PRINT March 1988


Whether in a gallery, museum, street, public setting, or private residence, the work of art always emerges from the site and from the human beings who occupy that site.

It is the site that provokes. It is out of site and in site that one sees. It is from site that the possibilities for the exhibition are born; that they draw, model, and form themselves. The site limits, presents, and presents itself. The site inspires, constrains, and liberates.

On building a place within a site

For my 1984 work for the Gewad, an alternative space in Gent, as for almost all such installations, the site opened the door to many possibilities (see sketches 1–12), and choosing from among them was difficult. I finally decided upon the only one (see sketches 13–20 and photos) that could function not only within and for the original site but also within and for any other potential site. This principle, a recent one in my work, theoretically asserts that the very elements that make up a particular piece can be adapted to function—with just some slight differences—in all other sites, while having perfectly articulated the original site that inspired the work. This piece, then, was born out of two spaces. On the one hand, it could not have been accomplished without taking into very precise account the host site (as I have done in all my work since 1965). On the other hand, this piece, by taking into account the possibility of other sites, in effect transformed that original site into another site foreign to it. This piece, both conceived and made in situ, thus became a locus itself. And thus the distinction between site and work was dissolved. Furthermore, site and work become so united that we can imagine, without risk of mistake, that the same structure, follow- ing the same principles of construction, reconstructed in another place whose perimeter and special characteristics it will fit, will produce a work that is visually different from and totally foreign to its original presentation.

How was this place constructed?
Constitution: Material Used/Visual Tool

a) Two models of stretchers; one model 140 centimeters wide by 280 centimeters high (ca. 56 inches by 111 inches), the other model 140 centimeters wide by 70 centimeters high (ca. 56 inches by 28 inches). (The widths of the stretchers were determined by the dimensions of the canvas that would cover them, and all dimensions were multiples of 70 centimeters (ca. 28 inches). (See sketch 21.)

b) One half of the total number of stretchers were then covered with white and red striped canvas; the other half with white and buff (unbleached) striped canvas.

Apparatus: Construction of place

a) I considered the space of the Gewad in its entirety; therefore, I included in my plans the small room adjoining the main one (see sketch 22).1 I then quartered this larger rectangle by means of two drawn diagonals—the axes along which the whole structure would rest. Parallel to these diagonals, I drew all the lines to be contained within the space, each separated from the preceding by 280 centimeters (ca. 112 inches), a number that corresponded both to the height of the tallest stretchers and to the distance between the middle of one passageway and the middle of the next (see sketch 13).

b) Along the lines that started from the longest diagonal, partitions/walls were installed. At the point where the partitions crossed the walls of the smaller adjoining room, they followed their course as if the walls truncating them did not exist. The other diagonal, uninterrupted, became the central corridor (the longest possible visual opening in the entire piece), visible in its entirety through the doorways/passageways (see sketch 22).

c) The partitions of the apparatus were installed in the following manner: one taller stretcher was elevated, linked at its top to a shorter stretcher of the same color (leaving a passageway beneath measuring 210 centimeters, or ca. 84 inches, in height); then another taller stretcher was elevated, linked at its top to a shorter, and so forth. In this way, we created a sequence of alternating filled and empty spaces across the room. At the same time, this organization positioned these alternating positive and negative spaces in such a way that the midpoint of each negative space (passageway/door) lined up with the previously drawn axis (opposing diagonal). Thus, all negative spaces between parallel partitions were aligned, spanning and punctuating the depth of the space. The junctions between each partition and the existing walls were always made with respect for the positive/negative/positive sequences established.

d) In this construction, all elements alternate. First, the most basic visual elements—white stripe, color stripe, white stripe, etc. Then, the defined spaces—positive space (wall), negative space (door), positive space (wall), etc. And then, the parallel walls themselves—white and red, white and buff, white and red, etc.

e) Finally, the partitions were linked, attached to one another by clamps, which made for speedy setting up and dismantling. And all the elements used in the construction (stretchers, clamps, canvas, etc.) were visible and integral parts of the apparatus, just as essential to the final work as the preexisting walls, the texture and color of the floor, the skylight and the light coming through it. Structure acting on site, site acting on structure—the entirety, in short, forming the “what there is to see.”

f) A last detail: wherever it was necessary for two half stripes of white canvas to compose a full stripe (i.e., whenever two stretchers met at the junction of two breadths of canvas), the resulting “seam” was covered by a layer of white acrylic paint. This layer of paint linked each element of the apparatus to its neighbor, camouflaged/covered the way the canvases were fastened to the stretchers, and lent a visual flow to the entire construction.

Though all of the elements of this piece are in fact elements of traditional painting (stretchers, canvas, paint), it is not possible to say that what we are talking about here is painting. Furthermore, although all of these elements are built to stand in a site, we cannot say that what we are talking about here is sculpture. And if all these elements create new visions of and volumes for a space, we still cannot say that this is architecture. And even though the entire apparatus can be approached as a decor that reveals both sides of itself depending on the movements and positions of visitors, so that those visitors become actors in a play without words, this nevertheless does not allow us to say that what we are talking about here is theater.

So what are we talking about, if not about painting, sculpture, architecture, or theater, since none of the territories proper to these domains can be seriously claimed? Each territory is lightly grazed, but just touched at its borders; at the same time, each territory keeps its distance from its neighbor, because the central concern is the site itself, the “skin.” What the work does have to do with is what it does. It makes a place in a site and a site in a place. It is from site, in site, through site that the work takes place, places itself, poses itself, exposes itself.

Work in situ in turn becomes site (transforming, transformed, transforming) so that from one place (places within place), two, three, four, or more may emerge. It is, then, smack in the middle of the place that things take place.

Daniel Buren

Translated from the French by Lisa Liebmann.



1. The solid red diagonals represent partitions; the dotted red diagonals represent the axis of the doors/passages that permit visual and physical access.