New York

Renée Green

Pat Hearn Gallery

Renée Green’s most recent installation, Partially Buried, 1996, worked both sides of Walter Benjamin’s well-worn dictum: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.” Both sides, for Green’s installation functioned at once as an allegory of the current status and effectiveness of “site-specific” practices as well as a complex documentation of an actual art-historical ruin, Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970. Constructed as an illustration of the process of entropy, Smithson dumped earth on a woodshed standing on the Kent State University campus to the point that its central beam cracked. Soon afterward, the infamous Kent State massacre turned Smithson’s “non-monument” into a full-blown monument; this status, however, was short-lived. Only a few years later, the woodshed’s central beam completely collapsed, the university quietly had the mess and its attendant memories cleared, and the Woodshed’s dedication to entropy shifted from allegorical image to reality. Today, as Green displayed in both photographs and videos, its site has been literally effaced by a ramble of shrubbery and natural growth. “In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting,” Benjamin continues. “In the process of decay, and in it alone, the events of history shrivel up and become absorbed in the setting.”

While documenting the decay, Partially Buried did all it could to combat this “shriveling up” of history not only by taking up Smithson’s piece as her subject but by utilizing his dialectic of site/nonsite as the installation’s governing format. The gallery was transformed into an elaborate “nonsite” mapping various interwoven sites and trajectories, only one of which was Woodshed’s actual Kent State location. Upon entering the gallery one was confronted with three objects on a table: an aerial photograph of the Kent State campus, a group of James Michener bestsellers collected in Ohio, and several fragments of the Woodshed itself in a Plexiglas container (literalizing, in a way, Smithson’s onetime definition of the nonsite as a “fragment of a greater fragmentation”). On facing walls in the main gallery, Green then staged a stark confrontation between two series of photographs: on one wall, an aleatory sequence of color photographs documenting Green’s own travel to, around, and through the Kent State campus; on the other, black and white, rephotographed images from the pages of Michener’s best-seller about the massacre. The stress, in the color photographs, on the bodily and experiential dimension of Green’s exploration of the effaced site stood opposed to the deadpan Michener shots. This dialectic between the organic and the mediated, between the body and the media, has become one of Green’s great subjects of late: here, in the back room of the gallery, one discovered along with any number of mediated techniques for the registration of events—books, records, films, videos, CD-ROMs—that Kent State was a place of more personal memories for Green (she is from Ohio, and in 1970 her mother was an experimental music student at the university).

The critical gambit of Green’s return to Smithson was itself self-consciously questioned within the installation by several elements that highlighted the return of ’60s and ’70s radicality within the space of fashion (e.g., in a series of allegorical images, a Dolce e Gabbana advertisement celebrating the “afro” entered into dialogue both with Green’s Import/Export Funk Office, and Angela Davis’ criminal status at the time of Smithson’s construction). Furthermore, rather than simply “return” to the strategies of Smithson, Green seemed to reverse the original polarities of the site/nonsite dialectic, deemphasizing Smithson’s literalist concentration on the physical site in a time of increasing bureaucratic administration and media infiltration. “Can’t the nonsite be a place of ‘production’?” Green asked in one of her videos. “Must it be dead compared to the site? Was the site also dead?” Green’s move to privilege Smithson’s conception of the nonsite as a critique of the limitations of traditional site-specific practices thus finds its place alongside other recent reconfigurations (e.g., by Christian Philipp Müller and Tom Burr) of this same legacy. Thinking of Smithson’s entropic projects, Craig Owens once characterized the typical site-specific work of the late ’60s as an “emblem of transience,” the “memento mori of the twentieth century.” Green capitalized on this assessment—but if her installation enacted the entropy of anything, it was of the insufficient art-historical category of the site-specific itself, with a claim for its present dissolution, and a call for the opening up of new, and as yet thankfully nameless strategies.

George Baker