“To remove the work is to destroy the work”

by Pravdoliub Ivanov

“To remove the work is to destroy the work[1]”

This text is assigned the difficult task of briefly telling about one of the most interesting practices in contemporary art and its manifestations in Bulgaria, namely site-specific art[2]. The text is not intended to be exhaustive and includes only basic examples of works that mark the trends in the development of this genre.

As the English term suggests, it relates to the creating of an art work that is closely connected to the site, making it an essential part of the work’s materiality, display technique and perception.

Site-specific art may be addressed to not as a genre, but rather as a paradigm or a strategy that possesses the characteristics of avant-garde aesthetics involved in processes that form the public space in a social, economic, and political aspect. At the same time, one can easily see the threat of an excessive appropriation and instrumentalisation of this practice by a number of cultural institutions and authorities attempting to promote events and works that carry only formal characteristics of site-specificity and lack criticality.

Site-specific art employs and incorporates a huge set of techniques, methods, and tools we know from contemporary art, which makes site-specific works difficult to define, hence the difficulty to outline clear boundaries/frames of this artistic practice.

A few words about the history of site-specific practices:

In the pre-modern times, during the Renaissance and Classicism, an art work was thought as an integral whole together with the architecture and the interior, often surrounded by ornaments. Public monuments used to be positioned in sites connected with heroic events, battles or memorials of rulers in the capital cities of their lands. This material connection between the art work and its designated site was not intrinsic to the art work, and its relationship with the site was largely formal.

Later, during the Age of Modernism, the art work detached itself from these interdependencies to the site and acquired an autonomous, nomadic character, in the sense defined by Rosalind Krauss. Thus the art work became an object completely indifferent to the place, the environment, and the context. The reproduction of self-sufficient plastic works in the spirit of late-modernist sculpture in a public space, which do not relate to the context of the environment, regardless of the situation and the specific site, in the 1960s lead to the exhaustion of this principle and made a place for new practices, according to Krauss.

In a nutshell, the development stages of the site-specific art are named by Miwon Kwon in her book One Place After Another. The prominent researcher identifies three stages of site-specific art; phenomenological, social/institutional and discursive, presented chronologically, although the works that belong to these three stages have not occurred subsequently in concrete time periods but rather have been overlapping in different art practices up to the present day.

Phenomenological stage. "Painting of mountains"[3]

In the 1960s and 1970s originated the idea of the specificity of the site being the one pre-determining the contextual relationships of the art work with the space itself and with its formal parameters. At that time precisely, a trend stemming from the tradition of land art and conceptual art arose and has been developing since. For artists of the land art movement the site is a huge canvas – an open surface ready to be worked on. These artists discover new areas for art, away from the city and the institutions, in the open spaces – amidst nature landscape of lakes, plateaus and deserts, sometimes spread on a huge scale. Land art in America and Western Europe also carries a powerful anti-consumerism message, opposed to the system of art exchange and trade; the artists create unpossessable works in hard-to-reach places. Land art, which in its essence is site-specific art, is characterised by a direct connection between the artefact and the environment/site where the work is realized. It is difficult, impossible even, to make a distinction between the work and the site, simply because the two are usually directly interdependent, and often the work is integrated into the site or is unthinkable elsewhere. Renowned artists from this period, some of whom theorized their practice, are: Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Charles Simonds, Gordon Matta-Clark, Walter de Maria, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.

Social-institutional stage. The context as a text.

Soon afterwards, the trend of conquering the space returned to the spaces of the institutions such as museums and galleries. Over time, the work with a concrete location made a shift to a different direction, making the site part of a chain of social, cultural and power relationships, tensions and confrontations. Artists such as Michael Asher, Marcel Brotards, Daniel Buren, Hans Haakke, Andrea Fraser and Mierle Laderman Ukeles perceive the site not only physically and spatially, but also as a cultural framework defined by the art institutions. The white cube of the gallery with its particular features: white walls, artificial lighting, empty spaces, was no longer perceived as "empty" but as a pre-condition that encodes and sets certain conventions on art itself. The works of these authors reveal and point out the ways in which institutions put together the meaning of art, its cultural and commercial value, they reveal the deceptive nature of the autonomy and independence of the institutions by making their connections with the social-economic and political processes visible. This category of practices that draw attention to the institutional framework of art is given the term Institutional Critique.

Discursive stage. Textualisation of space

In its most actively engaged forms, site-specific expands to working with certain communities and groups. Art acts as an agent that reveals hidden social tensions and is often deprived of its materiality in favour of its social visibility. The artists regard the site as being defined by the problems of specific groups and societies. Today, site-specific art is much more oriented toward the outer world and everyday life, to locations that are not designed to accommodate art in the first place: institutions that are not concerned with art and problems that originally do not belong to art. Today’s manifestations of site-specific art mostly address current issues such as ecology, homophobia, racism, emigration, social inequality, and alienation. Even at a formal language level, the use of the word for site is transferred to the intangible nature of the global network, naming the sites in it websites. The transformations of site-specific strategies in the global digital era, the critical and subversive interventions by artists in the Web and its sites have been extensively analysed and illustrated in the book Re-composition. Author, Media and Work in the Age of Digital Reproduction by the Bulgarian artist and theorist Krasimir Terziev. In this regard I would like to mention the term introduced by James Meyer, a "functional site"[4] a site described as a process appearing between different sites, as a process mapping the institutional and discursive links between the sites and the subjects that move between them. The finding of overlapping contexts, functional gaps, institutional gaps, opportunities to introduce a "bug" into the systems of power, are the catalysts of the artistic activity of modern site-specific authors.

An example of such work is Traffic Control by Ivan Moudov – a performance which took place in the Austrian city Graz in 2001.

Ivan Mudov

Traffic Control, 2001.

Performance

Details

  • Photographer: Ilina Koralova

  • Description: Association for Contemporary Art, Graz, Austria

The author, dressed in the uniform of a Bulgarian traffic police officer (borrowed from a policeman in Sofia, in return for a bottle of whiskey, in the author’s words) stood on a central junction in the Austrian city of Graz and began to give traffic directions to the vehicles, using a baton and a whistle. The drivers of the vehicles acknowledged the conventional uniform of a foreign policeman, even though with eyes full of astonishment, and obeyed the orders given by the author acting as a traffic policeman. In a short while, two motorized Austrian policemen approached from one of the streets. They were coming to arrest the author, summoned by a signal given by vigilant citizens. The moment these policemen arrived coincided with Ivan Moudov’s gesture showing them to stop. The traffic policemen obeyed the fraudulent officer, waited to receive the “pass” signal and only then approached the author to arrest him. A paradoxical situation, in which the real officers obey the perpetrator, the impostor, the false policeman. The authentic and the deceptive realities of power overlap, come into conflict with each other but are also in mutual subordination, thus outlining an invisible yet tangible, through the absurdity, functional site in the sense imparted to this term by James Meyer.  

Ivan Mudov

Traffic Control, 2001.

Performance

Details

  • Photographer: Ilina Koralova

  • Description: Association for Contemporary Art

The same performance took place in Cetinje, Montenegro; the local policemen arrived but were pleased to let Moudov direct the traffic with the words “Thank you for doing our job!” and left.

Let us go back to the initial manifestations of site-specific works in Bulgaria and what was called for a long time unconventional forms according to the term coined by Diana Popova. The so-called “new forms” are dated to different points in time, but for most theoreticians they coincide with the emergence of various informal groups and artists working in different parts of the country, with their artistic messages and language professing similar strategic intentions. These are mostly described as happenings or actions in a natural setting, they often take place as a collective appearance and Diana Popova determined them as typical for the period 1985-1988[5]. As one of the first attempts of this kind Maria Vasileva indicates Veselin Dimov’s work Water Dragon, realized in 1983 at a symposium in the village of Kosti. Tsvetan Krastev, together with his friends and colleagues, realized the Death of the Last Dragon and The Victims in 1986 in Varna.

Later, other similar interventions in the natural environment took place, using natural materials at hand which were not always conceptually connected to the site context. In the years of the late Socialism, Bulgarian artists probably felt safer to indulge into their experiments away from the sight and direct sanctions of the ruling authorities, so they realized their first projects in open and most likely uninhabited spaces, distanced from the cultural and public centres. 

The City

In the 1990s, the group The City realized projects in the urban environment which formed a specific relationship with the environment and its public character. The group’s actions were no longer impulsive artistic experiments away from visibility, institutions, and the art scene. They were fully thought out public acts, which sought a contact with the audience and aimed to trigger certain reactions precisely in the context of the processes which were taking place in the public sphere and in the urban environment. In January 1990, shortly after the changes took place in Bulgaria, the group[6] realized the Chameleon Happening on the occasion of the last congress of the Dimitrov Communist Youth Union. The skeleton of the huge chameleon made of wood and metal was erected in the garden in front of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, where the congress was held. There, on the spot, the structure was covered with about 2000 empty red Komsomol cards. The particular thing about these cards was that between their dark red covers they had light-blue pages. The wind gusts would open the cards that were hanging only by their back covers, and the colour of the chameleon would change from red to blue. This symbol was yet to become materialized in the political life of the country.

At the same time, Georgi Ruzhev set up the Georgi Ruzhev Museum in his own apartment in Mladost-1 residential district. An ironic project, which attacked the official publicity of art and its institutions.

Outside of the capital city, different projects were implemented in an interaction with the landscape and in a gallery setting.

In 1998, Nedko Butsev implemented his project named Northern Sun on mount Kutelka north of the town of Sliven. On May 24th he and his friends carried to the top and erected the pre-assembled structure of metal profiles on which they mounted a system of mirrors. The mirrors reflecting the sun produced a powerful focused beam of light which caused bewilderment and gave rise to conspiracy and cosmological theories among the residents of the nearby village.

In 2001, Tsvetan Krastev displayed in one of the group exhibition a turf of freshly grown grass (2,5 x 3,5 m). Through the open window the yard and the spot where the turf was cut out from could be seen. The work was named Transmissions.

A Look to the West, Nine Objects, and In Defence of the Hard Material

One of the first significant projects in the situation following the end-of-1989 changes, which represents a full-bodied site-specific art work, is Nedko Solakov’s work A Look to the West. The project participated in the Earth and Sky exhibition of 1989, curated by Diana Popova and Georgi Todorov. Nedko Solakov placed on the roof of the building at 6 Shipka Street a long-distance telescope pointing to the west and focused on the five-pointed star still standing on the top of the Communist Party Home. Under the telescope, a brass sign was placed reading "A Look to the West". It was a clear and eloquent gesture, at the same time it was unexpected for the viewers who had no clue about what the telescope was focused on. The attempts to look at the West and everything it personifies clashed into the ubiquitous symbol of our communist past that was still standing there. Did we actually know what that West looked like, or was it a projection of our de/formed social awareness?

Another one of those first conceptual projects that came along as a reflection of the site and the situation was the work Nine Object of 1992 by the same author. In the building of the National Museum of History in Sofia, Nedko Solakov made delicate interventions among the exhibits in the permanent exhibition of the museum.

Nedko Solakov

Nine Objects, 1992.

Site-specific

Details

  • Material: nine ordinary objects placed in a discreet way among the permanent exhibits

In the museum showcases, he arranged common existing objects, as well as small objects made by the author. The introduced objects were of various kinds, such as a plastic coffee cup purposefully left among the valuable antique exhibits, or a plain ceramic tile next to Preslav painted ceramic items. A sign reading "SUPER" was installed on a wall of the museum; it copied the inscriptions found in the museum, using the brass letters and the font from the museum information boards. In another spot, Solakov placed a small souvenir - a gypsum ballerina figurine. A pavement slab taken from the streets in Sofia was inserted among the stone mosaics of the ancient times. The spectator was challenged to seek and find them. With the objects he introduced, the author colonized areas of the museum by imparting his own parallel narrative. The nine objects intervened as a kind of a "system error" in the classification chronology of the museum collection and its status. The puzzled spectator would find themselves in a situation of disarranged hierarchy. This set of nine interventions seemingly penetrated the immune system of the museum - the institution that defined the cultural arrangement of "before" and "now" – insolently making itself comfortable there, shaking the deceptive feeling of the orderly arrangement of the world and its culture.  

In 1994, Dr. Galentin Gatev performer his action In Defence of the Hard Material at the metalworking and gear manufacturing plant Botevgrad AD. For this project, the artist signed a formal contract with the management of the plant, providing that in the course of one day the plant would be manufacturing its traditional range of machine parts, only made of wood instead of metal. Therefore, under the said contract, a series of wooden parts was produced at the plant. The whole process was documented and the manufactured wooden details were showcased along with samples of the actual industrial output. By replacing the production material, Dr. Gatev caused the plant to produce items void of economic value or applicability. Effectiveness, practicality and expediency were replaced by an essentially aesthetic act which stripped the product of its commodity value, and if we picture its application in machine-building, it would have an absurd and even subversive meaning, a suggestion of sabotage of a functioning system, all of which transforms to a great extent the artistic act into a metaphorical one. Dr. Gatev created only a few but large-scale projects that involved entire systems, such as factory production, an operating passenger train, or a coal mine.

I will permit myself to present one of my projects of the 1990s, Three Square Metres Cleaned by Pravdolyub Ivanov (1995).

Pravdoliub Ivanov

3 Square Meters Cleaned Up, 1995.

Photography

Details

  • Photographer: Pravdoliub Ivanov
  • Material: cleaned corner

  • Description: framed title, Old Turkish Bathhouse, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

The work was realized at the Contemporary Art Centre of the Ancient Bath in Plovdiv, during the first exhibition that took place in the "Bath”. The building is a 17th-century Turkish bath, a cultural monument that was abandoned in the 1990s for a period of fifteen years, during which time it was set on fire, and illegally inhabited. The first exhibition, initiated by Emil Mirazchiev, was organized in conditions of ruin and dirt that had piled up during the years of abandonment. I felt inspired to restore part of the original appearance of the bath and make a corner locked between the walls inside the building a clean place. The cleaned area comprised one square meter on each of two angular walls and on the floor. With the cleaned 3 square meters, I tried to create an optical feeling of a cube - an archetypal modernist and minimalist figure. The cleaning gesture was a symbolic inversion of what had happened earlier in time – people had used the bath to bathe, and in 1995 I washed it and cleaned it from the dirt that had accumulated over the years. In the expected utilisation of the bath for cultural purposes I saw a further development of my work due to the fact that it would be destroyed but would simultaneously grow and be multiplied with the start of the cleaning and restoration of its interior. This, however, happened many years later.

Probably the only Bulgarian author, whose work may be considered most closely related to land art, is Dan Tenev. Since the 1980s, he has been implementing projects in a natural environment and on a large scale, visible from a great distance (including Google Earth). One of the artist’s iconic works is named Numerical Rows of 2010. The numbers are in the form of seven segmented electronic indicators that cover an area of 24 600 m². The numbers are created by excavating the surface layer of land. Dan Tenev adopts a concept dating back to antiquity, according to which the numbers are carriers of an equivalent matter or structure. By depicting the numbers directly in the land surface, the artist Tenev creates a correlation between the physical and material configuration of the space and the abstraction of numbers.  

A cinema in the field

A symbolic, artistic gesture of "non-interference" represents Luchezar Boyadjiev’s project Gazebo. In 1996, the artist was invited to create a project in a natural setting in an Austrian province near Gars-am-Camp, 80 km west of Vienna. He was not tempted to put up a sculpture artefact completely misplaced in the landscape. Instead, the author took from the host’s household wooden chairs from an old cinema in the neighbourhood, that were left behind, repaired them and after that installed them on a windy hill between the farm fields - a place with a beautiful view of the valley and the small town in the distance. The work was called Gazebo, i.e. belvedere - a place where a beautiful view opens, or a nice place for contemplation. Special or random visitors to the site could sit there and enjoy the landscape.

Luchezar Boyadjiev

Gazebo, 1996.

Photography

Details

  • Material: Photo-wallpaper on a wall
  • Width: 330.00 cm    Height: 550.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Description: 1996 (2018)

    Author’s reconstruction of a site-specific work in Austria near Gars-am-Kamp app. 80 km north-west of Vienna.

    "In the summer of 1996 I was invited to a sculpture symposium in nature. Not a sculptor, I tried to create a setting to enjoy the beauty of nature while seeing it as if in a cinema. I found 2 pairs of old wooden cinema chairs on the farmyard of the host and repaired them. The line of bush and small trees between two private fields was cut down to create an opening through which a beautiful vista is revealed. I paid 500 Austrian Schilling (app. 50 $) to the owner of the fields for the use of the cleared spot and built a stone platform. The repaired chairs were fixed to the platform to construct a “gazebo”.
    The site-specific work was kept functional for more than 10 years by the local people. Nowadays I am showing it as a fit-to-wall site-specific photo-wallpaper. "
    Luchezar Boyadjiev

The fact that the chairs were taken from a cinema hall "brings to mind the metaphor of a cinema screen and reveals the unnatural character of the perception, transforming the contemplation of the landscape in a utopia constructed by culture."[7] One can accept the metaphor of a cinema hall amidst the fields as an endless structuralist film or simply as a place for contemplation and recreation. Once again, the viewer's gaze is not directed to a tangible object or an image of any kind that the author has created. The actual artwork is the artist's invisible hand that directs our mind to what needs to be seen and felt. Such an approach to the site has its origins in conceptual art, where the art work uses minimum visual stimuli to activate imagination and thought to generate images and meaningful connections on their own.

In general, site-specific artists are called upon to work with historical or social context which has already accumulated in a particular location. Artists are then often provoked to interpret and reason the history.

In Step with the Time

It is only in the last few years that a new generation of artists emerged, who are able to make the balance between the cultural policy of the official institutions and the free, almost anonymous, creative expression. These are mostly the Transformers Association - young people holding degrees in architecture, and the Destructive Creation group who jealously protect their anonymity. Probably the most prominent and worthy project the Destructive Creation are associated with is the colouring in paint of the relief figures of the Monument of the Soviet Army in 2012, named In Step with the Time.

Destructive Creation

In step with the time, 2011.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Destructive Creation
  • Material: spray paint

  • Property of: Destructive Creation
  • Description: Transforming soldiers from the Soviet Army monument in Sofia as American comic heroes.
  • Copyright: Destructive Creation

The Monument of the Soviet Army was built in the years after the establishment of the Communist regime in Bulgaria. The act of covering the monument in paint originated from the irreconcilable debate resumed periodically between the supporters of the idea for the monument to remain where it was and those who thought it should be moved, or even removed, for being a symbol of the occupying Soviet power. In this context, one morning, the monument welcomed the passers-by in a changed appearance. The soldiers of the sculptural composition on the west side of the monument were repainted in colour spray paints, transforming them into symbols of consumer and popular culture, namely Batman, Ronald McDonald, Superman, Captain America, Spider Man and Santa Claus. Under the sculptural composition there was a writing in spray "In step with the time". The coloring of the sculptural group had not altered the shapes of the figures, but had symbolically replaced the entire context of heroic effort expressed in the postures and faces of the soldiers. The authors’ intervention was very effective and raised issues, sparked discussions, opposes opinions and standpoints. In the weeks that followed, a massive media and public response swept across the country and beyond its borders.

Project 0

Among the projects of the recent years, a significant one both in terms of its impact and its complexity and duration of implementation (4 years) is Project 0, 2010-2014 by Kiril Kuzmanov, curated by Vladiya Mihaylova and realized with the support of Open Arts Foundation. An enormous double mirror wall, cut out with meticulous precision to the relief of the building facades and the sidewalk, blocks off a small street in the Kapana district of Plovdiv, creating an indescribable feeling of confusion and magic, and raising questions about the elusive nature of our material world and the place of art in it.

Kiril Kouzmanov in collaboration with the curator Vladiya Mihaylova and Open Arts Foundation

Opening of Project 0. With the kind approval of Kiril Kouzmanov, 2014.

Site-specific

Details


  • Description: Zlatarska street, Kapana Quartier, Plovdiv, 7 June 2014.

“Project 0 experiments with the possibility of producing an image without creating an image ... In this case, the double mirror wall is an art work that originates from the concept of a sculpture and expands it, making it inseparable from a concrete architectural and urban environment. The project addresses a specific notion of the artist's public role as an individual figure that generates different viewpoints on reality. The gesture is critical and seeks to re-activate, among other things, the symbolic capital invested in the figure of the artist, who is nowadays not only a political but also a cultural marginal in our country", curator Vladiya Mihaylova says.

Kiril Kouzmanov in collaboration with the curator Vladiya Mihaylova and Open Arts Foundation

Opening of Project 0. With the kind approval of Kiril Kouzmanov, 2014.

Site-specific

Details


  • Description: Zlatarska street, Kapana Quartier, Plovdiv, 7 June 2014

The project was realized by selling in advance the fragments of the mirror wall before it was created, making the collectors partners in the realization of the large-scale  initiative years before it actually happened.

Since its appearance in the 1960s to date, site-specific denotes some very dynamic processes in modern art. The term stretches over so many varied artistic practices over the past 50 years that it goes far beyond the spatial parameters of the art work. While the early manifestations of site-specific recognized the physical location as an important and fundamental concept of the work, this has changed in the contemporary varieties of the genre that are closest to us. This dynamic situation, the pressure to the market to showcase such works, as well as the arrival of digital technologies and social networks undermines the incontestability of Richard Serra's assertion that "to remove the work is to destroy the work", and it might be making it our last landmark in the ocean of site-specific practices.

The topic of site-specific art is enormous, and beyond any doubt there are many other artists and their works who deserve to be included here. With this text, I hope to provide basic information and to provoke an interest in a genre which is so elusive and hard to fit into a theoretical framework, yet extremely exciting, surprising and expanding the boundaries of visual art and the ways we think about it.  

[1] Already in 1969, Robert Barry spoke in an interview about his installations of wires, made “to suit the place in which they are installed. They cannot be moved without being destroyed.”,  See: Robert Barry in Arthur R. Rose (pseud.), : Four interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kosuth, Weiner” Arts Magazine (February 1969), р. 22 Later Richard Serra made the famous remark in defence of his Tilted Arch installation, see: Richard Serra, letter to Donald Thalacker dated January 1, 1985, as published in Clara Weyergraf – Serra and Marta Buskirk, eds., The destruction of titled arc: Documants (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 38. “As I pointed out, Tilted Arc was conceived from the start as a site-specific structure and was not meant to be “site-adjusted” or “relocated”. Site-specific works deal with the environmental components of given places. The scale, size, and location of site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban, or landscape, or architectural enclosure. The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site.”  

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/site-specific

[3] ART of the 20th Century”, TASCHEN, TASCHEN America, 6671 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 158, USA-Los Angeles. CA 90028, Volume II, Ruhrberg, Schneckenburger, Fricke, Honnef, p. 543

[4] James Meyer. The Functional Site, in Platzwechsel, exh. Cat. (Zurich: Kunsthalle Zurich 1995): р. 27

[5] Popova, D. The New Forms of Bulgarian Art in the 199s,  Art Issues Magazine, No.1/1998, p. 15-20

[6] A group which united the art historian Philip Zidarov and the artists Andrey Daniel, Bozhidar Boyadzhiev, Vihroni Popnedelev, Gredi Assa and Nedko Solakov.

[7] Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry, Ed. Installation Art in the New Millennium. Thames & Hudson, London 2003, p. 86