[-empyre-] The Site of Anxieties

John Haber jhaber at haberarts.com
Tue Jan 15 03:02:33 EST 2008

Well, you have been very patient, and I promise that I am actually
reaching an end -- more or less, given that we are discussing the very
possibility of closure. In the previous segment, I suggested that while
contemporary practices reflect the urgency of site-specific art and
nonsite, there is simultaneously an erosion of distinctions between
them. Moreover, while it stems in part from some forgetable art, it is
also part of a greater breakdown in definitions. It has to do with the
impossibility right now of clearly distinct art movements like those of
early Modernism, leaving what Jerry Saltz has called a "superparadigm."
It can also make Smithson's native optimism or Matta-Clark's instinct
for rebellion seem naive.

Fortunately, however, art thrives on anxiety as much as optimism. The
influence of site-specific art and nonsite has grown not only because
the market likes them, but also because artists are tapping into anxieties.

I have suggested that contemporary culture challenges certain
distinctions, often simply by assimilating, mirroring, and replicating
them on an increasingly global scale. One could argue that new media, by
doing so, too, raise the greatest challenge of all. Yet a challenge is
not necessarily a refutation of artistic practices. Quite the contrary,
it may in this case make certain art a crucial site of cultural engagement.

Each challenge noted so far carries anxieties. A gallery's claims to
encompass other sites match anxieties about the art market. The
proliferation of such sites matches anxieties about the loss of an
American wilderness. Globalization carries enough anxieties of its own
as well. The Web comes with anxieties about privacy, the meaning of
community (or "friends"), and the maintenance of Net neutrality.

The return to the 1960s with which I began reflects still other
anxieties. Part is politics in the age of Bush, with the culture wars
raging perhaps one last time, as in the Whitney's "Summer of Love."
Part, too, is how gentrification, preservation, and the hole at Ground
Zero have given the city as site and nonsite a new social history.
Matta-Clark's pier fell, but the High Line will stay put. Smithson's
homage to Passaic may seem less ugly or quaint in face of anxieties
about exurbia. Naturally both took up new media as a record of process
-- before, of course, personal computers. </p>

The anxieties of site and nonsite evolved even in Smithson's and
Matta-Clark's lifetimes. It can in fact seem trumped up to think of them
together. Smithson has a kind of iconic status for Minimalism, both as
artist and theorist. Matta-Clark could stand for Post-Minimalism, as a
rebel and a doer. Smithson offers a counter to Modernism's history of
real and ideal cities, with paeans to the blankness of Sixth Avenue.
Matta-Clark immerses himself instead in changing residential patterns of
New York and New Jersey.

On film, Smithson seems to be discovering the landscape along with the
camera. Matta-Clark seems to delight in leaving the mark of his body on
a building or in a "Tree Dance." In these ways, he has begun the
evolution of nonsite from an artistic event to a social structure and a
personal history. Installations have broken out in part because the
three came to seem newly relevant and newly intertwined. Nonsite still
carries a residual idealism, like the Other inspired by Hegel, but
simulacra did not put an end to anxieties about death and physical
decay. They just went on display in galleries, like the cellars of Paris
in photos by Matta-Clark.

American art may seem more like mass entertainment now, if perhaps only
in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. More precisely, artists are having
to navigate between celebrity and irrelevance. New media are navigating
between temptations, too. They can yield authority to images, or they
can claim authority for data as representation. They can claim a
monopoly on contingency, the very kind that Sartre found not on screen,
but on the street. Or they can give new meaning to the anxious object.

Thanks again to all!


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