“One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity” by Miwon Kwon reprinted in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung.

Architectural theorist, occasional curator, and UCLA professor of contemporary art history Miwon Kwon dissects the meaning of the word “place” as it pertains to art in public places and the changing role of the installation-maker in “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” This essay which originally appeared in the influential journal October in 1997 was such a success in the critical theory community that Kwon published a book-length updated edition in 2002.

Kwon makes several points though her primary thesis is simply that site-specific art has changed greatly since the so-to-speak groundbreaking days of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and smaller but no less controversial pieces such as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc ((“One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity” by Miwon Kwon reprinted in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 edited by Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Malden, Masachusetts, 2005). 32)) along with notions of commerce and integrity.

Kwon begins by summing up site-specificity to the then-present of 1997. In the early years (being the 1960s and 1970s) “site-specific art, whether interruptive or assimilative, gave itself up to its environmental context, being formally determined or directed by it” (this point being credited to Rosalyn Deutsche). Simultaneously the work identified itself through its location; someone wishing to view the Spiral Jetty would have to arrange a trek to rural northern Utah or be satisfied viewing this earthwork via photographic descriptions. This concept however did not go unattacked; though Kwon elides any mention of the ignorant public and by extension its elected and appointed officialdom, it is to this group she refers when citing Robert Barry’s declaration that his wire installations could not “be moved without being destroyed. ((ibid., 33))” Kwon jumps forward in time to Serra’s similar declaration about Tilted Arc, threatened during the administration of Ronald Reagan by being ousted from Federal Plaza (the 120-foot Cor-Ten steel sculpture was in fact eventually decommissioned). Kwon characterizes Serra’s objections as being not only unoriginal but shrill, the site specificity by this time being an expected entitlement rather than an emerging part of the canon, and relates this not to the political tenor of the time but rather to an imminent theoretical teardown in the immutability of “the site.”

Simultaneous to the development of unmanageably large works such as Jetty, the museum space emerged as an unlikely competitive concept in the battle for the identity of space. ((ibid., 35))

Conceptualist Hans Haacke and others addressed, or at least recognized, the emerging tentacle of museumism through nodding works such as the mid-1960s evolution of Condensation Cube. Kwon describes this particular work as presciently and metaphorically aware of “the system of sociological-economic relations within which art and its institutional programming find their possibilities of being.”

Kwon describes the art world of 1997 as one in which both the relationship of artwork to its location – museum or artist-declared sacred space – had fallen away to reveal the place of display as one of a third plane of existence, a rarefied sphere of cognizance. It is by this system of reading by which, Kwon says, it is possible to identify Mark Dion’s 1991 On Tropical Nature as a work of art ((ibid., 39)) rather than the findings of an expedition during which artifacts were gathered and catalogued, for example, in a herbarium.

Kwon continues to provide both a conclusion and a coda to it, the conclusion being “that in advanced art practices of the past thirty years, the operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location … to a discursive vector. … the possibilities to conceive the site as something more than a place – as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group – is a crucial conceptual leap in redefining the ‘public’ role of art and artists.”

Kwon’s actual landing spot is to offer something of a warning. She uses the word “unhinged” to describe both the severance of “site” and “specific” and the too-rapidly evolving definition for what constitutes an installation. Kwon blames and acknowledges the role of capitalism in the art world, offering the cases of Carl Andre and Donald Judd versus the Ace Gallery by way of example; ((ibid., 45)) citing refabrications of original fabrications as evidence that aura is what is lost when replication is taken to its farthest possible end, even if that sum is a logical one.

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