Debating the limits of the site
In recent decades artists have constantly broadened the boundaries of art as they have sought to engage with an increasingly pluralistic environment. The emerging desire to address real life situations and a broader audience brought up new challenges regarding place and locality. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, artists have been trying to redefine and de-stabilize the modernist idea of site, often identified with the gallery space, which was perceived as a literal and metaphorical limit of phenomenological experience.
This essay will debate how artists like Robert Morris, Cildo Meireles and Adrian Piper have been responding to, producing and undermining the role of site and location, creating unfamiliar situations in order to challenge social and cultural conventions. If Morris’ work is still presented within a White Cube space, we can therefore see a progressive detachment from the gallery walls in Meireles and Piper pieces, which have been put into the real world in order to produce a more direct and confrontational dialogue with their audience. Even if they all engage with different art practices, the three works attempt to take systems up as materials themselves to be questioned, experimenting within them rather than stand by any pre-defined set of terms. The situations produced by such experimentations – defined as “a unique set of conditions produced in both space and time and ranging across material, social, political, and economic relations” (2009:241) – share the characteristic of contemporaneity. This was described by Terry Smith as “prioritizing the moment over time, direct experience of multiplicities complexity over the singular simplicity of distanced reflection” (2009:13).
The idea of situation has constantly evolved in the ongoing context of globalization since the 1960s-1970s, a time in which art, politics and culture seemed to mesh very easily. These years are characterized by a revolt against modernism’s official status, “its canonization in the museum and the academy, as the high culture of modern capitalist world” (2008:182). Art is no longer attempting to represent utopias; it is indeed seeking to construct concrete spaces and deal with everyday situations. It becomes an activity that focuses on the production of relationships through signs, forms and actions. The work of art is no longer related to static and autonomous objects, but it becomes a practice which often moves out of the studios in order to be more responsive to the real world. Artists start experiencing and testing art’s capacity of resistance within the pre-existing social and cultural system while artistic practice, perceived as a relationship with the other and the world, puts its emphasis on external relations and individual experience. The present-day social context though restricts the possibilities of these inter-human relations, particularly because it creates spaces planned to this end like galleries or museums. These sites do not completely deny the social relationship, but they do distort it and project the viewers into a space-time frame which does not allow them to really experience the art pieces.
After the rise of Post-modernism, the gallery space assumes a negative connotation since it is perceived as a non-spatial site used to gain profit from the commercialization of the art that it hosts. It is in this context that the site-specific work becomes relevant, as it acts like a resistance to art’s commoditization.
This negative and anti-spatial perception of the gallery space emerge in various artworks of the time, like in Morris’s piece “Untitled” 1965-71, where the artist displays several mirrored cubes on the floor, with the intent of making the viewer aware of his own presence within the white cube space.
The idea of a white cube as an exhibition site begins in the modernist era, when it was seen as an ordered geometric structure and controlled space that was used to test new ideas (2005:15). The cube was originally created to escape any outside connotations so that the work of art could be experienced on its own as a ‘pure’ situation. The non-spatial quality of this site had the ability to put the visitor in a state of awareness towards the art object, pulling him into an internal relation with the object neutralizing the space in which it existed. But what had tried to become something outside ideology, then became the perfect example of the ideologically ‘dirty’ space, as artworks were put into the cube not because they were art, but rather to become art. The White Cube site was filled with pre-made ideas about what should be in it and how should it be presented so that its reductive structure only functioned as an obstacle for the new forms artists produced in greater response to the world. It became an expensive place, for an exclusive audience, with rare objects in it difficult to comprehend.
With his work, Morris wanted to outline how the conditions and the display of an object in a space can influence its comprehension. As the viewer walks around the cubes, he or she sees his/her own image, the walls, floor and ceiling reflected on the mirrored surfaces and this produce various interactions between him/her and the gallery, exposing its idealistic nature in contrast with the imperfection of reality.
According to Morris, the White Cube rooms are “anti-spatial or non-spatial in terms of any kind of behavioural experience, for they are as holistic and as immediately perceived as the objects they house.” (2009:27). They act as constructed spaces designed for the “frontal confrontation of objects” (2009:27) while the artist’s goal is to provide a real experience for the spectator. The space of the room then turns into a fundamental element, becoming itself the subject matter of the piece as the artist exposes and investigate the problematics that it embraces.
Although the work results very effective in addressing the emerging issues about the contrived nature of the gallery space, it cannot be considered a total success since it does not propose an alternative to that space. The artist, in fact, is making a point against a site that he is using to present his work in. By making this choice, Morris needs to be aware that his artwork will be experienced by a selected public, in an expensive space that embrace within its radical ideas and consumer culture.
If Morris’ piece results in supporting somehow the use of a gallery space as an exhibition site, we can find in Cildo Meireles’s “Insertions into Ideological Circuits” a radically different approach to the use of the site. With his work, the artist appropriates a whole system, rather than its own bodies, investigating and altering such institutions as the art museum, artistic authorship and real state (2005:20).
Since the 1970s, Meireles has been working with real situations, instead of their metaphorical representations, and with the idea of the consumer public who has acquisitive power. “Insertions into Ideological circuits” originates from the urgency to create a system for the circulation and exchange of information that did not depend on any kind of centralized control. Once introduced into the exchange circuit, any kind of production takes on a social form which no longer has anything to do with its original usefulness. It acquires an exchange value that partly covers and shrouds its primary “nature” (2002:42).
For the Coca-Cola Project, Meireles took Coca-Cola bottles – a symbol of capitalist consumerism- and altered them by placing political messages, or instructions on their surfaces. The “Banknote Project” had a similar structure: here the artist stamped critical statements onto banknotes before returning them into the normal exchange circuit. In both projects, the texts are a mixture of English and Portuguese so that the content of messages can be extended to a greater number of people.
Through these projects Meireles is taking advantage of a pre-existing system of circulation, operating within it and corrupting it at the same time. He describes the effect of this ideological circuit as “an anaestheticization of public consciousness. The process of insertion thus contrast awareness (a result of the insertion) with anaesthesia (the property of the existing circuit). Awareness is seen as a function of art and anaesthesia as a product of the alienation inherent in industrialized capitalism” (2009:122).
The public plays a fundamental role in these works, as the artist is trying to establish a dialogue between the art objects and its audience; in order to function, the viewer needs to engage with the artwork and participate in it. These projects go beyond the viewer in the gallery or museum, and extend to a wider audience who may be unaware of their contact with the art. The idea is to put art out into public space as possibilities to be encountered accidentally in the course of searching for something else (2009:65).
Although the work seems to overcome the political implications of the gallery space, it does not ignore them as the outcome is still presented at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The two pieces, in fact, have been conceived for an exhibition entitled “Information”, which means that during the creative process, the artist already knew they were going to be displayed inside a museum. Again, the issue about the role of the site and what can be considered a real one is present here. There are two different sites in which this work takes place: the real one, which is the outside world, the system of circulation in which the work operates, and the constructed one, the museum, which prevent the viewer from experiencing the piece as it is presented in a frontal confrontational way. This problem is common to many artists of the time who sought to express a more organic notion of the artwork, establishing a dialogue between art and public by incorporating the space-time lived experience.
That’s the case of Adrian Piper’s work, which operates in real space and time, asking the viewers to navigate a scenario in order to experience something that could be perceived as an aesthetic system. She uses her body to stimulate responses in the viewers, treating herself as an art object and always challenging the relationship between the artist and the audience.
In her “Catalysis Series”, Piper tested the limits and end-points of variations, particularly those that imposed structures of social hierarchy, such as gender, race and class. The series is composed of seven performance works – from Catalysis I in 1970 to Catalysis VII in 1973- in which the artist behaved in an unusual and, at times, appalling way in order to produce immediate reactions in her audience. The performances involved the artist becoming subject of curiosity for her surrounding spectators which are then brought to question social behavior and norms. For example, in Catalysis VII, Piper actually plays at the same time the role of the viewed and the viewer at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art in New York, challenging social norms as well as the roles of artist and spectator.
By merging the boundaries between art and life, the artist expands the performance into a political concern and establishes a thought-provoking work that dives into the concept without any hesitation or self-doubt. Her work is centered on taking risks and challenging herself as an artist in alternative contexts such as subways, busses, Macy’s or urban streets in such a way that she may provoke in the spectator a greater sense of awareness toward her racial identity. According to her, artists take responsibility for revealing the conditions- from material to institutional- of art making as such. Piper makes the point that it is by concentrating on the very limited parameters of art that she can tap into social, ethical, philosophical and political values, and thus ‘suggest the conditions of society’(2005:68).
Through the definition her own site, she has been successful in preserving the impact and uncategorized nature of the dialogue between her performances and the spectator. Gallery sites, in fact, because of their established functional identities, prepare the viewer to the confrontation with the work, thus making actual reactions impossible to happen (2009:121). For this particular reason Piper does not announce most of her works and, when her piece was exhibited in the NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, she requested for it to be removed from the exhibition, as its inclusion further underlined the marginalization of minority artists.
Although her work keeps being showed in galley spaces, she describes them as unworkable sites, since they are being “overwhelmed and infiltrated by bits and pieces of other disintegrating structures: political, social, psychological, economic.”(2009:121). The desire to escape these structures still remains a challenge, since it has become impossible to evade the limits and restriction imposed by our society. As marginality is nowadays inaccessible, artists must build their own way through the social and cultural conventions, working simultaneously against and within them, because, as Buchloh said, to resist is to feed it against your will (2005:69).
In conclusion, Morris, Meireles and Piper are only a few examples of how different artists have been addressing the same issue over the years. Morris ‘s work represents the first step towards the “liberation” of art from the artificiality of gallery spaces. His site-specific work is very affective in responding to the White Cube space exposing its critical aspects, but its main weakness is the lack of an alternative to the criticized site. A valid one is proposed by Meireles, who builds his own way through the system, infiltrating a pre-existing circuit with messages of politic activism. And finally, there is the approach provided by Piper in her performative series where she redefines the role of the site, setting her own terms over the ones imposed by society. In her case the site is defined by the relations that she establishes with her audience, so it becomes something that goes beyond the physical space. Both these works, which happen outside a pre-defined gallery context, can be considered successful in freeing art from these constructed sites. Although the outcome of the pieces is still presented in a museum or a gallery context, we can affirm that the displayed documentation of those works cannot be considered art. Artworks, in fact, can refer to something other than themselves but they do not refer to art because they are art.
The many issues about site and location remain an open problem in today’s society, but we need not to forget that If an artwork is successful, it will always set its sights beyond its presence in space: it will be open to discussion, confrontation and inter-human relations regardless of the nature of the site it is presented in.
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