PRINT Summer 2005

Being There: Art and the Politics of Place

THREE ARTISTS ARE INTERVIEWED by Avalanche magazine. The sessions are conducted on various occasions in December 1968 and January 1969, the results published the following year. What do they talk about? Earthworks. And because the artists are those exemplary practitioners Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, their exchange seems to conform to now-predictable lines. Each man seems to be “in character,” which is to say that by the late ’60s each was pretty well prepared to lay down the tenets that guided his practice in the out-of-doors. By this time, Oppenheim had already made a cut in a California hillside and lines through deep Maine snow. Smithson and Heizer, by contrast, were still searching for their ideal locales.

The artists do not agree. Their dispute concerns the Earthwork’s site and its relationship to the gallery or, in the shorthand of the conversation, the “indoor-outdoor dialectic,” Smithson’s term, of course.

[AVALANCHE:] Would you agree with Smithson that you, Dennis, and Mike are involved in a dialectic between the outdoors and the gallery?

OPPENHEIM: I think that the outdoor/indoor relationship in my work is more subtle. I don’t really carry a gallery disturbance concept around with me; I leave that behind in the gallery. Occasionally I consider the gallery site as though it were some kind of hunting ground.

Then for you the two activities are quite separate?

OPPENHEIM: Yes, on the whole. There are areas where they begin to fuse, but generally when I’m outside I’m completely outside.

SMITHSON: I’ve thought this way too, Dennis. I’ve designed works for the outdoors only. But what I want to emphasize is that if you want to concentrate exclusively on the exterior, that’s fine, but you’re probably always going to come back to the interior in some manner.1

To read this exchange today is to encounter an idiom in the making: Take Oppenheim’s awkward “gallery disturbance concept” as an example of but one embryonic phrase. The idea of “coming back to the interior” is another, a bit of Smithson-speak that names the inevitable necessity of acknowledging the artwork as a real and ponderous object and likewise recognizing the commodity status of such a specialized thing. Yet although the phrase seems a trifle labored, it will not quite do to substitute another more polished (and nearly synonymous) Smithsonian concept, the “non-site,” without first noticing that this term, too, implicates the gallery as the locus of an inevitable return. So inevitable, in fact, that Smithson even suggests that landscape and gallery are coextensive. He may have been an inveterate traveler and self-conscious chronicler of every chapter in the journeys he took (“The bus turned off Highway 3, down Orient Way in Rutherford”; “The road went through butterfly swarms”; “Driving west on Highway 83 late in the afternoon, we passed through Corinne, then went on to Promontory”2), but he was also a realist. For even if he considered these journeys the “primary phase” of a work’s production, sooner or later the artist, plus an accumulation of maps, surveys, drawings, photographs, movie footage, and geological samples, turned around and headed for home. No matter where or how far you travel, the gallery cannot (and should not) be left behind.

If Heizer did not agree with this necessity, one reason (though not the only one) was his belief that “the work [of art] is not put in a place, it is that place.” The statement cries out for emphasis: “The work of art is not put in a place, it is that place.” Yet even with italics provided, it’s still hard to decide whether the idea is hopelessly utopian or merely practical, something like a committed statement of the truth. What does it mean for a work of art to be a place? What then happens to the work of art? Erasure or expansion? Or both? And what about the place? On what map does the new hybrid appear? Where might we track it down?

One of the best reflections on site and artwork was provided in 1977 by Nancy Holt. It took the form of an Artforum article that laid out what went into the making of Sun Tunnels, 1973–76, the four massive concrete culverts she carefully positioned in a Utah valley on a forty-acre plot of land.3 (Together they form a cumbersome camera, an enormous viewing device to record nothing less than the passage of celestial time.) Holt’s essay details the two-year production process, soup to nuts. Pretty much everything gets straightforwardly described, including how and by whom the work was made. You can tell she never dreamed that so many people would be involved. Here is her list: “2 engineers, 1 astrophysicist, 1 astronomer, 1 surveyor and his assistant, 1 road grader, 2 dump truck operators, 1 carpenter, 3 ditch diggers, 1 concrete mixing truck operator, 1 concrete foreman, 10 concrete pipe company workers, 2 core-drillers, 4 truck drivers, 1 crane operator, 1 rigger, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen, 1 helicopter pilot, and 4 photography lab workers.” The total number, including Holt, is forty-two, which in the Utah of 1977 was more than four times the total population of Lucin, the nearest town (no one at all lives there today). No wonder Holt concludes her summary by declaring, “In making the arrangements and contracting out the work, I became more extended into the world than I’ve ever been before.”

Such self-extension concerns not an artist’s body traveling through space (“we passed through Corinne”), nor an artist’s work becoming a place (though anyone who has visited Sun Tunnels would certainly see it that way), but rather the artist’s work directing, even becoming, the labor of others through a process of production that could only be contracted out. Such work had economic implications; it required time sheets and balance sheets, and its participants kept tabs on any profit or loss.

Who can say why it fell to Holt, as opposed to Smithson or Heizer, to sum up an Earthwork in just these terms? The reason does not lie in her special alertness toward those economic relationships that have always positioned the artwork but instead, presumably, in the special and unfamiliar sense of self-extension her words record. The artist senses her collaborators as quasi prostheses, expanding her presence in and maybe even her grasp on the surrounding world. Mind and place and body: All are somehow aligned. And for Holt, they still are. She still owns both tunnels and site and periodically pays them a visit, camping out to see the sunrise and inspecting the wear and tear: Lucin is remote, but marksmen and skateboarders still manage to leave traces that fall to her to tidy up. Of course, this modest maintenance scheme is dwarfed by current curatorial efforts on behalf of other Earthworks. Discussion of potentially raising the level of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, is only one case in point. But even this might pale beside the effort and money expended so Heizer can realize his City, 1970–, or so Christo could bedeck Central Park with The Gates, 1979–2005. Instead of the spectacle of sunrise, there are mastabas and ripstop nylon, plus a whole new understanding of what makes for spectacle as well as when, where, and for whom.

One reason to turn back to Holt and Heizer, Oppenheim and Smithson is because their testimony registers the emergence of a set of problems and issues that have not gone away. They speak to the complex new spatialization of art since the ’60s and to the resultant complications of where and what the artwork is. Spatialization is not the same as globalization, though the two notions have clearly been connected in recent years—perhaps misleadingly. Again, it helps to have recourse to Smithson to explain the former term. To sum up the difference between the art of “an Anthony Caro” and that of his cronies, Smithson employs a simple formula: “Anthony Caro never thought about the ground his work stands on.” Ground here means soil or surface or floor or pavement, certainly. But it also means reason, basis, or assumption. Here is where Caro falls short. For to attend to spatialization is to reground the work on both physical and conceptual terrain. It is to think locally and economically, as Holt did; to grasp the new dialectic between place and artwork, following Heizer; and, in light of Smithson, to acknowledge that gallery and landscape and even the artist’s travels are ultimately coextensive, even if only while the artist is alive.

Let’s imagine a roundtable like the one launched by Avalanche taking place today. A few artists gather around a table, no doubt some curators, too. For me, the central issue where art and site are concerned is a new economy of scale. Now there are traveling artists aplenty: a whole class of “itinerants” or “nomads” (as described by Miwon Kwon), whose wanderings make Smithson look like a shut-in.4 The new badge of belonging is the airline ticket (hopefully business class), so it’s no wonder that Gabriel Orozco found in such talismanic remainders the perfect materials for tongue-in-cheek collage. Jac Leirner, for her part, has paired boarding passes with airplane ashtrays (those obsolete objects), both against a Bubble Wrap background. It is as if the artwork were quite prepared to pack itself.

But if the new nomads need tickets they also need destinations, as well as far-flung collections and collectors ready and waiting to support their work. At least some borders have opened: As Brazilian magnate and collector Bernardo Paz recently put it, “I can’t understand a world divided into foreign and Brazilian artists. Humanity prevails over cultural differences, especially today in our globalized world.”5 His Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim (CACI) will officially open to the public in October 2006, just outside the quiet town of Brumadinho and thirty-seven miles from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the northeastern state of Minas Gerais. (Not on most maps, Inhotim is a cluster of dwellings, many of them housing CACI’s hundred-person staff.) CACI comprises seventy-five acres of tropical gardens, with the potential for expansion into thousands more. There, Paz envisions “the possibility of creating specific conditions for the exhibition of works of art” so as to “participate in, and in some way to contribute to, the creative process of the artists, in particular challenging them with a unique context for their works.”6

I think it is worth weighing Paz’s statements. Something about them sounds somehow different, if not precisely new. The distinction does not lie in a now all-too-familiar allegiance to the global over the national, though no doubt these words resonate rather differently in São Paolo than in London or New York. Instead, it is to be found in the newly described “nature” of the site: No longer an isolated salt flat or mesa, the terrain is a garden that dozens of keepers tend with care. It’s to this quite particular environment that artists will be invited—challenged—to adapt their ideas and works. The plan is to create a high-end development complete with artworks, possibly including a designer golf course, spa, and condominiums.

In February of this year I traveled to CACI, where I met its curators and owner and toured its collection and grounds. As of my visit, no works had been made specifically for the garden; instead, existing objects, along with their designers, had been imported, their sites sometimes (though not always) chosen with their makers’ help. By the lake, a 2002 Dan Graham pavilion reflects the clouds and palms and grasses. In a dark dell sits (improbably) a snow-white igloo made of fiberglass; within the pitch-black interior rises a single jet of water, each drop and plash arrested into visibility by a pulsing strobe. This 1996 work by Olafur Eliasson bears the only partly ironic title By Means of a Sudden Intuitive Realization, Show Me Your Perception of Presence. Indeed. Only in retrospect did it occur to me how well both the work and its title fit with the vision of a tropical idyll that Paz has brought to be. How appropriate that to “really” see the play of these drops of water we need a pump, a fiberglass igloo, plastic sheeting, electricity, and a tirelessly flashing strobe. Isn’t there something in Eliasson’s artifice that summons CACI itself? Here is a confrontation with “nature” that is, in fact, all culture, all planning, all technology. No wonder that for the water to be visible, its surroundings must be closed out.

As I was leaving CACI, Paz urged me to talk about the place, the collection, and my visit once I had made my way back home. At the time, I had no idea what I might say or to whom. Now, reading back through Holt, Heizer, and the others, I’ve discovered what I think should be registered in response: A place like CACI (assuming there are others like it) opens again the spatial issues that artists in the ’70s tried to think about, remarkably enough, through their Earthworks. (Remarkably, for surely mounds, cuts, and jetties are not the only forms that could have done the job.) These issues concern how art intersects with its surroundings when those surroundings both literalize and metaphorize the problem of art’s place in the world. They address center and periphery and raise the question of how an artwork might rearrange or suspend that shopworn binary by the mere fact of its physical being: When you start thinking globally, being on axis is less difficult than one might think. They realize, and thus make visible, the limits on the artist’s body as well as the parameters of her expertise. They admit to economic relationships. All this is in some way a function of simply being there. What Paz’s experiment demonstrates, however, is that there both involves a concrete reality and summons a point of view. What is most striking about his pronouncements is how urgently they insist that there’s a there there: The “specific conditions and unique context” he offers are both a promise and a threat. Could we have ever imagined otherwise? Can we mistake the urgent assertiveness of Paz’s point of view? His is not an imaginary elsewhere, to which artists simply bring personal visions or long-held dreams. Which is to say that CACI is hardly Lucin, let alone Rozel Point. What it has in common with those earlier artistic destinations, however, is simple. The demands of any site always translate into a politics steeped in the realities of place.

Anne M. Wagner is professor of modern art at the University of California, Berkeley.


1. Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp, “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche 1 (Fall 1970), as reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam, ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 242–43. Further quotations of these artists are taken from this interview, unless otherwise noted.

2. Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in The Collected Writings, 69. Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan [1969],” in The Collected Writings, 122. Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty [1972],” in The Collected Writings, 145.

3. Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels,” Artforum, April 1977, 32–37.

4. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

5. Marc Spiegler, “Focus on Nations: Latin America. Dealers bone up on their Spanish as market develops,” The Art Newspaper, Dec. 3, 2004. Accessed online at

6. Brochure published by CACI, December 2004.