9.‘The Places in which Meanings Are Defined’

      Site-specific Art and its Relationships with the Institution



As monarchies and aristocracies began to be uprooted and replaced, the artwork that traditionally adorned their palaces and country houses slowly made its way into the institutions we know as museums. Collections of various pieces that were deemed by connoisseurs to be of value were documented and displayed in buildings with the purpose of guiding the visitor from room to room to admire two-dimensional works or classical sculpture. Work was often displayed chronologically, by artist or by style. Though the visitors are not viewing the art in its intended surroundings, museums have been designed to become the permanent home for these pieces.  The art that finds its way into exhibitions at contemporary galleries may well have been produced to reside in a gallery space. Installations are a specific example of this. But in all these works, from fragments of ancient sculpture to conceptual installations, the actual present location of the work has little or no bearing on the meaning derived from it, from what country it is in, down to its position on the wall. The piece could be relocated to another gallery and the meaning would remain the same. The institution of the museum thus becomes the authoritative centre of art. It can capitalize on certain pieces it acquires through entry fees and merchandise, and it can loan it to other galleries. It becomes the house of permanence and conservation, as well as the centre of discourse related to art.

The emergence of site-specific art in the 1960s complicated the relationship between art and institution. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use Nick Kaye’s description of site-specific art as “practices which articulate exchanges between the work of art and the places in which its meanings are defined.”[1] Miwon Kwon associates the early site-specific works of the 1960s and 1970s with anti-idealist and anti-commercial efforts,[2] taking art out of the gallery and latching it onto its outer environment, its meaning derived from the circulation between art and site. Site-specific art began as a kind of rejection of the institutions of art and the galleries that housed it. In a lecture he gave at Yale University, artist Richard Serra stated that site-specific art, “should maintain a critical presence or difference in relation to its context and not be co-opted either as decoration or as reinforcement of any institutional purpose.”[3] But over the decades, site-specific art has grown to become much more complex than that by pushing the limitations of art institutions, complicating the idea of permanence, and causing the work to become self-referential.

Earthworks were among the early modes of site-specificity, being built into or carved out of the land. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative of 1969 falls into the latter category. For this piece, Heizer gouged out two trenches facing each other in the Nevada desert. This was a rejection of the consumer-ridden world in which art had become a commodity to be bought and sold. It signalled a shift in attitudes toward the institutions of art.[4] Heizer’s work, in theory, could not be subjected to the grip of capitalism. Not only was it out of the hands of the gallery, but Double Negative did not even tangibly exist; it was the result of subtraction, of taking something away. Heizer, it seemed, had managed to break the institution’s relationship with site-specific art.

However, the reality proved to be much more complicated. Heizer had caught himself in a contradiction. In this effort to separate art from consumerism, he had received funding from the Dwan Gallery in New York which would have most likely procured this money from the buying and selling of art.[5] The result of this venture into site-specific art marked the beginning of a stretching and tangling of relationships between art, semiotics and the institution.

Robert Smithson, best known for his Spiral Jetty of 1970, emphasizes the dimension of time that applies to the theory of site-specificity. He sees traditional non-site-specific art as being perpetual and “timeless” when in the context of institutions. He claims that, “the mental process of the artist which takes place in time is disowned, so that a commodity value can be maintained by a system independent of the artist.”[6] If we look at the various functions of museums, we see that a large amount of work goes into preservation. Any visitor to a major art museum will be bound to notice the monitors reading out humidity levels, the signs begging for no flash photography, and the notes of apology replacing works undergoing conservation. It is in the interests of art institutions to maintain the state of works of art. Museums will catalogue and reproduce art in all kinds of forms to give a certain kind of permanence to it. This is because traditional works are small enough and defined enough to be able to be housed and kept safe away from any possible damage, fading or disintegration.

With many of Smithson’s works in the early 1970s, the element of time becomes all the more evident in the way that his site-specific pieces are abandoned to break down and be reclaimed by the earth. The museum represents permanence, robbing the art of its context in time for commodity’s sake. Site-specific art, as Robert Morris notes, “becomes an emblem of transience.”[7] Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed of 1970 involved burying an old woodshed on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio with twenty truckloads of dirt until its central beam collapsed. Upon donating it and its surrounding area to the university, he specified that nothing was to be altered or removed from it and to let natural weathering take its course.[8] This introduces to site-specific art the aspect of entropy – the natural dissipation of energy in the universe.[9] Smithson’s Woodshed was left to slowly disintegrate and collapse on its own, gaining meaning from the site and slipping back into the site all at once. It was never intended to be a permanent piece the way Smithson left it after his direct involvement. Rather, it was to become an ongoing performative work with the added impact of being able to visibly witness the effect of time on the piece.

Especially in the case of Smithson’s works, an integral matter for site-specific art is what happens when an outward force attempts to move or protect it. The principle here is that the institutions of art cannot lay claim to it without essentially draining its inherent meaning. Whereas most works of art in a museum gain their meaning from their context in history, their provenance, the artist, their style, and what discourses come of them, Partially Buried Woodshed is meant to extract its meaning from its environment and the passage of time. Its meaning was changed when Smithson’s intentions for the work were interfered with for the next fourteen years of its existence.[10] After the shooting incident of May 4, 1970, someone added graffiti to the shed that read “MAY 4 KENT 70,” inadvertently giving it status as a monument to the event. Despite Smithson’s directions to the university that the work was not to be touched, it was slated for demolition due to its status as an “eyesore” on campus. Even after it was partially burned as the result of a Molotov cocktail, occurring after Smithson’s accidental death in 1973, his widow, Nancy Holt, lobbied for the work to be preserved. All of these efforts are related to institutional attitudes towards art, namely the decisions concerning a work and whether it is deemed to be of historical or monetary significance. Partially Buried Woodshed was eventually mechanically dismantled.

A few months after the creation of Partially Burned Woodshed, Smithson went to Utah to create Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake. Again, his theory of entropy and degradation was challenged by the art world’s desire to perpetuate art. The earthwork is now only visible when the water of the lake drops below a certain level, and due to natural processes the work has become discoloured from what Smithson had originally created. One of the most notable aspects of Spiral Jetty is the amount of documentation that was done of its production and of the finished project. Clark Lunberry claims that, “it has been photography that has most powerfully, pragmatically prolonged the life and sustained the legend of Smithson and his Spiral Jetty.[11] He suggests that all the documentation surrounding the work, including photography, film, discourse, and the work itself, results in multiple “Spiral Jetties” that refer to one another, and that, despite it appearing to be a site-specific work, it somehow becomes “dislocated” within its documentation because the earthwork itself has disappeared beneath the water.[12] So while it seems that the earthwork was taking place outside of the institution, it was actually following quite closely in the footsteps of other, non-site-specific works, especially those that have been lost to the ages but continue to survive through copies and discourse.

An added benefit of the documentation of site-specific work to the institutions of art is that although the works themselves are often unable to be framed, boxed, copied, packaged and sold like the millions of merchandise found in gallery gift shops, the documentation becomes the commodity. There are now hundreds of sources where one can purchase photographic prints of images of Spiral Jetty, as well as many books and articles discussing the piece. Documentation captures traces of site-specific works to perpetuate them long after the work itself has disintegrated or been destroyed. Though the art itself is out of the hands of the museums, it could be said that the “spirit” of the work lives on through them, and that the work becomes dependent on institutions to survive. In a way, this gives the work another layer of meaning because its environment is no longer limited to the physicality of the site. The work is split into two existences: the physical, decaying existence occupying a geographical location at a point in time, and the perpetuated documented existence over which art institutions have control.

We mentioned before the idea of framing in the context of site specific art. Prior to the late 1960s, art was an object that could be hung on a wall or placed on a plinth. The intrinsic quality of site-specific art is that it draws so much of its meaning from its environment, and thus cannot be boxed off from it unless its meaning is to be altered. For example, Double Negative cannot possibly be framed because the boundary between the art and the landscape cannot be defined. It is at once present in the moment, and yet it is really just an indexical sign imprinted from a past process. Spiral Jetty, if somehow removed from the Great Salt Lake into which it was constructed, would no longer be a jetty, let alone would it be self-referential to the site. Often the art is created on a massive scale, so it becomes impossible to frame as a result of its sheer size.

The issue with framing creates a problem for the integration of the works into a gallery setting. Without significantly truncating the work or changing the meaning it gains from its site, the museum cannot buy, sell, or loan a site-specific work like it might a painting or a small-scale sculpture. Art institutions have responded to this in the same way they responded to the theory of entropy and degradation: to document the art by blueprints or photographs that can be framed. Thus documentation becomes the institution’s solution to capitalizing on a work that cannot be physically internalized by the gallery, but instead is intended to gain meaning from the performative aspect of its natural degradation.

It seems a common theme with site-specific art is that no matter how hard it strives to separate itself from the institutions of art, it is always being directed back to them through funding, documentation and preservation. But what happens when the site-specific art is site-specific to the gallery? What meanings can be drawn from the “white cube” of the institution? In essence, it becomes self-referential, a sort of mirror image of a mirror image that has infinite layers.

Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Le Stanze (The Rooms) was a series of installations at the Christian Stein Gallery in Turin between 1975 and 1976 that made use of mirrors and Plexiglas as a kind of art site-specific to the gallery itself. Unlike previous site-specific works that attempted to shatter the illusion of the museum as a textless space by moving outside it, The Rooms invades the gallery space itself to make the viewer become aware of what Kaye calls the “gallery’s claim to neutrality and denial of content.”[13] When experiencing his work, the viewer sees the three rooms of the gallery reflected back towards them through a mirror in the final room. The viewer becomes aware of the space they walk through. Therefore, what was once regarded as a neutral space that did not hold the power to influence the art within it actually becomes art in itself. The work is self-referential within its space in the gallery. Pistoletto emphasizes the site-specific aspect of this work in that it could not be relocated “without relegating it again to the status of a mere mirror.”[14]

Smithson’s series of Non-Sites in 1968 turns the idea of site-specificity on its head. He gathered bits of stone and rubble from a site and placed them in a bin, which he then placed within a gallery space. Included with the material was documentation and description of the sites from which it came. Kaye suggests that these works “expose the limits and operation of the gallery itself” because they involve gathering the fragments from the site in order to be within the gallery.[15] Instead of being site-specific to the gallery or to another site, the work is a sign of the site. It engages in a dialogue with the site from which it has been removed and, like Pistoletto’s series, makes the viewer notice the gallery space. Unlike a site-specific artwork in which the viewer becomes aware of the space by being immersed within it, Non-Sites emphasizes that the material is displaced from the site. In being boxed up and set in a gallery, the material can no longer engage in the circular dialogue it would have participated in had it been gathered and set up at the site itself. In this case, it is the separation of art and site that causes one to be aware of the isolating effects of the gallery.

Perhaps the most important development in the concept of site-specific art over the last few decades has been the exhibition of what Kwon calls “new originals.”[16] In the early 1990s, old site-specific works had begun to resurface by means of refabrication near their original sites or by relocation to new sites. Kwon emphasizes this shift from “unrepeatability” to what Susan Hapgood refers to as “movable under the right circumstances.”[17] The problem that arises here is that all of a sudden this form of art that in its very definition is to be an unrepeatable, unmovable thing, becomes an art object which can be moved, loaned, and displayed in a context different from that for which it was originally intended. As Kwon says, the site-specific work now becomes a direct commodity, almost playing directly into the hands of the institution which can then take advantage of the newly “freed” art and apply new meanings to it. Once rebuilt or moved, the meaning of the work is changed, even if erected at a similar site to where it first stood. If Partially Buried Woodshed were to be rebuilt within the grove of trees on the Kent State University campus, the meaning it gained from its original existence would somehow be erased as it was part of the life of that work that it was slowly vandalized, hidden and dismantled. It would lose its performative element and simply become a replica of a past work. Thus, an art work that would have been created for a specific site in a specific moment or length of time can now be re-created for a different site in any moment of time. It has the potential to become a travelling installation that no longer performs a critique of the art institution, but rather, as Kwon thinks, it represents criticality.[18]

The relationship between the institution and site-specific art has continued to be complex and dynamic since its beginnings in the late 1960s when site-specific art emerged on the scene as a form of rejection of the gallery space. Artists working with site-specific installations have often rejected the principles of the museum, created work that becomes self-referential, and experimented with notions of entropy and permanence. Site-specific art represents an ongoing critique of the institution and the limits and meanings imposed by them onto the art they contain. Like the path of Spiral Jetty, the relationship between art and the institutions has spiralled. The two sides always remain somewhat at odds with each other, and yet, at the same time, their relationship appears to continually grow closer. Whether it is located somewhere out in the Nevada desert or simply placed within the walls of the gallery itself, site-specific art gains great contextual meaning from its relationship with the institution.



1. Nick Kaye, Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation. (London: Routledge, 2000),65.

2. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002), 33.

3. Richard Serra ‘The Yale Lecture’ in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 1096.

4. Thomas Buser, Experiencing Art Around Us. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006)., 258.

5. Buser, 258.

6. Robert Smithson, ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood  (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 880.

7. Robert Morris, ‘Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects’ in Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood  (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 1026.

8. Ann Morris Reynolds and Robert Smithson, Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2004), 195.

9. Pamela M. Lee and Gordon Matta-Clark, Objects to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark, (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001), 39.

10. John Fitzgerald O’Hara, ‘Kent State/May 4 and Postwar Memory’, American Quarterly 58 (2006), 301-328.

11. Clark Lunberry, ‘Quiet Catastrophe: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Vanished’, Discourse 24 (2002), 86-120.

12. Lunberry,,89.

13. Kaye, 27.

14. Michelangelo Pistoletto, ‘The Rooms’ in Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation. (London: Routledge, 2000), 62.

15. Kaye, 93.

16. Kwon, 35.

17. Susan Hapgood, ‘Remaking Art History’, Art in America 78 (1990), 115-122.

18. Kwon, 38.




Buser, Thomas. Experiencing Art Around Us. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth,

Hapgood, Susan. “Remaking Art History.” Art in America,78 (1990) 115-122.

Kaye, Nick. Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation. London:
Routledge, 2000.

Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity.

Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002.

Lee, Pamela M. and Gordon Matta-Clark. Objects to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon
Matta-Clark. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2001.

Lunberry, Clark. “Quiet Catastrophe: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Vanished.”
Discourse 24 (2002) 86-120.

Morris, Robert. “Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects.” In Art in Theory, 1900-2000:
An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 881-885. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

O’Hara, John Fitzgerald. “Kent State/May 4 and Postwar Memory.” American Quarterly
58 (2006): 301-328.

Reynolds, Ann Morris and Robert Smithson. Robert Smithson: Learning from New
Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2004.

Serra, Richard. “The Yale Lecture.” In Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of
Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1096-1099. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers, 2003.

Smithson, Robert. “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” In Art in Theory,
1900- 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 877-881. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.



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Andrea Wishart is in her final year of an Honours Specialization in Biology with a Minor in Art History & Criticism at the University of Western Ontario. She spent her third year on exchange in Europe, traveling extensively while studying at the University of Leeds in England, where this essay was written.