105. Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, eds. Art Works: Place
Art Works: Place is part of a series of introductions published by Thames and Hudson; their book on performance is on my to-read list as well. It might seem too elementary, but since I’m interested in site-specific work—with “site” defined as a phenomenological response to a particular place, to borrow from Miwon Kwon—I thought it would be useful to look at responses by visual and performance artists to place. The book’s introduction begins with a quotation from Aristotle about the difficulty of answering the question, “what is place?” (11). Dean and Millar write:
Place can be difficult to locate. One might think that one can spot it somewhere, some way off in the distance, perhaps, and yet as one approaches it seems to disappear, only to reconfigure at some father point, or back from whence one came. Place itself can seem a confusing place in which to find oneself, an uncertain place to explore, even with someone to guide us. (11)
Questions about place have been asked by philosophers, anthropologists, architects, ecologists, feminists, literary scholars, mathematicians, musicians, psychologists, and urbanists, they continue—people working in “almost any area of human activity” (11). And, of course, artists ask these questions as well. “In this book we shall explore the theme of place in contemporary art and, to help us do so, this essay will provide a brief introduction to a subject that has engaged a great many people for centuries,” Dean and Millar continue. “There is much to consider here, and we will be led in many different directions, yet we must always remember that while we might easily be lost in place, we would certainly be lost without it” (11).
“Place” isn’t an easy word to define. “[T]here are more concepts of place than actual geographic ones,” Dean and Millar suggest, “and so certain difficulties are bound to rise” (12). They begin with the genre of landscape, because that is where “place” occurs most often within art (12). Landscape “is not only the most popular of the major genres within the visual arts, but also the most recent, at least within the Western tradition” (12). In Renaissance, painting, for instance, the landscape is often only viewed through the windows or arches “of a securely interior world,” or else “provides an exterior backdrop agains which is set the main subject of the painting” (12). “Indeed if landscape art, as we might now generally understand it, did not exist during this period, we might say that this was because landscape as we might now generally understand it, did not exist either,” Dean and Millar write (12-13). The elements we consider landscape—rivers, mountains, valleys, and forests—“were not considered, collectively, as landscape, and so could hardly be represented as such” (13). They were not, it seems, considered together aesthetically.
Before the Renaissance, the word Landschaft “meant a collection of dwellings built within an area of cultivated land that, in turn, is surrounded by the unknown—and unknowable—wilderness” (13). When the word entered the Dutch language, as landschap, its meaning changed. Because “Holland was both widely cultivated and inhabited,” distinctions between settlements and wilderness were both unnecessary and inconceivable (13). “Instead, its meaning begsn to feel the influence of two of the most important cultural activities within Dutch cultural life and, by the seventeenth century, landschap came to refer to an area of land that could be represented by either surveyor or artist, as map or painting,” Dean and Millar continue. “It was at around this time that in England landschap became landskip, and it was not long before its meaning became something that we might more easily recognize: broad, often elevated views of rural scenes in which one can see villages and fields, woods and roads” (13). Landscape, then, is not natural but artificial; it is about the organization of the land. Dean and Millar argue that this is true of those who later paint landscape as wilderness, “outside of the familiar areas of human modification, as the very fact of their observation—and subsequent act of representation—transforms that which is before them into landscape” (13). “A landscape, then, is the land transformed, whether through the physical act of inhabitation or enclosure, clearance or cultivation, or the rather more conceptual transfiguration of human perception, regardless of whether this then becomes the basis for a map, a painting, or a written account,” they conclude (13).
As our understandings of landscape have changed over time, so too have our understandings of place. Place “is something with which we engage in our everyday lives; we can use it to describe the relative ‘rightness’ of a situation—‘A place for everything and everything in its place,’ as the English social reformer Samuel Smiles wrote—or a characteristic that we might appreciate, such as a ‘sense of place’” (13-14). Place is often “more sensed than understood, an indistinct region of awareness rather than something clearly defined”; it has “no fixed identity,” and has thus “been subject to numerous demands, whether theological or philosophical, political or aesthetic” (14). “Place” has “often been contested,” Dean and Millar write, “in attempts either to wrest control of it or, conversely, to despoil it, to render it of little use or value” (14). Yet many of us would agree with Yi-Fu Tuan’s suggestion that familiarity turns spaces into places. “Place is something known to us, somewhere that belongs to us in a spiritual, if not possessive, sense and to which we too belong,” they continues (14). Place, they suggest, following Thomas Hardy, is “space is which the process of remembrance continues to activate the past as something which, to quote the philosopher Henri Bergson, is ‘lived and acted, rather than represented’” (13) (although Bergson, a quick Google search tells me, was talking about consciousness rather than place). James Joyce suggested that “places remember events,” and this statement points towards “how deeply time has become embedded within place, and might be said to have become one of its dominant characteristics” (14). But ancient philosophers were unequivocal in their belief that place was more important than time, that it was “the limit of all things” and therefore divine (14-15). Nevertheless, Dean and Millar write, “[i]t is a cruel historical irony that the very omnipresence of place could not prevent its subsequent domination by the notion of ‘space,’ and it may very well have contributed towards it” (15). By the 14th and 15th centuries, “‘space’ considered in its most expansive sense gradually gained precedence over what was considered the more bounded notion of place,” and space came to be seen “as the more useful concept with which to explore the infinite,” and “the very things to which place seemed best suited—a sense of belonging, for example—were now considered intellectually irrelevant. The particular had been eclipsed by the universal; space had triumphed over place” (15).
Why does this history matter? Because “place is an aggregate, the coming together of many disparate elements that can be used for many different purposes, whether it be the establishing of new intellectual foundations, or the undermining of those already extant” (15). For that reason, “we must recognize not only that there are fundamental differences between place and space, and between place and site, its modern replacement, but also that there are many places within place, many regions, each with their own identities, dialects and dialectics” (15). Place “is a complex, ever-changing terrain,” Dean and Millar continue, “one in which familiar landmarks or points of reference might shift position, become obscured by the cultural weather, or simply disappear altogether” (15-16). We need to remain alert to these shifts in meaning, they suggest (16).
“The infinite space of the early modern period must have seemed overwhelming,” Dean and Millar write, “yet there were some for whom it must have offered immense possibilities rather than existential anxiety” (16). Space was “better suited to exploring the immensities of a universe that was beginning to be revealed by Copernicus and Galileo,” and if the earth “were simply another planet orbiting the sun, then there was no reason why it should be subject to different physical laws,” a shift in perspective “that encouraged a greater ‘universalism’ in speculative thought, unbound from the particularities of place” (16). But philosophers in that period disagreed about “the nature of infinite space,” and those disagreements continued into the 18th century. There was a general view, though, that place was less important, or that it was important for place to be diminished. Place, Dean and Miller continue, “was absorbed within space in a distinctly subordinate role” (16). Distance (with its reliance on measurement) “also contributed to the diminishing of place” (16). As measurement came to be seen as all-important, other qualities of place—“colour, temperature, and texture”—became unimportant, because they could not be “converted to calculable distances” and were therefore irrelevant (16). (The triumph of data! Our century is experiencing something very similar.) When Leibniz makes the relationship between objects in space abstract—“the situation of things to one another, or indeed any other possible location, now becoming determinant rather than the measured distance between them” (16)—then place simply became identical to space, and both were “reduced to position or site, a ‘simple location’ upon the axes of analytical space” (16). Place became defined “as nothing more than a position,” and was thus “unable to preserve any of the properties that were seen as inherent to it from the ancient philosophers onwards” (16).
However, the philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries were “unable to raze place completely,” and “[f]or this we should be thankful” (16). “We retain a strong sense of place, even if we find it hard to define with any satisfaction, and this in itself demonstrates a refusal to accept the mathematical model of place-as-location proposed by such seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophers,” Dean and Millar write (16-17). But even while those philosophers were attempting to eliminate unmeasurable place as a category, artists were making some of the first landscape paintings and rejecting mechanistic ideas about the universe. “The work of these artists . . . not only marks a refusal to accept the impoverishment of nature, and place, proposed by the rationalist philosophers of the period, but also puts forward a different, more generous, approach to engaging with the world,” Dean and Millar suggest (17). They quote the words of English landscape painter John Constable, who asked, in 1836, “Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” (18), and suggest that “the most important such artistic experiment of recent times is that established by Ian Hamilton Finlay at Stonypath, just south west of Edinburgh,” where he has “initiated the creation of one of the most celebrated gardens of the twentieth century” (18). “A cultivated place, the garden acts as a form of threshold, and encourages us to dwell, whether that be in the form of static contemplation, a wandering, or both,” Dean and Millar state (18). They suggest that Little Sparta’s importance “is that as both place and art it can lead us to a greater understanding of both of these things, what we might mean by them and why they might be considered so important” (18):
Although we have become aware of how place has been perceived as in some sense “bounded,” particularly in relation to the seemingly endless extension of space, we must consider what it is we mean by this, particularly as it might have some bearing on our understanding of art also. Indeed, what becomes apparent is the permeability of both concepts, as Little Sparta opens up onto its surroundings as both place and art, and so perhaps this is an important mutual characteristic. Indeed, to speak of physical limits—boundaries—in such matters is meaningless, and mistakes “place” for “site” and “art” for “art object.” It is certainly true that it is in the site, or the art object, that monetary value is invested, yet its greater value—spiritual, philosophical, emotional, intellectual—must be dispersed elsewhere, which is why a place or a work of art can retain a profound importance for us regardless of whether we own it or not or, indeed, whether we have seen it or not. Both place and art might be said not to contain—and be contained by—boundaries, then, but rather an innumerable series of thresholds, which extend far beyond the physical limits of either the site or the art object, and across time also, remaining even when the particular place or work of art may no longer exist. It is not that these thresholds act as points of permeability in a boundary that clearly demarcates separate elements, however, but rather as things that bring these elements together, perhaps in the manner of the bridge—itself a type of threshold—which Martin Heidegger describes as drawing the surrounding landscape together. (18-20)
There is so much happening in that quotation, and it’s hard to know where to begin to respond. But the notion of place and art being permeable concepts, contained not by boundaries but by thresholds, is very powerful. I wish I had seen Little Sparta on our recent trip to Scotland. Perhaps another opportunity to visit it will arise at some future point.
Dean and Millar quote Henri Lefebvre on the way that social spaces interpenetrate each other or are superimposed on each other, and they suggest that is true of places as well: “We might even suggest that any single place is a process of such interpenetrations and superimpositions, whose scale, force and rhythm are engaged in an ongoing movement of shifts, rolls and waves, all of which generate new senses of place, or new senses of the same place” (20). If we had new eyes, as Proust wrote, perhaps then we wold be able “to see the complexities of the places that surround us,” to “see that these different senses of place are often in conflict with one another, with those holding a particular understanding of a place feeling it necessary to eliminate a competing claim” (20). Such recognition is important, particularly here, where the province’s recent changes to trespassing legislation are an attempt to eliminate the claims to the land of anyone except farmers and ranchers. Dean and Millar acknowledge that local places are often “sacrificed for the ‘national good,’ a concept that is most often defined in relation to other nation states and the ‘necessities’ of the ‘global market’” (20). Those words remind me of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of the Alberta tar sands, a site that sacrifices the boreal forest for exports of petroleum, or even of raw bitumen. “If place is viewed simply as site, its ‘secondary qualities’ denied, then it becomes easier to destroy it; one cannot mourn what one denied ever being in existence,” they write:
There are many people who value, and fight to protect, the particularities of place, however, although within a society which often operates on a principle of economic utility, the calculable “benefits” presented by developers, investors or corporations are often more easily grasped than the more intangible “sense of place,” with its related notions of authenticity, character and identity. (20-21)
This describes how grassland continues to be destroyed in southern Saskatchewan—well, how ecosystems of all kinds continue to be destroyed all over the world—and Dean and Millar suggest that the apparent uselessness of such places are “something else that both place and art have in common” (21).
“Art, like place, is a process of accumulation and seldom calls for the active destruction of that which came before,” Dean and Millar continue. “It is often said that artists ‘build upon’ the art that came before them, but it is an unfortunate phrase. Artists are not bound in the same way that property developers are, and so have no need to build upon what is already in place” (21). Instead, “[t]he art they create may open up onto the art created by others—as Finlay’s opens up onto Claude and Poussin, for example—but it has no need to take its place, or to deny it” (21). Even art that is critical of the art or thinking of the past “acknowledges the existence of that which came before (indeed, its own position is dependent upon it)” (21). They cite the work of American conceptual artist Douglas Huebler as an example of art that explores “how we perceive, and represent, time and place” (21). “In Huebler’s work, the commonplace is utterly transformed, the most banal view afforded the potential for immense significance,” they write (23). In a similar way, Robert Smithson’s 1967 “photo-text work A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey . . . consists of photographs of various ‘monuments’ on the bank of the Passaic River, along which a new highway was being built, and a narrative commentary that describes this return to his birthplace a few months before his thirtieth birthday” (23). Smithson makes no attempt at reconstructing or representing the places of his childhood; instead, he makes them “seem even more strange, more dislocated temporally—in either the distant past or future—or as simply unreal, like a picture already, as when he describes his activities as ‘like photographing a photograph’” (23). Smithson, they continue, “photographed the earth as though it were an alien environment, his birth town as if it were another planet, an environment that he was placing under a series of experiments, testing its physical and conceptual parameters, one against the other: testing it as place” (23).
Maintaining a sense of active engagement with place, rather than giving over “to the complacency of familiarity,” is “one of Smithson’s great achievements,” and the achievement of any number of the artists featured in this book (25). For example, the French artist Marine Hugonnier’s film Ariana ends with an acknowledgement of the failure to represent the landscape of Afghanistan; many of the artists Dean and Millar include in this book also recognize “the profound limitation of the visual” (25). Such a recognition might seem strange, even “perverse,” but “[s]urely nobody is more aware of the limitations of the visual than visual artists, just as poets are most sensitive to the inadequacies of language. That such considerations have emerged during an enquiry into ‘place’ is perhaps not surprising, as here too the visual attains a certain prominence without ever being able to engage fully with the subject” (25). A profound engagement with a landscape “must depend upon more than the visual, upon those things that remain invisible,” and such a task may be impossible, which is the reason places with an “extraordinary and mythic status” are so often endangered: “they look just like many other places if we cannot see ‘the invisible ones of the days gone by,’ in Hardy’s phrase” (25). This recognition doesn’t deny the importance of the visual, however, nor the importance of landscape photographs (25-26). Such photographs, like the places they represent, “invite our attention, yet they are both so much more than what we can see. Perhaps this is why art, like place, needs a little time, a little patience, and no little sensitivity, in order that we might then become aware of what else it is, beyond that of which we are first away” (26). “Not that every place that is made is art,” they acknowledge,” but to make art (which is also to think about it) is to make place” (26). They conclude by hoping that what they have gathered together in this book will encourage us “to dwell a little more upon this rich, enduring, bewildering subject” (26). How refreshing for the authors to acknowledge the surprising difficulty in defining or representing place; I wish more of us were able to drop the mask of the knowledgeable expert and dwell in bewilderment at times.
In what I think is a nod to Gaston Bachelard, or perhaps just a large gallery exhibition, the remainder of Art Works: Place is divided into rooms rather than chapters. The first “room” is entitled “Urban,” and it begins with the work of American artist Doug Aitken, who “has created a number of visually stunning—and often formally complex—video installations that use a place, and its history, as a point of departure” (28). For example, his 1999 eight-screen installation Electric Earth follows a protagonist “as he makes his way through a deserted nocturnal landscape of satellite dishes, laundromats and shopping malls” (28). Aitken imagines this character as the last person left on earth, and the machines that remain “appear to take over his body, effacing the line that divides the natural and the mechanical,” creating “a post-Romantic vision of perfect coincidence between a human and his surroundings” (28). Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s 2001 Plages is a 15-minute video “shot from a hotel room in Rio de Janiero overlooking the Copacabana beach” as people gather below, creating “a portrait of a group experience, of a public space in which the public itself is made manifest” (30). A Free and Anonymous Monument, a 2003 video installation by Jane and Louise Wilson, “explores a number of different places in their native north-east England,” projecting images on “a number of screens that surround the viewers” (32). The sites the video installation investigates include the Apollo Pavillion, designed by artist Victor Pasmore for the new town of Peterlee—“A gesture of hope for a new community, the pavilion soon became derelict, the water that surrounds it greasy and stagnant” (32)—along with an abandoned parking garage that featured in the 1971 film Get Carter, oil rigs, and factories that make computer chips. “If all of the Wilsons’ art has been about a sense of place, then this work more than any other suggests that such a sense is made up from the intersection of many things and the spaces between them through which we can move and find ourselves,” Dean and Millar comment (32). Liam Gillick’s 1999 series of photographs, Pain in a Building, “were taken at Thamesmead, a 1960s housing estate on the outskirts of London that had a clearly utopian social vision,” although it was also the location of scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film A Clockwork Orange (34). “Through the film, the estate’s future was in a sense accelerated, prematurely aged, its flaws revealed before they had developed in actuality,” although the authors don’t explain how this was done (34). “Gillick has created an area of engagement, a discursive space, in which we might consider what it is for art to be topical—that is, related both to location and events,” they conclude (34).
Dan Graham’s photographs of suburban housing, and the essay that was intended to accompany them in a 1966 issue of Arts Magazine—the essay was published, but the photographs were not—suggest that while suburbs lack roots, they are also “places of everyday hopes and pleasures” (36). Bosnian artist Bojan Sarcevic’s 2002 video Untitled (Bangkok) “highlights the relationship between different forms of experience” (38). Saracevic “makes his way on foot through the streets and passageways of the Thai capital,” a tourist destination, and as he moves through terrain familiar to the city’s inhabitants, “a walking sign of difference,” he “seems invisible, his movements—and the recording of them—passing unnoticed by those around him” (38). Canadian Stan Douglas’s fascination with the gothic can be seen in his 1999-2000 video Le Détroit, in which a young woman searches for something in an abandoned house. “The film is projected onto semi-transparent material, while its negative is projected—with a small time interval—upon the screen’s reverse, thereby emphasizing the haunting nature of the narrative, while alluding to the social and racial divisions that have led to so much conflict and dilapidation in what was once so prosperous a city,” Dean and Millar write (40).
Room Two, “Nature,” begins with Norwegian artist A.K. Dolven and her three-screen video installation looking back (2000), which suggests a “profound relationship between people and their surroundings, a relationship that can seem both calm and uncertain” (50). In the videos, three women, “each seen against magnificent mountain scenery,” walk backwards, “hesitantly at first but then with increasing confidence, until they pass across and out of the frame” (50). Simon Starling’s 2003 Island for Weeds is an artificial island that provides a habitat for Rhododendron ponticum plants, an invasive weed in the UK; it is “part of an ongoing body of work that focuses on the introduction and subsequent demonization of this hardy shrub,” and in particularly its presence in the Scottish National Park (52). Pierre Huyghe’s 2002 installation L’expédition scintillante, a take on the earth’s poles, featured a boat made entirely of ice that slowly melted away “while mist, rain and even snow fell from openings in the ceiling” (56). According to Dean and Millar, “the work is no documentary record of a journey that has taken place, but rather a scenario for a collective expedition yet to come, a poetic expedition rather than a scientific one, and one that can be joined by anyone at any point” (56). American artist Roni Horn’s series of photographs, Becoming a Landscape (1999-2001), explores the “relationship between inner and outer, between the body and its surroundings,” through “six pairs of close-up views of thermal springs, and three pairs of portraits of the same young person” (58). The portraits seem harder to read than those of the geysers, which “seem almost palpably corporeal, wet openings that act as thresholds between interior and exterior spaces” (58).
Room Three, “Fantastic,” is devoted to places that have some kind of “strange and uncanny character” (61). Adam Chodzko’s 2001 Better Scenery is a series of works, “consisting of two large signs upon which is written the direction to the other sign, thereby inviting the viewer to imagine not only the other location, but also how the place in which he or she now finds themselves might also be described” (64). German artist Gregor Schneider has been continually renovating an apartment in a lead foundry (once owned by his father) since 1985, adding new walls and floors, building windows in front of other windows, and hiding the entrances to rooms behind walls. “It is a building of intense spatial and temporal location, and one that seems to suggest a moral one, too,” although we should be cautious about interpreting those rooms “as evidence of—indeed, scenes of—some form of psycho-sexual drama, a response which Schneider’s reluctance to explain his motives no doubt encourages,” Dean and Millar write. “Instead, perhaps this extraordinary project could be considered a form of exploration of a greater collective memory, of communities lost—such as those displaced by the large-scale strip-mining nearby—and of places haunted by those who once belonged there” (68). Liz Arnold’s landscape paintings generate an “uneasy pleasure” for viewers as they “attempt to comprehend what is going on in these unusual places of flat shapes and sour colours” (72). The scenes they depict are unnatural, “the colours seeming as though viewed through a filter, or under UV light, thereby creating works in which the exotic is reconfigured into the toxic” (72). Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez creates models of buildings and entire cityscapes out of cardboard and plywood that are influenced by past visions of the future. “Whether one sees these places as desirable or not—and therefore whether one sees the work as critical or not—obviously depends on from where one views the work; one can only imagine how these places might be seen by an inhabitant of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most war-ravaged countries on earth,” Dean and Millar write. “Our sense of any other place is very much dependent upon the sense that we have of our own” (76). Paul Noble’s large-scale drawings of an imaginary and uninhabited metropolis he calls “Nobson Newtown” is “a dark satire upon our construction of the modern world and our neo-romantic superimposition of identity and environment” (78). Rod Dickinson’s complex, spectacular crop circles—made at night with simple materials—suggest an interplay between art and the occult beliefs of so-called cerealogists, people who research crop circles in the belief that they are caused by paranormal or extraterrestrial forces (80).
Room four, “Myth/History,” explores representations of places that take their identity from historical events, or from which myths emerge, or where “the place and its history are at odds with each other, although each helps create the other” (83). Spanish-born, London-based artist Juan Cruz’s 2001 Planning Permit: Proposal to Build a Metaphor was a series of public works installed at 12 locations around Melbourne, Australia. Each location is well known or notable in some way, and at each Cruz placed the kind of permit poster specified by local planning regulations. “However, instead of details of a new commercial development, in addition to the standard bureaucratic information the posters contained a short piece of writing by Cruz, each highlighting a different aspect of life within a small Castilian village, and each relating to the location in which they were placed,” Dean and Millar write (86). João Penalva’s 1998 video work 336 PEK (336 Rivers) presents a landscape with altered colours that “bristles, as if with static, and yet appears relatively static itself, unchanging, we suspect, until we notice the strange spectral presence of people crossing the open space” (88). On the soundtrack, an actor tells stories, in Russian, which are subtitled on the screen. The rivers mentioned by the title are those that debouch into Lake Baikal in Siberia. For Penalva, Lake Baikal is the film’s main character, “an accumulation of folklore and myth, fed by cultural tributaries” (88). Danish artist Joachim Koester’s photographs of Poland’s Bialowieza Forest—which dates back to 6000 BC and “is the only remaining example of the primeval lowland forest that once covered much of Europe”—has for years “been a place that exists in the realm of mythology as much as geography” (90). For the 2001 Venice Biennale, Maurizio Cattelan built a replica of the iconic Hollywood sign and placed it on a hill in Palermo above the city dump. “The placing of a sign of imaginary escape overlooking a landscape made of the detritus of everyday life is a telling conjunction, perhaps even an act of transgression between myth and reality,” Dean and Millar suggest (94). Photographer Rodney Graham’s Aberdeen (2000), a tribute to the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, is a series of Aberdeen, Washington, Cobain’s place of birth, depicts a bizarre pilgrimage to a “dreary backwater” that becomes a form of shrine (98). The work of Alexander and Susan Maris documents Rannoch Moor in a variety of media, including text, photography, sound recording, film and digital video, in order “to develop a series of deconstructions based upon the historical documentation of Joseph Beuys’s two seminal journeys to the moor” (100). Belgian artist Luc Tuymans’s paintings explore his country’s colonial relationship with the place once known as the Belgian Congo; his work does not “make explicit any reading of the tragic events that make up the late colonial history of his native country, but rather turn their attention towards incidental details or events that suggest the violence and corruption of power that clearly took place” (102).
The fifth room, “Politics/Control,” begins with Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of a battle between miners and police during the 1984 miners’ strike in the UK, The Battle of Orgreave, which brought all of the issues at play during the strike, “still raw in the town’s collective memory, into the present,” highlighting both the divisions which still exist in the community, and the “tragic, nostalgic” point that the original battle was in vain, “as the march of global capital continues regardless” (106). German photographer Thomas Demand builds tableaux from paper and cardboard, “which seem at once familiar and yet devoid of identifying details,” representing places “taken from recent political events, although recreated without any of the distinguishing marks that might otherwise render them simple copies” (108). His short film Hot (Yard) presents a similarly anonymous story. “In Demand’s work, political events, part of both place and history, are reconstructed in such a manner that the specifics of both are erased,” Dean and Millar state, “leaving almost a pattern of political manoeuvres that can be stamped upon any situation” (108). Sharon Lockhart’s 1999 Teatro Amazonas is a 30-minute long, static shot of an audience in the Amazonas Theatre in Manaus, Brazil, a simple framework that belies the complexity of its engagement with colonial history and place and “the difficulties of all forms of representation” (110). Albanian artist Anri Salla’s 2003 Dammi i colori is a “subjective documentary” that examines “one aspect of the work of the flamboyant mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, the former artist Edi Rama”: “the painting of many crumbling apartment and office blocks in patterns of acidic yellows, greens and purples, which have become known as Edi Rama colours” (112). The 15-minute video, which features Sala travelling through the city at night along with the mayor, expresses a certain ambivalence about Rama’s belief in the power of art “to transform the world for the better” (112). Willie Doherty’s photographs emphasize the urban landscape of Derry “as one saturated with political meaning and conflict, where to walk form one place to another could be seen as an act of aggression or provocation, and as a consequence as either noble or foolhardy” (116). His 2000 film Extracts from a File displays Doherty moving around Berlin at night, capturing fragments of “a world glimpsed quickly through a viewfinder like an act of covert surveillance,” which we inevitably read in relation “to the Berlin of our imagination and memory, a city of films and photographs” (116). In The J-Street Project, photographer Susan Hiller photographically documented roads, streets, and paths in Germany whose names allude to the Jewish presence (118). Steve McQueen’s two related video works, Carib’s Leap and Western Deep, explore layerings of place as well. Carib’s Leap is shown on two screens: on the smaller one, we see small details of everyday life on the Caribbean island of Grenada, while on the larger, images of drifting clouds “are broken by the image of a man falling through the sky, unnoticed by those going about their everyday activities, much like Icarus’s plunge in Breughel’s painting The Fall of Icarus (1558)” (126). The video refers to an event in 1651, however, when “the native Caribs preferred to jump to their deaths from the cliffs—at a place now called Caribs’ Leap—rather than submit to the French” (126). In Western Deep, filmed inside a South African goldmine, is a documentary about “the wretched existence of the miners” as they work underground which suggest that the changes that have happened in that country “do not seem to have penetrated below its surface” (126).
Room six, “Territories,” begins with this statement: “The politics of place are made manifest through different groups’ territorial claims,” which are “the marks of ideology upon the earth” (133). Scottish artist Ross Sinclair reimagines what the architectural and philosophical structures of government and history might become (134). His 1999 installation Journey to the Edge of the World—The New Republic of St Kilda reflects on what we might learn from the way life was organized on the islands of St. Kilda, which before their evacuation in 1930 “were the most remote inhabited part of the United Kingdom” (134). The structures that constitute part of the work “possess a strong sense of ‘making do,’ of being temporary, of existing as long as is necessary but never so long that they might then dictate what is possible, or impossible” (134). The new parliament is “an area of stacked cardboard boxes, stepped, upon which people might sit and discuss the matter at hand” (134). Elsewhere a chalk map depicts the world rotated 180 degrees from its usual cartographic representation: “All is either upside-down or the wrong way around, and the only state of which we can be certain is the state of dislocation” (134). “Sinclair has succeeded in creating a space of simple constructions that construct something far more complex, a space that appears in some sense transient, and also a space of repository, where the St Kildan’s culture and spirit is kept safe, awaiting its chance to be used once more,” Dean and Millar write (134). Filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 2002 gallery installation From the Other Side explores life in Agua Prieta, a Mexican town across the border with Douglas, Arizona, “where Mexicans come and wait before making the hazardous journey into the mountains and deserts of Arizona” (138). “Here, place is transformed into territory, as the Immigration and Naturalization Services maintain an extraordinary vigilance over the terrain, employing visual technologies perfected during the first Gulf War to detect the passage of attempted immigrants, thereby pushing them further into more hostile environments,” Dean and Millar state (138). Residents of Douglas are interviewed, sometimes displaying their prejudices and fears, while a “live real-time broadcast from the region itself shows the desolate landscape, divided by a running fence, and subject to surveillance” (138). Kathy Prendergast’s 1999 map work, Lost, is a digital map of North America from which all place names and topographical information has been removed, except words beginning with the word “lost” (140). “The viewer is uncertain what is being described here: are these names of actual places, or descriptions of things that have now disappeared?” Dean and Millar ask. “With a great economy of means, Prendergast exposes the paradox that lies at the heart of the mapmaking process, and by extension any attempted understanding of the world around us: that what is found is seldom equivalent to what has been lost” (140).
In room seven, “Itinerancy,” I expected to find some walking art (not that there aren’t examples of walking art elsewhere in the book), and I was not disappointed. In addition to Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, in which volunteers moved a huge sand dune about four inches from its original position, Dean and Millar include Janet Cardiff’s audio-walks, works that they suggest hover “in an indefinable place somewhere between film theatre, radio, literature and performance art, borrowing from each discipline, but never fully inhabiting any one of them” (152). In these audio-walks, Cardiff writes a script and then performs it in a location, “inflecting it with the character of a specific place,” and all the time recording the spoken narrative on tape as she moves through the chosen locale” (152). When they are finished, they are then “re-presented within a gallery space,” with the spectator, “or ‘walker,’ needing headphones, a tape or disk player, and an environment in which to re-create the walk” (152). Cardiff’s own voice is “her own seductive signature style,” and she speaks directly to the participant:
As a result, the experience is like sharing someone else’s meditations or dreamlike thoughts. You feel the effects of loss, misrecognition, incomprehensibility, and the impossibility of communication. At the same time, the more involved you become, the more you realize that the power of these walks resides in your own perceptions. You are central to the story, because it happens in your head. You unwittingly become a performer who completes the circuit, both literally and metaphorically. (152)
Another mobile project is Shimbuku’s 2000 Cucumber Journey, a trip on a narrowboat along a canal, from London to Birmingham, during which the artist pickled vegetables. When he arrived in Birmingham, he gave the pickles to friends to eat. “The pickles will begin a new journey in people’s bodies,” he writes (156).
The book’s final room, “Heterotopias and Non-Places,” begins with American artist Allan Sekula and, in particular, his long-term project Fish Story, which “explored the movement of manufactured goods in container ships,” thereby revealing “the slow and massive movements that lay the foundations of global economics” (164). In his more recent Project for Yokohama, Sekula assembles a number of elements—“the fish market at Tsukiji, the US naval base and fisheries high school at Yokosuka, and a Frank Gehry-designed fish restaurant in Kobe”—“and assembled them with an intelligence and delicacy not dissimilar from the sushi chefs he found” (164). Yvan Salomone’s watercolour paintings of container ports display the artist’s fascination with the standardization of contemporary shipping, and his use of watercolour “is quite unique, with flat, almost graphic blocks of colour filling out the heavy forms of the scene, rather than the delicate build-up of shades one might expect” (166). Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss document airports in photographs. Stephen Hughes makes photographs “of places that seem to be on the edge,” whether that edge is a cost, or the edge of a city, or some other transient place “whose surfaces seem to bear the markings of time, yet upon which memory seems unable to cling” (172). “These are transitory spaces in a more fundamental sense too; not only do they disperse people or vehicles elsewhere, but they also seem to disperse themselves,” Dean and Millar write, suggesting that they are therefore “entropic spaces” whose elements “seem to have drifted together momentarily and, with the fall of the tide or the lifting of the mist, will drift apart once more” (172).
The book ends with a postscript, which includes a poem by W.S. Graham in memory of his friend Peter Lanyon, who was killed gliding over West Penwith in Cornwall, and, finally, the transcript of a roundtable conversation between Dean, Millar, art historian Joseph L. Koerner, and writer and art historian Simon Schama. It’s interesting, I suppose, but less so than the essay by Dean and Millar that begins the book.
So, what do I think? I think there are so many different ways to respond to place, and that perhaps I ought to be reading more about them—particularly ones that involve mobility, movement of some kind. I think I need to read Edward Casey’s big philosophical books on place, but at the same time I need to reread Doreen Massey’s book on space as well. This is, as Dean and Millar suggest a the book’s outset, a huge and complex topic, one that no single book can adequately explore.
Dean, Tacita, and Jeremy Millar. Art Works: Place, Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Kwon, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October no. 80, 1997, pp. 85-110.