Minggu, 21 Agustus 2005

What's in a concept?

Damn it, labeling is a horrible thing.
The above is part of any artist's standard lithurgy. Why name things? Why give them categories, stickers, definitions? Doesn't it kill the art?
Of course, one answer is because we want to talk about things, and we can't talk about them if we can't say anything about them. This time, though, let's leave this classic apology.
What I'm more interested in is how artists can profit from the tags their art gets.
Take an example: site-specific work. We all know what that is: a work that is meant for one specific place. Or rather: a work created thanks to the place, with the help of the physical context of a particular, none-black-or-white-box environment. (Unless, of course, you're Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, then the white box is perfect for site-specifics)
But there are some who find the term "site-specific" to be to vague. Take dance critic Camille LeFevre. In a recent article she distinguishes between site-specific, site-adaptive, site-influenced and al fresco (dance) work. Why would somebody go into such a trouble as to cut everything into small pieces? Why not just let the artists live and do things? Or is it just pure academic sharpnel thinking?
Most of the time it probably is. But the question of site-specific work has been recenly on my mind, and I discovered the name could make a difference.
You see, if we believe names refer to descriptions and/or specific objects (see philosophical accounts of names), a name can tell us something about reality. What does it matter to an artist?
Maybe it should. Site-specific work is incredibly en vogue these days. Here in Portugal, as in other places around the world, more and more artists take up the challenge of working things out in the wild, wild world.
And then, they don't. They often simply present material outside, or at a specific site (an abandoned building, a park...). A work at a specific site is not necessarily site-specific work. The latter, according to LeFevre, is the unique fruit of an artist's relation with a place:
site-specific dance is of one place and no other. Without the site, the dance ceases to exist. “To move the site-specific work is to re-place it, to make it something else,” writes Nick Kaye in Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation, echoing visual artist Richard Serra’s definition of site-specific: “To move the work is to destroy the work.”
This definition is a challenge to an artist. I would dare say that even Richard Serra himself wasn't always up to it: some of his works seem simply placed somewhere and not made out of somewhere. Then again, nobody says site-specific is better. Still, it can be a new way of looking at things, from the ground up. And here is the thing: if you know it, and you're honest with it, it might just work. But it's very easy to misunderstand the names, to misuse them, to create a light version. To choose a shortcut. And then the works seem like decoration, like ornaments. And then I so often wish the work had been kept in a room, black, white, or of any other color.

Both pictures are of the exhibition How Are You Today?, by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (2002, Galleria Massimo de Carlo, Milano)

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