[-empyre-] Nonsite as fashion trend

John Haber jhaber at haberarts.com
Mon Jan 14 02:37:13 EST 2008

As we have seen thus far, nonsite and site-specific art call in question 
distinctions critical to traditional definitions of art. This post, 
however, will present some challenges to their critical potential. Some 
echo a typically conservative criticism of contemporary art, as 
politically overloaded, self-indulgent, or in need of a return to beauty 
and common sense. On the other hand, that co-exists with some more 
useful criticism, related more specifically to site, nonsite, and 
gallery and museum practices. I don't want to leave you with just the 
shallow part, so pardon me for a longer post, and thus just the one today.

As so many have insisted, site and nonsite call in question the 
distinctions between process and product, the art object and its 
destruction, artist and audience, nature and culture, and the gallery as 
opposed to locations not so uniquely devoted to experiencing or selling 
art. And again, this critique has continued relevance -- and not just to 
digital media. It acts itself out through prestigious works, 
installations, and institutions now. When Exit Art reopened on Tenth 
Avenue in 2003 the same day as artists set to work, with "The 
Reconstruction," it was asking where the work of art ends and the art 
institution begins. Not quite five years later, the arrow of time has 
become art's fashion trend.

That overwhelming presence, however, points to a problem that has faced 
every version of Modernism or Postmodernism: what sustains a critique -- 
especially a political or historical critique couched in relatively 
abstract terms of sculpture, time, and space? "Has Modernism failed?" 
Either it succeeds or it fails, and either way it loses its relevance 
and stands marked by failure. The paradox of art after the end of art, 
with higher and higher prices, has itself become a cliché. Yet it 
is also a seriously unfair cliché, since "failure" presupposes 
art as goal directed, with millenarian goals.

One such familiar complaint about contemporary art, by Suzi Gablik, ends 
in an explicit plea for transcendent values. I keep returning to art, 
like to philosophy, without expecting any. However, the notions of site 
and nonsite run into particular dilemmas. These parallel the paradox 
surrounding a temporal disruption: the new terms mark a rupture in the 
gallery walls, one in turn predicated on their existence in the first 
place. The growth of noisy, pricy installations shows the limits of that 
assumption now. When digital artists such as John F. Simon, Jr., or 
Casey Reas make some of their best work available free online, they can 
seem less like pioneers than a rearguard action.

First, nonsite becomes less disruptive once galleries have learned to 
absorb anything -- and the more the better. How better to legitimize the 
artist as mythmaker than by creative destruction of a gallery? How 
better to grab the viewer hesitating between the hundreds of Chelsea 
galleries than by literally and figuratively making a scene? How better 
to create enough art objects to keep up with the market? Second, 
galleries and museums now also routinely sponsor earthworks and other 
art off-site, from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to Dia in 
America's south and west. Third, galleries have become less a site than 
a venue in global markets, with multinational locations, online images, 
and booths in the almost unending art fairs.

New media can partake of all these. It brings remote images and new 
physical materials into galleries, extends a gallery's sponsorship 
elsewhere, and makes both an emblem of the age of globalization. When 
Emily Jacir projects convenience stores in the Middle East and America 
side by side, or when Chen Chieh-Jen populates abandoned factories in 
Taiwan, they make globalization explicit. It also has even less 
resemblance to Smithson's geometric bins for rubble too heavy for 
individuals to break. Not coincidentally, video is aspiring to higher 
and higher production values. I, for one, found it disconcerting when 
the black refugees washed up on shore in Isaac Julien's latest video 
seemed to belong to the bright colors, high definition, open vistas, and 
languorous pace of a commercial for European travel.

I do not mean that Jean Baudrillard's vision -- itself too apocalyptic 
and too reassuringly a closed ending -- has come true, even if a world 
of images has appeal for new media. If anything, the art object has 
returned with a vengeance. Nor do I mean that art has sold out to 
commodity culture. Rather, capitalism, artists, and new media are all 
powerful agents of transformation, and when they happen to work 
simultaneously, things get hairy. Once a gallery extends everywhere and 
nowhere, then, has the concept of nonsite found its fulfillment, or has 
the distinction between site and nonsite simply gone out the window? In 
a kind of conclusion, I shall argue that the question itself has given 
the concepts at hand new relevance.

More information about the empyre mailing list