieces from Louise Bourgois, Jeff
Koons, Jenny Holzer, Anselm Kiefer or Daniel Buren. Their answer to this challenging
structure was in all this cases, site-specific.
Each of the museums represent both sides of the same coin: the architecture
extravaganza in the post-modernity. Whereas the “found space” fails their attempt to
utilize the whole space, creating immense exposed halls5; the “purpose-built” museum
reproduces sculptural interiors hard to cope with their museological goals.6 Their
spaces are too big, too curvy, too complicated. They are impossible to be filled up. In
these monumental buildings the administration needs to provide solutions. For the first
time, the institutions needs from the site-specific art. This art, that before was outsider
and highly anti-commercial, gets commodified by the institution that commission them.
The site-specific artworks loose their independence. “Artist, no matter how deeply
convinced of their anti-institutional sentiments or how adamant their critique of
dominant ideology, are inevitably engaged, self-servingly or with ambivalence, in this
4 Fraser’s practice - or as she has termed it, counter-practice - first took shape with Museum Highlights (1989), a videotaped performance in which the artist, in the guise of fictional museum docent Jane Castleton, led visitors on a sly interventionist tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Expertly mimicking the public face of the museum while simultaneously deconstructing it, Fraser came to specialize in deadpan parody, revealing the structural biases, social prejudices and economic underpinnings of established cultural institutions (Trainor, 2002) Frieze 66 april 2002 5 While Juan Muñoz called the space (the Turbine Hall) ‘a killer’ and his successor Anish Kapoor described it as a ‘very complicated space that was not made to host art’, Olafur Eliasson labelled it as the direct outcome of ‘the development of unfocused and undesignated space’ in museums in the last two decades. Rachel Whiteread in turn disclosed that ‘it was very daunting’ to occupy the space, whereas Nauman experienced the task as ‘extremely difficult’ (Wouter, 2007) 6 The soaring curvilinear atrium reaches a hundred and sixty feet, and many of the galleries that extend off of it are oddly shaped and outsized, one of them, early on baptized the “Boat” or “Fish” gallery, is longer than a fooball field and even dwarfed a huge Sierra piece installed there. (Shiner, 2007)
process of cultural legitimation” (Kwon, 2002). So, it diminishes its institutional critic
as raison d’être; Kwon argues, “Unlike in the previous models, this site is not defined as
a precondition. Rather it is generated by the work (often as content) and then verified
by its convergence with an existing discursive formation”
Due to these new necessities provoked by the architecture in the cultural
institution, the artists start working around the world under demand, creating site-
specific projects for them. The site-specificity that once was spiritually bonded to a
concrete place, has now became a nomadic practice. The artists travel, spreading their
artworks in different museums, institutions, hospitals, essentially going wherever a
commissioned piece is needed. The artist will visit the new site and will research its
peculiarities (Kwon, 2002); from this process will come an artwork site-generated.
The Nomadic Site-specificity
Richard Serra’s famous quote, “To remove the work is to destroy the work”
regarding his Title Arch evolved with the years (and the commissions that he is
receiving). If his work was intrinsically attached to the place before; his practice
becomes circulatory over the years. In 1989 he re-elaborated his attitude:
“As I pointed out, Titled Arc was conceived from the start as site-specific
sculpture and was not meant to be “site-adjusted” or “relocated”. Site-specific works
deal with the environmental components of given places. The scale, size, and
relocation of site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site,
whether it be urban or landscape or architectural enclosure. The works become part
of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the
site”(Serra, 1989). He is a nomad scattering his steal pieces all over the world. “Serra
recognized that even (site-specific) public art was generally granted only the function of
aesthetic enhancement in the seclusion of museum-like site, removed from normal
circulation patterns and placed, as it were, on ideological pedestals”(Crimp, 1993
p.168). In this context, the Guggenheim Bilbao after years of unsuccessful exhibitions
the vast “Boat” gallery7, decided to commission a piece for this space: “Matter of
time”. In spite of the monumentalism of his site-specific installation, it is still dwarfed
7 This gallery is irregularly shaped and can be identified from the outside by their swirling organic forms and titanium cladding. It is the largest gallery, measures 30 meters wide and 130 meters long (Guggenheim website)
by the space. However, what matters here, is the fact that the spaces become reliant
on these colossal pieces.
The same happened in the Grand Palais, with its 45 metres height and its
13.500 m2 lenght, invites every year an artist to “appropriate” it with an artwork
specially created for the event. The Monumenta series were born in 2007, and one of
his most commented (and blessed by the critic) son was “Promenade”. As Richard
Serra recognised, “I was overwhelmed by the space and wasn’t exactly sure what to
do. But I realized you have to deal with the entirety of the space — to think otherwise
was to kid myself.”(New York Times, 2008). Many other artists have coped with this
issue with different solutions, such as the celebrated “Leviathan” of Anish Kapoor in
2011. His monstrous inflatable site-specific installation definitely achieved in
“appropriating” the whole space; there was almost no free room. However, it should
be taken into account that this shift is not necessarily done due to artistic concerns,
but because of institutional requirements. One after the other, the artists invited to
the Unilever Series complained about the difficulties of the space.8
But, what happened with all of the institutional critic or the site-boundless? It is,
of course, attached to the place and calculated for this concrete space; nonetheless
when the exhibition finished, his monster went back to London with the artist. The
site-specific artworks are structured textually rather than spatially and, as Kwon
(2003) remarks, “its model is not a map but an itinerary, a fragmentary sequence of
events and actions through spaces, that is, a nomadic narrative whose path is
articulated by the passage of the artist”. The contemporary “art containers”, whether
new or reused, enforce a new site-specificity nature based on mobility and transiency,
the site-specific practice is evolving towards a new site-activated practice.
8 While Juan Muñoz called the space ‘a killer’ and his successor Anish Kapoor described it as a ‘very complicated space that was not made to host art’, Olafur Eliasson labelled it as the direct outcome of ‘the development of unfocused and undesignated space’ in museums in the last two decades.8 Rachel Whiteread in turn disclosed that ‘it was very daunting’ to occupy the space, whereas Nauman experienced the task as ‘extremely difficult’ since he had to cope with a space in which ‘you can’t fake it’. (Davidts, 2006)
We assist to a shift.
The dimension in the site-specific artworks is escalating assured by the new
kaleidoscopic spaces of the buildings in which contemporary art now dwells. The shift
in the proportions can be exemplified with the site-specific artist Anish Kapoor. In the
retrospective held in the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2010, the evolution in the measures of
his artworks was clearly visible. Since 1999, at the dawn of the new monumental
museums, his pieces have grown in spectacularity and size. His impressive
“Tarantantara” at the old factory of flour Baltic9, his stunning “Marsayas” at the
Unilever Series of the Turbine Hall and his immense “Leviathan”. All similar, with the
same colour and material, but all different: all his site-specific artworks are a matter of
scale. (Appendix I)
Although this phenomenon has been achieved in the last decades infatuation
with monstrous dimensions, Gregoire Müller already forsaw this shift in the seventies
at “The scale of Man”. The art critic explores the then-recent growing in size of
artworks by such artists as Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Michael Heizer and
Walter De Maria. The resulting pieces are ‘the first to attempt to unsettle one of the
oldest and most solid notions – that of the human body as the point of reference for
all measure’. And precisely at this point Muller situates the inability to deal with these
kind of gigantic works in relation to the human scale as they are assessed ‘solely
relative to architectural space’.
Moreover, because of the unusual features of these iconic architectural
buildings, the wide acceptance and the willingness in the promotion of the site-
specificy, a huge worldwide network of site-specific projects has been developed. The
series of Monumenta at the majestic location of Grand Palais in Paris; Uniliever Series
at the massive Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London; High Line Art in the old
station and train tracks of the High Line in New York; the Building 5 at old factories of
the Mass Moca in Massachusetts… all them have in common the giant spaces where
9 Housed in landmarke industrial building on the Routh bank of the River Tyne in Gateshead, BALTIC is a major International centre for contemporary art. BALTIC has no permanente Collection providing instead a ever-changing calendar of exhibitions and events that give a unique and compelling insight into contemporary artistic practice
they are located and their renowned program. And there are many others with
smaller scale and funding.
All in all, what we are witnessing now is a new trend. The site-specificity that
before was cornered by its own anti-commercial nature, currently is immerse on the
international art scene amalgamating artists and institutions in an endogamic cycle. For
example, artist like Cai Quo-Qiang has intensively exhibited his impressive site-specific
installations called Inopportune in the Guggenheim saga and then repeated the same
project at Mass Moca and at the Sydney Biennale. (Appendix II). The same happens
with Head On, that even though it was specifically created for the Guggenheim Berlin,
his site-activated 99 wolves have been displayed all over the world. (Appendix III). They
are almost reduced to mere works that can be adapted to the peculiarities of a
complex building. This site-specific works become merely site-activated when displayed
in different locations. There is no background study that adjusts or reflects the new
environment. They simply activate dialogue between the piece and the latest
Architecture & Site-specificity // Architect & Artist
The monumental museums have been more or less successfully commissioning
site-specific art for their complex spaces. But now the collaboration becomes even
nearer: artists working with architects, architects developing artistic projects. The
nearest example, the newest pavilion of the Serpentine Gallery in London, created
between the architects Herzog & de Meuron and the artist Ai Weiwei. Following the
same trend, in 2000, Zaha Hadid created, under the very curatorial concept of “mind
process”, the exhibiting pavilion called Mind Zone at the Arena O2 in London. The
remarkable building was irregularly shaped with curvy walls and high ceilings; to
complete her narrative strategy and because of the oddities of the building, all the art
needed to be site-specific designed and commissioned by the curator, who was again
The Monumentalism of buildings is not reduced to museums, nowadays it is
moving and extending to the commercial galleries, and the site-specific projects with
them. In Berlin Kow Gallery is one of the best examples of the conglomerate artist-
architect and architecture-site specificity. This unconventional gallery space was co-
designated by the gallery owners and their artists. Because its innovative structure and
use of materials it took part in the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2012.
Regarding the design, the gallery is narrow and its ceilings are extremely high; the face
of the concrete wall is exposed; and the stairs that cross the three levels are way to
stiff and in spiral. The persona of this gallery is extremely strong. The projects that can
cope with its peculiarities are the site-specific ones. One of the latest projects was
“Berliner Archipele”10 by the architect of the building Arno Brandhuber who describes
the process of gentrification in Berlin. It uses his own building as an example of “the
new Berlin: The City within the City—Berlin, the Green Urban Archipelago” (Koch,
2012). For it, the architect/artist held daily talks with stakeholders involved in the
flooded gallery. There is something intrinsically performative in the project, the artist
plays a major active role on the site-specific artwork that now needs from his creator
to be alive.
I am the artist, I am the protagonist
The same happened during the last Gallery Weekend in Berlin, during the
opening of the site-specific installation “Freedom can not be simulated”, Rirkrit
Tiravanija was “producing” sausages mixed with pork (bought in a Turkish butcher)
and the pages from book the German (racist) politician Sarrazin, that later on were
displayed as part of the site-specific installation. Again, the figure of the author
becomes indispensable for understanding the site-specific artwork.11 The uniqueness in
10 Built structures (architecture and urban planning) shape social relations, and they present an unambiguous trend: homogenization. Urban environments that used to be shared or that would have lent themselves to sharing in the future are now being subdivided into the niches of social Darwinism. Like and like congregate on urban islands clearly staggered according to income classes. In Berlin, where heterogeneity was once a defining feature of the urban fabric, it is especially evident that the reorganization of the city serves the redistribution of participation in social life: a wealthy clientele takes possession of the central areas around prestigious new residential developments, displacing to the periphery all those who cannot, or do not want to, keep upping the ante. Social archipelagos take shape, new cities within the city, all of them similarly homogeneous: the unemployed here, an arts scene there, the migrants somewhere else. (Koch, 2012) 11 The aura around the artist and its importance when exhibiting has risen to incredible quotes. Rirkrit Tiravanija set a huge poster gallery during his opening clamming “where is ai weiwei?” because he couldn’t attend (he was prisoner) to his opening a month before in Neugerrischneider. He declared then: “I am my own Ready-made” (KARPOWSKI, 2012)
the site-specific artwork that was conferred by the presence, the site, and after by the
viewer, is now conferred by the presence of the globetrotter artist. “It is repeated and
circulated as a new art commodity, with the artist him/herself functioning as the
primary vehicle for its verification, repetition and circulation” (Kwon, 2003). The
artists are elevated to the category of protagonist, even celebrity. The creator has the
key to understand and decode his or her own micro-site-specific-language. Their
presence becomes essential.
At the same time, it can be seen a shift in the production of art and site-specific
projects. If before it was just limited to the museological environment, now is
incorporated in the commercial galleries. They are positioned as centres of creation
and not mere luxurious shops.
What is site-specific art now?
All this examples provide a new characterization of the site-specific
phenomenon. It is ramifying, spreading, evolving. The new pompous art institutions
have burgeoned over the last decades; with them, the most extravagant fantasies of
the architects have become real. The usability of the space appears to no longer be
matter of concern, the spectacularity of the building has come to be deciding factor.
Whether found space or purpose built, art centres have grown in dimension, funding
and impressiveness. The solution for their problematic interiors is specially designed
artworks. These site-specific objects have adopted the demanding shapes of the
monumental institutions, and together with the architecture, they have increased
exponentially in size over the past few decades. This recent modus operandi has
changed the nature of the site-specificity, reducing it to a mere question of adaptable
proportions. The site-specific artists travel around the world on demand, developing
and adjusting their works to the long list of site-specific programs. It has been turned
into a nomadic practice, in which “the art work’s relationship to the actuality of a
location (as site) and social conditions of the institutional frame (as site) are both
subordinate to a discursively determined site that is delineated as a field of knowledge,
intellectual exchange, or cultural debate” (Kwon, 2003).
This circulatory procedure has consequently, made of the artist the key part of
his site-specific artwork. He is the protagonist, both to legitimise his work and because
the necessities of the whole process of creation: travel, research, study, development,
and projection. If we compare to minimalism, where the artworks were industrially
produced and the artists could be absent in the moment of the piece production; this
situation conveys a different reality for the site-specific art, because it acquires a
The site-specific practice looses its underlying institutional critique and anti-
commodification discourse when it became immersed in the demands of the
establishment. However, as Kwon recognizes, “it is more sharply attuned to popular
discourses”, the criticism has not completely evaporated, it is allocated to other
12 I have in mind Ai Weiwei, his Sunflower Seeds that refers to everyday life, to collective work, to hunger (the seeds were a reliable staple during the Cultural Revolution). Or The Weather Project of Olafur Elliasson regarding the climate change.
In less than fifty years of site-specific art, its practice has been totally adapted to
the current institutional trends. The monumetalism in museums and galleries have
provoked a complete renewal in the site-specificity. The extravagant architecture of
the last decade had enormous consequences on the artistic practice, arousing a new
and different understanding of what the site-specificy conveys.
Due to the remarkable shift in the comprehension of site-specificy in the last
years, a new term should be implemented. Comparing the first manifestations of site-
specificy, such as Land Art, it can be assured that the newest practices developed by
Cai Quo-Qiang can definitely not fit into Kwon’s definition: “Site-determined, site-
oriented, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-responsive, site-related art”.
The site-specific art in its very beginning wanted to set its practice apart, far
from the commercialization and institutionalization. By setting it attached to a concrete
place, it prevented it for the circulation and, therefore, the commercial mobility. It was
not a homeless sculpture, it was dwelling a unique place in the world that conferred it
However, this is not what is happening now; the site-specific programs keep
popping up around the globe, the artists are nomads that follow a worldwide site-
specific route. Cultural institutions become reliant on site-specific artworks to fill up
their impossible spaces. The architecture outshines the art and the only solution so far
is to commission site-specific artworks accordingly adapted to the architectonic
features. The practice that before was deeply determined by the environment is just a
mere repetition of an ongoing project in the cv of a new celebrity artist. Their work is
no longer site-specified but just activated by the surroundings and the features of an
impressive architecture. This site-activated artist works under demand in a site-specific
network in the most spectacular locations. And his work is solely determined in terms
of size and dimensions. It is devoid of any institutional critique, it is absolutely
absorbed by the institutions. So, the uniqueness has merely reduced to dialogue
between the space and the piece, thus site-activated.
Museums, pavilions, galleries, all sorts of institutions have emerged during the
prosperous years of the beginning of the century. The architects of these marvellous
buildings are praised as the authentic “creators” of economic wealth and artistic
innovation. Their tasks are now extended to fields that before were reserved to artists
and curators. And their practices coexist, creating a conglomerate between
architecture and artistic practices.
Although the architects are gaining importance and artistic roles; the artists, on
the other hand, are becoming actors in their own work. Between the performative
connotations of their site-specific art pieces and their celebrity aura; the artists are
now the central character in their own discursive site-specific artwork, protagonist in
of their nomadic practice.
Considering all the facts presented here, it is clear that the site-specificy such as
it was known before does not exist anymore. We are experiencing new adaptable
practices, commercial and institutionalized, prepared for the exigencies of the
monumental museums. The museums become the new flamboyant workshops for the
Appendix I Annish Kapoor
Art Piece Photo
Tarantara in Baltic
Marsayas in Tate
Leviathan at Grand
Appendix II Cai-Quo-Qian Inopportune
Guggenheim NY. U.S
Appendix III Cai-Quo-Qian Head On
Berlin, Germany Cai Guo-Qiang: Head On (2006) 2006 Deutsche Bank Collection, commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG
Beijing, China Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe (Beijing, China) 2008 Deutsche Bank Collection
New York, NY, USA Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe (New York, USA) 2008 Deutsche Bank Collection, commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG
Bilbao, Spain Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe (Bilbao, Spain) 2009 Deutsche Bank Collection
Singapore Cai Guo-Qiang: Head On (2010) 2010 Deutsche Bank Collection, commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG
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