Site Oriented Art

Site-Specificity and Site-Responsive Curatorial Interventions

David Rastas

The precursor to site-specificity was a rejection of the assertion that an artwork is self-sufficient and self-contained. The turn toward site-specific art was marked by minimalist and post-minimalist practices of the 1960s where artists stressed the inseparability between the work and its spatial conditions. One explanation for the emergence of the term ‘site-specific’ is that it evolved from the concept of ‘medium specificity’ popularised by Clement Greenberg. An early mention of the concept of medium specificity was in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay ‘Laocoon’ where he described the possibilities and limitations within the specific domains of painting and poetry.1 Lessing’s assertion that the medium should operate according to its own material properties was taken up by Greenberg in his 1940 essay ‘Towards a New Laocoon.’ Where medium specificity refers to the stylistic properties of the medium, site-specificity refers to the social and political efficacy of the site.
In early discussions on site-specific art, the ‘site’ was defined according to phenomenological, institutional, and discursive paradigms.2 The phenomenological paradigm defined the site as an actual physical location, the institutional as informed by the dynamics, politics and power structures of the institution, while the discursive paradigm was characterised by a ‘discourse’ or field of knowledge.3 Each of these paradigms can be applied to an analysis of site-specificity in ritual space. The phenomenological paradigm already encompasses the installation of contemporary art in a variety of sites outside the museum, including ritual spaces. Extending the institutional paradigm beyond the museum and gallery to also refer to the religious institution, incorporates the politics and power structures in ritual space. The dematerialised site defined by the discursive paradigm, involving theoretical concepts and the social realm, will refer to the liturgical, theological and social issues associated with ritual space. In addition to the three paradigms described by Kwon, the mysterious enactment of sacramental rites and transcendental affect of ritual space belong to a fourth ‘affective’ paradigm. The fourth paradigm defines the site as an ‘affective’ space which evokes sensations of pleasure, awe, fascination, terror, disgust, and surprise. The codified physical actions prescribed by liturgical ritual are corporal in their means and abstract in their agency.4

Features of the work are often integrated into a specific space, aggregating elements to become subject-making assemblages, constituting spaces of self-reflexivity defined by contextual, spatial, discursive and social relationships. The spatio-temporal relationship nurtured by installation art embodies the viewer through sensory immediacy, physically involving them in active participation in the experience.

1 “Painting and poetry should be like two just and friendly neighbours, neither of whom indeed is allowed to take unseemly liberties in the heart of the other’s domain, but who exercise mutual forbearance on the borders, and effect a peaceful settlement for all the petty encroachments which circumstances may compel either to make in haste on the rights of the other.” Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766. Trans. Ellen Frothingham. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1887. p.110

2 Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003. p. 3

3 Gaiger, Jason. Dismantling the Frame: Site-Specific Art and Aesthetic Autonomy. British Journal of Aesthetics. Vol. 49 No. 1 (January 2009) p. 49

4 Nelson, Robert. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2007. p. 8