what lasts from site specific art barbara cueto

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1 What lasts from Site-specific Art? New practices in monumental museums of the XXI century. Barbara Cueto I6019438 M.A. Arts & Heritage: Policy, Management and Education Current Debates in Art and Culture Professor: Emilie Sitzia

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Page 1: What Lasts From Site Specific Art Barbara Cueto


What lasts from Site-specific Art?

New practices in monumental museums of the XXI century.

Barbara Cueto


M.A. Arts & Heritage: Policy, Management and Education

Current Debates in Art and Culture

Professor: Emilie Sitzia

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Table of Contents

Introduction.................................................................................................... 3

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

Conclusions ...................................................................................................18

Appendix .......................................................................................................20 Appendix I Annish Kapoor...................................................................................................... 20 Appendix II Cai-Quo-Qian Inopportune.............................................................................. 21 Appendix III Cai-Quo-Qian Head On................................................................................... 22


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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-


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Museological Context

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.

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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-

institutional position.

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,

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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).

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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)

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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

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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

overwhelming interior.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

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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

monumental location.

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

Zaha Hadid.

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-

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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)

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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).

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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

performative overtone.

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.

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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

particular characteristics.

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

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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


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Appendix I Annish Kapoor

Art Piece Photo

Tarantara in Baltic



Marsayas in Tate




Leviathan at Grand

Palais (Paris)


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Appendix II Cai-Quo-Qian Inopportune

Location Photo

Mass Moca

Massachusetts. U.S


Guggenheim NY. U.S


Sydney Biennale


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Appendix III Cai-Quo-Qian Head On

Location Photo

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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