Art is changing | UC Irvine School of Humanities
UCI art historian’s book explores how the elements transform outdoor art
Q&A with writer Megan Cole and Professor James Nisbet
Outdoor art installations can retain their impressive and iconic qualities for years – even decades or centuries – after their creation. But what happens to these works of art when they are altered by environmental elements, graffiti and other evidence of the passage of time? Does their meaning remain eternal or does it become something new? In his new book, Second site (Princeton University Press, 2021), James Nisbet, associate professor of art history and visual studies at UCI, addresses these questions and more by exploring the nature of ‘site-specific’ art – that is, art created to exist in a specific space – in a dynamic and ever-changing world.
Here, Nisbet, an expert in contemporary environmental art and photography, discusses his new book and its implications for art lovers around the world.
What was the genesis of this book project? Were there any particular visits to site-specific works of art that inspired her?
The project started with a few visits I made to a work by Richard Serra called “Shift,” which is located just a little north of Toronto, where I’m from. I had studied site-specific outdoor work for a while before realizing how close “Shift” was to a road I had traveled several times to visit my family. By the time I finally made a trip there, I was shocked to see the state of the work. In photographs from the early 1970s, “Shift” is still depicted as a series of exposed concrete walls arranged like an abstract sculpture in a barren field. But when I got there, the field was full of corn; it was an active agricultural domain. Although the work still exists, my experience of it was fundamentally different from what the photographs had led me to hope for.
As I continued to visit more and more in situ works of art installed in the 20th century, I realized that “Shift” is not a one-off situation. There are works that have been eroded, and others that have been more dramatically altered by the effects of climate change, by the use of local communities and by changes in town planning. All these factors are part of the life of these works, often completely unforeseen at the time of their creation.
It wasn’t just one piece – or even a few pieces – that spawned the project, but the experience of spending years visiting so many places and trying to figure out what exactly I was seeing. It was a project that could not have been completed through a single case study. It is a book of life, so it took a long period of processing and acceptance of what, exactly, was lacking in the accounts of so many of these works.
What does “second site” mean in the context of this book?
It means several things. Most importantly, it evokes the idea that no site is ever original or stable. Artists can imagine that the places in which they begin to do their outdoor work are intact, but these sites have their own complex histories. Part of the book reflects on the history of colonization in North America, in particular, and the colonial histories of places that have long-standing and continuing Indigenous pasts and presents, all of which must be thought of in relation to the contemporary art. . ‘Secondity’ also has to do with how art changes over time, so that the works we might encounter today have new relationships, new meanings, and new kinds of ecological entanglements. ‘they weren’t when they were made 40 or 50 years ago.
Essentially, “secondity” looks to the past as well as to how the present is continually being reshaped. It also considers how some works communicate across different media, and how a photograph of a work from, say, 1975 is not an essential image of that work. Rather, it could be viewed as a version of the work that now exists in a larger media ecology.
At the center of your essay is a meditation on Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), a large earthen sculpture built on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. You mention that “Spiral Jetty” was originally created during a period of low tide and therefore remained largely submerged under the lake for three decades. Recently, however, due to changes in the local environment and climate, the works have rarely been covered with water. How might climate change and changing environmental conditions continue to transform the way we see – and make – art in the future?
“Spiral Jetty,” which is among the most famous and celebrated, site-specific outdoor works of art – it’s even the official state of Utah artwork – is a a good touchstone for reflecting on the extended network of relationships that exist between works and their environments. As an artist, Robert Smithson thought so poetically and sharply about the passage of time through entropy, so there are certain aspects of “Spiral Jetty” that anticipate weathering or breakdown over time. Yet there are other aspects of its degradation that go beyond what Smithson himself discusses in his writings, and climate change is certainly one of them.
The importance of this, to me, is not just how we understand the importance of this particular works of art over time. The real issue of the project revolves around how our experience of these sites – as registers of the ecological volatility of the world in which we exist – provides a form of attention that goes far beyond the way we experience art. alone. It helps us see works of art as a ground on which we can develop – or refine, or calibrate – ways of existing and of inhabiting places in general.
You point out that human activity, in addition to altering environmental conditions, can alter the meaning of site-specific works of art. One example you provide is Ant Farm’s famous “Cadillac Ranch” facility (1974) in Amarillo, Texas – a line of ten cars half-buried in the ground, which was originally considered a specific room for a period on automobiles and consumer culture in the 1970s. “Cadillac Ranch” has since grown into a popular tourist destination, where it is traditional for members of the public to spray paint their initials on cars and leave other forms of “creative interpretation”. You claim that the story of the ‘Cadillac Ranch’ is ‘a testament to the brutality with which the specificity of local histories can be erased and enveloped in the activities of mass culture’ – but is it an inherently positive or negative thing? for the public to “co-opt” works of art in this way?
This is an excellent question. I think one of the lessons of these cases of unforeseen modification is that they open up our understanding of what a work is or what its creator might originally have wanted.
With “Cadillac Ranch” we see diverse groups of people with different investments in the job. It has cultivated a remarkably diverse public art audience, and it is also an artist group in the sense that they actively paint on the work. I find this truly remarkable. At the same time, one of the founding members of Ant Farm who created the work in the 1970s, Chip Lord, does not actively try to prevent people from painting on the work, but he does does not agree with the kind of breakdown that occurs. to him either. It’s not a version of “Cadillac Ranch” that he wants himself.
Nevertheless, the work now exists within this enlarged assemblage of creative and receptive forces. This is important because it shows how things really exist in the world. Things are not born simply by the creative force of one person, and they do not simply exist in the possession of a single institution or a single individual. One of the things that fascinates me about these in situ works is that they help us appreciate the complexities that accompany any type of object in the world. Similar things could be said of a painting in a museum, a pair of shoes placed near the door, or a collection of rubbish. While the conditions of these other objects and situations tend to be so mundane that we usually don’t think of their larger, messier footprints, they’re still there.
Most of the examples of in situ art in your book are contemporary works. Is the radical art-environment interaction you speak of a recent phenomenon?
In a way, I think there is something very contemporary about the way I think about these sites in the book. The climate crisis we are facing, the contestation of territories and the importance of thinking about duration for ecological vitality and sustainability are all questions that are at the forefront of our time.
On the other hand, it’s not as if ecological relationships and similar issues haven’t always accompanied works of art. So while I think the kind of attention I hope to summon through the book relates to some very pressing issues of our time, I also hope that, as an example of one way to approach environmental conditions of art, this book could also open avenues of reflection on works created long before our time.
The way a work of art exists – the way in which a work of art has a key place in an ecology that exists both at the time of its manufacture and is altered by the new environments and relationships it crosses over time – this is not specific to contemporary art or even site-specific outdoor works of art. These only provide extreme case studies that allow us to cultivate a way of seeing, a way of comprehension, the types of difficult situations illustrated by works of art and cultural objects.
Learn more about Second site here.
Photo of James Nisbet by Micherlange Hemsley. Background image of Ylöjärvi, Finland by James Nisbet.