One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity charts the development of site-specific art making from the 60's to the present.

Review: visual communication
One Place After Another

by Miwon Kwon. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2004. 218pp. ISBN 0-262-11265-5 (hc), ISBN 0262-61202-X (pb)
(this review originally appeared in Visual Communication)


One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity charts the development of site-specific art making from the 60's to the present. The task that Miwon Kwon has taken on is not a survey or complete history for site-specific art. Rather, she has selected practitioners that let her illustrate a kind of evolving critical viewpoint for herself. Kwon connects this recent history to a larger context for, and a yearning to discover, site-specificity now. She develops a historical perspective in which she feels free to move back and forth for the sake of instructive comparisons, and we benefit from her approach. The final "site" or frame for art reception and dissemination in this appraisal is no less than the artist-producer and the sometimes transitive and site-less communities of the early 21st century.


Kwon defines early site-specificity as a tacit or direct critique of the institution of the gallery space and what could be accomplished within it, symbolically, politically and experientially. She begins with early practices, citing artists such as Robert Barry and Daniel Buren that redefined the museum/gallery space as a physically contextual site, in which the one of a kind "art-piece" cannot be divorced from it's physical relationship to the space. Kwon in general describes this as a movement "from a Cartesian model to a phenomenological one of lived bodily experience." She quickly moves from the contextuality of minimalism to "the site not only in physical and spatial terms but as a cultural framework defined by the institutions of art." At this particular point in "sited" work, Kwon gives preference to performance and intervention that moved site-specificity back into the institutional space of the gallery's walls. Out of these experiments with "lived bodily experience," the viewer theoretically became a self-conscious subject and participant in the construction of the works meaning. She cites the jarring juxtaposition of Mierle Laderman Ukeles cleaning the floors of the Wadsworth Athenaeum that sponsored her literal "work" as labor, to the physical modification of the walls of the gallery by Mel Bochner. Nevertheless, the work of Bochner, Hans Haacke, Buren, Laderman Ukeles and others were heavily dependent on the gallery system for support. The "white box", assailed for it's historical lack of bodily experience and it's invisible political ties, still existed as the locus of many of these early works of institutional critique.


Site-specific work acted as a liberating force for some, including critics and theorists. As the primacy of formalist criticism continued to erode, the reconsideration of what site, viewer, sculpture and architecture meant as framing devices created a feistier relationship between interventionist artistic practice and criticism that placed itself within a larger cultural sphere. While artists intervened in the accepted cultural framing by the institution, critics found fresh territory for theoretical expansions of what constituted artistic criticism well into the 80's. Emblematic of these critical positions were such essays as Rosalind Krauss' "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" (with Levi-Strauss inspired diagrams of an unacknowledged cultural "frame" of values), where more academically inclined readers were confronted with examining the multivalent issues of physical and cultural context. Once in the mode of questioning the frame of the institution, artists and critics developed their own trajectories of examination. Kwon traces these examples (not exclusively, but mostly from the United States), which contributed to the building of a sense of "bodily experience" into issues of identity and community in site-specific work now.


The more recent use of site-specificity moves the site into the community as activism, in a range of activities, and for different agendas. These often range from civic self-promotion in the guise of advertising to more raw and risk-taking intervention within communities by the artist or artistic group without official sanction. Kwon creates her most interesting juxtaposition of "case studies" between the Tilted Arc controversy and a less well-known example of community representation in John Ahearn's sculpture project in the Bronx in the mid-80's. These examples establish more complex and contingent problematics within communities. Artistic production often leads to mixed results of dissemination and reception in the social sphere, where the neat closure of early "oppositional" site-specificity against the white cube has now vanished. Ultimately the question of community reception, representation and institutional support are thornier problems than the site specifics of a Mary Miss, a Robert Smithson, or even a Hans Haacke, and the critical position of Krauss's (post) structuralist diagrams. There is a pervasive need to re-examine the past critical "frame" of this recent history, which Kwon begins. To lead us there, Kwon suggests the limits of Kenneth Frampton's landmark ideas of "critical regionalism" and Lucy Lippard's oppositionalism regarding site-specific work. Kwon rightly calls Lippard's position "nostalgic" in light of current political and economic contexts.


Kwon develops the variable set of concerns of the late 60's through the 90's and contrasts them with the current conundrums of a fragmented global culture in which the concept of a fixed place or community has receded. A series of definitions of community are attempted, starting with Jeff Kelley's redefinition of the difference between "site" and "place": "the former signifying an abstract location and the latter an intimate and particularized culture that is bound to a geographical region." Kwon suggests tentative definitions for "placed", transient, and variable communities through discussions in which she develops new thematics of what constitutes a mythic community, a "temporary invented community," etc. Many factors may come into play exoticizing the community and the role of artistic (or political) production. Ultimately, Kwon underwrites concern in the tendency to abstract the communities where work is produced and disseminated in. She quotes Hal Foster: "the quasi- anthropological role set up for the artist can promote a presuming as much as a questioning of ethnographic authority, an evasion...of institutional critique."


From physical site through interventionist work of the 1980's and 1990's, Kwon continues to articulate the issues of "global culture," of individual displacement and the fragmentation of communities as a new operational idea in sited work in the broadest sense. With increasing electronic interconnection, international cultural fragmentation and movement, we give up or disparage our histories, spaces and in a very real sense our own "specificity." Oddly, this last section somehow stays in the academy. A Don Delillo novel about displacement as a pervasive concept falls short of the pragmatic issues of "place" which she has thoroughly developed earlier. While Kwon suggests broad critical positions, she abandons examples that are more or less directly connected to her subject of art practice in these new non-spaces. Kwon quotes Homi Bhabha: "The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or the dispossessed the migrant and the refugee no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers." Theorizing on the freedom to move and circulate and choose identities in "global culture" is paradoxically for those who are part of a place and identity where this is allowed, and while Kwon begins an articulation, it is left undeveloped. This seems a lost opportunity to expand a series of questions regarding audience reception and identity now, and the global political/economic systems that support or hinder it.


How is it possible to throw light on individual and community fragmentation: of the loss of the traditional definitions of identity, community/"place" and "site"? How do we frame our identity, whether as the exoticized subjects of the community where site-specific art is created, or as the exoticized persona of the interventionist artist, and who is left out? While Kwon does a very good job of tracing precedent (and perhaps it is out of the scope of this volume), I think she has more ideas of what could be an operative model (or at least points of departure). I am curious why she does not develop these ideas further, or why she chooses at the end to avoid mentioning other developments within the fragmented, but schizophrenically united audiences of interconnected mass media, where community as an idea or set of values is finally broken away from "place-ness." To make way for a new definition and expansion of the concerns of "site-specificity" Kwon deals with the accepted positions within earlier critical discourse, as any academic must pay dutiful homage to. She is clear in her positioning, but a further expansion is necessary to move beyond the forty-year history of site-specific concerns.


Foster, H. (1996) The Artist as Ethnographer in The Return of the Real: The End of the Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Lippard, L. (1997) The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in Multicentered Society, New York: New Press.

Krauss, R. (1983) Sculpture in the Expanded Field in The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, Seattle: Bay Press 1983.

Frampton, K. (1983) Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance in The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, Seattle: Bay Press 1983.

Reviewed by Scott Townsend‚ Department of Graphic Design‚ NC State University