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But is it Site Specific Art?

There is always room to push ideas off their limits in art. While most artists and art followers happily remain in the realm of conventional art making, there are those – the adventurous, risk takers who set out willingly to seek unlikely perspectives. Such was a show that opened recently at the Canvas Gallery, Karachi, titled “Stop, Look, Listen”. The gallery which is soon to be relocated to a new space was still under construction when 7 artists were invited to intervene and respond to its incomplete and unfinished state. Curated by Hajra Haider, the site specific exhibition was out of the ordinary for artists, an eye opener for art lovers and collectors and an enthralling experience for the participating artists- But was the art, site specific?

In its simplest of definition site specific art refers to art made to exist in a certain location. Site specific art initially took the site as a definite location, its identity composed of a combination of physical elements; length, depth, height, texture, the shape of walls and rooms; scale and proportion; distinctive topological features and so forth[1]. However since its conception in the late 1960s site specific art has undergone various alterations.

It began as a kind of rejection of the institutions of art and galleries by taking the art out of the gallery and situating it onto its outer environment. Complicating the idea of permanence, the transient nature of the installations came to an end when museums took interest in the art form. And thus, no matter how hard site specific work tries to break free from the institutions of art, it is always being directed back to it in the form of documentation, preservation and funding.

Although ambitious, the show at the Canvas Gallery gave the participating artists a chance that not all adhered to. Not only did it give them an opportunity to critique the institution but also challenge the transient, unfinished state of the building. From among the artists and being specific to its site, Seema Nusrat delved into making her work next to a mound of sand that rested on the floor of the gallery. Taking full advantage of her environment, she employed materials used in building such as cement and sand to construct her installation. Seeing the floor as the most important part of a space, Nusrat created with sand and cement on to the floor, intricate oriental patterns that suggested a carpet like form and implied a sense of completion and finesse to the space. The installation seemingly in its transformative stage mirror imaged the work-in-progress status of the gallery.

Site specific work inside an institution or gallery would mean that the installation or objects comment on and possibly critique its host; not just the physical space but also expose their veiled undertakings[2]. It would mean to reveal the ways in which institutions mold art’s meaning via interrelated spaces and economies including the studio, gallery, art criticism, art history and history of the gallery/museum- its relationship with society, the art market and so forth.

In that way, Muzzumil Ruheel’s installation titled ‘the last things’, comprising of bubble wrapped, tightly packed canvases as well as frames commented on the social and institutional worth of art. Art and art works always tend to be at the bottom of the list of priorities whether societal, economical or personal. Within galleries and museums, after perpetual maintenance and only once the spaces are thorough and the walls immaculately white, do the art works come forth. Thus, even in a space where they should get a lot of, if not the most, significance, they appear as ‘the last things’.

In her installation/performance, Our House in the Middle of this Dream, Shalalae Jamil sits in a bath tub which she placed under a window frame. Situating herself amidst discarded household objects, humming to songs from her earphones and not interacting with the viewers she isolated herself creating an imaginary state perhaps questioning the role of one’s private space within a public setting. Though it kept the audience intrigued it was a performance, not quite specific to its site, as it did not succeed in truly embodying the space.

Similar was the case with artists Amir Habib, Irfan Hassan, Munawar Ali and Muhammad Zeeshan, whose work, although well executed and aesthetically enjoyable, seemed to have missed the mark. Each artist produced work that fell under the umbrella of ‘installation art’. And while there is a thin line between an ‘Installation’ and a ‘Site Specific Installation’, I feel it must be addressed. Almost all site specific work in its execution draws on installation but not all installation art can be deemed site specific- In the sense that while installation art also refers to an arrangement of objects in a given space it does not necessarily need to give itself up to its environment. It can relocate and adapt to different sites.

On the other hand, the inherent quality about site specific art is that it takes so much meaning from its environment that to change its location would mean to destroy its significance.Unless of course the work is ‘movable under the right circumstances’[3]; that is, the ‘new’ site must have qualities that are similar if not equal to that of the original setting.

I would like to conclude by mentioning two things: for its innovation, the show was a great achievement and a welcomed change; secondly, it is important to note that as the definition of site specific art evolves, its original meaning becomes weaker and even more obscure. While I insist that site specific works should remain true to their location, I also feel (taking into consideration it’s new perspectives and alterations) that all of the above that I mention is debatable.


[1] Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another, Site Specific art and Locational Identity. 2004

[2] Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another, Site Specific art and Locational Identity. 2004

[3] Hapgood, Susan. ‘Remaking Art History’, Art in America. 1990

 

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