The Phaidon guide to art speak - Site Specific

Decoding the language of art criticism

As art terms go ‘site specific’, seems bluntly literal in its reference to work that’s, well, specific to its site. Some recent examples of ‘site specific’ art might include Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), where the British sculptor dumped 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution in a decrepit South London council housing block, scheduled for demolition and let a corrupt blue crystal grotto take shape. Or something as fleeting and insubstantial as 2010 Turner Prize-winner Susan Phillipsz’s sound installations (below) of her own a cappella songs, which have haunted unsuspecting passers-by at locations as various as the echoing undersides of railway bridges and riverside walkways. 

So far, so self-explanatory. But what do these contemporary offerings have in common with the many thousands of artworks created throughout the ages that might equally be deemed site specific? What about Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (1425), with its depiction of classical pillars and a vaulted roof that seem to extend the real architecture of the church it was created for into the painting? What about the sculptures that looked down from the Acropolis? What about cave art? When the cultural critic Lucy Lippard first stamped site specific art as a movement, in an essay she penned in 1977, why did anyone need this distinguishing label at all?

‘Site specific’ first gained currency in the 1970s, defining the piebald output of a generation of artists tackling the art object as commodity and the systems that gave art value and separated it from the world at large. Some benchmarks include Robert Smithson’s iconic coil of rock in the Utah Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty (1970) (top); Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece (1971) where performers individually posed across New York’s downtown skyline, turning the city into a work of art; and Michael Asher’s Pomona College Art Gallery Project (1970), where he inserted walls into gallery spaces to turn them into tight triangular passageways, and enlarged the entrance so it framed the street life beyond like a picture, underlining how galleries control how we move, see and think.

Michael Asher’s <em>Pomona College Art Gallery Project</em> (1970)Michael Asher’s Pomona College Art Gallery Project (1970)

In a way this focus on location was taking art back to its roots – but with some crucial differences. Until the 20th century, art was a social animal, flourishing in the public realm thanks to its memorial or celebratory function. Works commemorating everything from military victories to church patronage or civic pride glued history and social concerns to place. Broadly speaking, Modernists cut those ties with their vision of art as an autonomous, self-contained creation, where formal qualities ruled. Then, in the 1960s, Minimalists expanded the terms, bringing what surrounded art - light, space and vision – back into the equation.

Asher’s institutional critique, Smithson’s earthworks, or Brown’s performance interventions, continued Minimalism’s interest in surroundings but did away with its insistence on discreet objects, so easily sullied by the market and manipulated by art-world power structures. Making the location of the work, the work itself became a subversive gesture, directing our focus beyond art to a complicated network of cultural politics.