Narration and Intervention

By Auyong, Poyin | Afterimage, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Narration and Intervention

Auyong, Poyin, Afterimage

What are the possibilities and limitations of producing site-specific works in the late 1990s? Judging from the "Sculpture Project in Monster 1997," it is apparent that site-specificity has had its heyday. Site-specific concepts and practices have evolved over the past few decades, as seen in the 1977, 1987 and 1997 exhibitions in Munster. The 1977 exhibition defined the fundamental concepts for site-specific practices, demonstrating the critical, inseparable relationship between a work and its context. Artists such as Richard Serra, Michael Asher and Joseph Beuys concentrated on the formal relations between the work and its locale, emphasizing the context within which the work should be understood. In 1987, the contributions reflected varied approaches to how a work can relate to its location, ranging from critical and narrative to ironic and skeptical. Artists including Rebecca Horn, Dennis Adams and Lothar Baumgarten pushed the narrative potential of sculpture in public places, redefining the city as a narrative space. Since then, the problems and contradictions of site-specific practices have become increasingly evident - the loss of context brought about by the changing urban environment, the dislocation of works resulting from sales or community objection, and the rigidity of the work-site connection that may inappropriately rule out conditions of displacement, instability and ambiguity.

Most of the participating artists in the 1997 exhibition no longer focused on the site or offered critical analysis of the worksite relationship. However, the most engaging and critical works in this year's exhibition happened to be those works that problematize the relations between work and site, pointing to the limitations and paradoxes of site-specificity rather than embracing its fundamental principles. This year, as suggested by Walter Grasskamp in the exhibition catalog Sculpture. Projects in Munster 1997, "art-as-services" appeared to be the dominant trend, revealed by the large number of works by artists who constructed both functional objects and provided services for recreational purposes - Jorge Pardo's pier, Marie-Ange Guilleminot's massage facility and Bert Theis's recreational platform. While a multitude of these works were surprisingly simplistic and facile, there were some that offered a more ambiguous, ironic and critical reading of leisure in public places: Hans Haacke's hidden and empty merry-go-round, Dan Graham's hallucinatory and reflective pavilion, Tobias Rehberger's fictitious bar, and Elin Wikstrom and Anna Brag's reconstructed bicycles that travel backward.

Over 70 artists participated in this year's sculpture project; however, only a small portion of the works involved the media arts. This is perplexing, if not disappointing, considering the increasing infiltration of our social life by the photographic and electronic media, which of course complicates the task of defining and conceptualizing the ever-mutating public sphere. Besides, the problems and contradictions realized from two decades of site-specific experimentation may have further discouraged any attempts in dealing with public art. The impressive works from this year's project turned out to be those that were critical of the institutional and discursive frameworks, within which public art is realized, by questioning its own language, limitations and conditions of production. These works managed to articulate the aesthetic, social and communication limitations of art in the public sphere. Employing a variety of media, some of these works problematize the discourse on site-specificity by using a narrative, poetic approach to suggest the ambiguous, transient and paradoxical relations between work and site, emphasizing passages and transitional spaces rather than fixed entities or spectacular monuments.

Janet Cardiff's "Walk Munster" (1997) was comprised of two parts: an audio and a visual component that alluded to how our perception and reception of events is shaped by the structures and discourses of institutions.

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