[-empyre-] Nonsite as rupture

John Haber jhaber at haberarts.com
Sat Jan 12 11:54:50 EST 2008

Let me pick up where I left off, with apologies for not understanding 
that Christina was posting a start for me. Of course, you have to live 
with my version, because writers are more self-involved than artists, 
who have to live with nonsite and displacement. Anyhow I said I wanted 
to begin with a point of rediscovery, with Robert Smithson, Gordon 
Matta-Clark, some retrospectives, and some definitions.

Smithson liked deductive logic and formal systems well enough, so long 
as others took care of them. His spiral of earth, slowly sinking into 
the Great Salt Lake, could almost parody a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. But 
had he foreseen a digital universe, would he ever have entered the gallery?

Smithson did enter the gallery, of course, where his work has a notably 
low-tech and strikingly physical presence -- even in the mirror. His 
"Enantiomorphic Chambers," like his arrays of mirrors amid salt and 
rubble, could almost make a mockery of conceptual art. As for fancier 
algorithms underlying digital art now, better bury them with an 
old-fashioned steam shovel before they get out of hand.

It takes chance, in the collision of millions upon millions of 
molecules, to produce his beloved entropy and the arrow of time. It 
takes a serious rupture of gallery and museum walls to create 
earthworks, the mark of the creative artist on the landscape. It takes a 
more subtle breach to invent nonsites, the presence of the landscape 
within a gallery. It takes a certain permeability between artist, 
object, nature, and human history to suffer either then to take its 
course. "Spiral Jetty" now makes its reappearance from time to time 
after many years underwater, and I hardly know whether to thank 
happenstance, patterns of water use, or global warming.
For those more attached to round numbers, however, Smithson would have 
turned seventy with the new year -- or, more exactly, January 2. (The 
law of large numbers means some slippage.) He will have died thirty-five 
years ago this July. Matta-Clark, another site-specific artist who 
labored hard to destroy a site, was born and died precisely five years 
after him. Both also had retrospectives in the last three years, at the 
very same New York museum, and it might disappoint them both to spot a 
trend, rather than mere coincidence. Sites and nonsites are where the 
action is.

Why the sudden revival of two late artists devoted to site and nonsite? 
Why the interest in a couple of fragmentary careers devoted to leaving 
fragmentary evidence? In the posts to follow, I plan to explore just 
that, recognizing but not privileging information technology and new 
media. I shall focus on what has changed since their time, in order to 
get at reasonable criticism of site and nonsite for art today. I shall 
argue that it helps pinpoint additional reasons for the terms' relevance.

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