Is it possible for art to escape the museum? Is it desirable? These are the questions I shall hopefully answer in this essay. The first answer is yes, it is possible for art to escape the museum. Phew, that’s half the essay done with. I hope the rest of it’s going to be this easy. But sadly… it shan’t be. I shall now spend the good part of the rest of this essay backing up my answer to how it’s possible for art to escape that pesky museum. There are three easy routes for art to escape the museum. Art has the option of becoming land art, public art, or site-specific art.
Site-specific art critically engages the in the notion of site. As opposed to art that occupies a site, as all art must. Land art engages in the notion of land. And public art engages with the notion of the public. All three of these options are a sure-fire way to help art escape, if it so desires. Follow any one of these fool proof plans and you’re sure to set art free to be in the environment of it’s choice. The only problem with these different terms for escape is that they are all rather similar in theory. They’ll all get you to where you want to go, but others may not know where you’ve escaped to.
There is considerable disagreement among theorists and artists about what the terms actually mean also. They all get bundled together. So if I dig a hole in the ground, I could call it land art because it’s in the land/landscape, rather than in the gallery. Or I could call it site-specific art because I’ve chosen to dig the hole here rather than there. Or I could call it public art because there’s nothing preventing the public from seeing it. With the three escape plans laid down for you, I could go into further detail in each of them and discuss their meanings.
I won’t be doing that. What I will be doing is discussing what they all have in common. And that’s the concept of place; art that moves outside of the gallery for one reason or another. This move isn’t an irreversible one however. Many objects and events sited outside the gallery still find their way back into the gallery through documents, photographs and reproductions. Some works, although sited outside the gallery, were always intended to be seen from within the gallery. There are four basic headings in which I shall discuss works of art that escaped the museum.
These are works sited in the gallery, work on officially designated site, work made in the wild, and work that creates a site. I will now discuss works sited in the gallery, often looking out and also questioning the makeup of the public that it addresses. Marcel Broodthaers and his Department of Eagles will be my first example. In one of the installations he selected a square on the gallery floor, painted it black and wrote the words private property and roped off the square with the rope and barrier museums use to keep the public away from an artwork.
This neatly sets up the problem of public. We can see obvious parallels between this and something Duchamp did. Duchamp reasonably arbitrarily selects an object; a non art object and gives it new status as a work of art. Broodthaers selected again fairly arbitrarily an area of public space within the gallery and gave it new status as private property. Its extending Duchamp’s conceptual jokes at the role that institutions like the gallery play in social live. So this black square of private property roped off in one sense extends Duchamp’s critique of the institutions of modern art.
In another sense it reverses Duchamp’s gesture. Duchamp’s action was sanctioned by the gallery space. It’s the gallery in its function of presenting works of art to the public that confers artistic status on the object that it contains and displays. Broodthaers on the other hand used the apparatus of the gallery, the rope barriers, to remove a designated area from that system. So the square is physically within the gallery. But conceptually, it’s outside or beyond the gallery. And the paradox is that it’s only within the gallery that this kind of gesture makes any sense.
If you painted a square of pavement black and wrote the words private property on it, it doesn’t have anything like the same resonance as Broodthaer’s gesture within the gallery. The thing with Marcel Broodthaers’ piece, it says to the viewer, you are not the public for this work. Now this is useful as a way of reminding us that the notion of public doesn’t exist on its own. That public always comes with private. You can’t have public without private. And its also illuminates the frequent uneasy relation between public and private, that exists in all commercial galleries.
Because to a certain extent all works of art are public. There is a public dimension to making art. And this isn’t to do with how many people if any get to see the object or the event but it’s because making visual art is making visual. It’s making something to be seen. And so it is public whether or not anyone actually gets to see it and so all artworks in a sense call their own public into being. And we only become aware of this, perhaps, when we come against something like Broodthaers’ square. Which excludes us from its public. Artworks call their own public into being through their mode of address.
Broodthaers mode of address is rather severe and authoritarian. The rope barriers are there to prohibit you from a certain set of actions. In that prohibition comes the address of that work to the public. This mode of address is common to a great deal of artworks. And the difference is there’s usually more than the restrictions to be seen. Many artworks have a much more informal and inclusive mode of address. Some you can walk over, Carl Andri?? ‘s floor sculptures. Others you can go inside of. All this interactivity is part of an adequate response to the work of art and may be the work of art itself.
I shall now discuss works that officially designate site. Work that’s physically outside the gallery, but is often conceptually within a kind of establishment rationalization of space. Anthony Gormley shall be my first example here and his Angel of the North. Its mode of address again is very traditional. The work, the site, the people, the playing fields, and the road and so on are all clearly designated. And the piece itself is a monument. Although the work is public, its something imposed on the public whether they like it or not.
And the techniques of construction, the placing and the assembly are all deployed to produce a sense of artistic authority. If it succeeds as a monument (if it becomes a symbol of the area) it will be seen largely as a result of the integrity of Gormley’s own vision. Not all works in an officially designated site endorse this ideology of the monument. It’s perfectly possible to produce a work that’s critical of this ideology. A famous example of this would be by Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981-89).
It was commissioned by the Arts-in-Architecture program of the U. S. General Services Administration, which earmarks 0. 5 percent of a federal building’s cost for artwork. Tilted Arc is a curving wall of raw steel, 120 feet long and 12 feet high, which carves the space of the Federal Plaza in half. It was never going to be a popular work. People complained from the moment it went up. They complained that it was an antisocial gesture. It was in a public space but the public had no input to it. People were worried by the tilt of the piece and that it might fall over. But there were also problems with the official surveillance of the area.
Blind spots were created for the security cameras. The piece was eventually put on trial. Did it have the right to exist in this place? It was found guilty and taken away in 1989. Although it was unpopular and eventually removed we could still think of this as a successful piece of public art. This is because it initiated a public debate about the public part of public art. Serra’s work, whether you like or dislike it, didn’t take the site for granted. He makes the idea of the square and the idea of the plaza the subject of the work by prohibiting access across it. I shall now discuss works made in the wild.
Works outside the gallery and outside the city, frequently where there’s no other trace of human intervention. When people talk about land art, the artists they usually have in mind are those who have left the gallery and work frequently on a monumental scale somewhere out in the wild. The most typical example of a land artist is Michael Heizer. In his dissipate (1968) he dug 5 trenches, each 12 foot long in the very flat soil of the black rock desert in Nevada. Each trench was lined with steel and was intended to remain there forever. But due to its remote location, the only way the work could be viewed was by photograph.
Heizer’s largest most ambitious work was Double Negative (1969). Which were two huge trenches dug into the hillside facing each other. From one end of the trench to the other, its more the 1100 feet long. He removed 240 thousand tons of rock to make this work. He’s forcing us to rethink our whole relation to nature. Not as competitors but as partners in some sense. So in a way, in this context, there’s something oddly nostalgic and romantic about work like Double Negative. I shall now discuss work that creates a site, either physically or conceptually or both. My example here shall be Mel Chin.
Chin was a New York sculptor and after reading about hyperaccumulator plants, he was struck by the poetic nature of this process. So he conceived a sculpture in which plants and biotechnology would replace chisels and marble. Chin says the aesthetic of Revival Field relates to “my interest in alchemy and my understanding of transformative processes and the mutable nature of materials. The contaminated soil is transformed back into rich earth, capable of sustaining a diverse ecosystem. ” After lengthy and difficult negotiations, Chin was able to secure a location for the first trial at Pig’s Eye Landfill in St.
Paul, Minnesota. The site was contaminated with cadmium, zinc, and lead. He designed a circular field with replicated plantings to analyse the use of six hyperaccumulator and metal-tolerant plants and a variety of soil treatments. Two main walkways divided the field like the crosshair of a riflescope, symbolizing a targeting of the earth for cleanup. The Minnesota field trial was active from 1990 to 1993. Revival Field is by design a public project, and chin sought to make information available to a wide audience through lectures, articles, and art exhibitions.
The project generated considerable interest among scientists, artists, and environmentally concerned citizens. This brings us closer to the end of my essay. I hope I have clearly shown that it is and how it is possible for art to escape the museum. It may not be desirable in every single case where art escapes, but in general it is in my opinion that it is. What’s wrong with a little art being thrown into the public eye, or into a place where the public probably won’t see it? It’s sure to do more good than harm.
Art is everywhere, it’s only the occasional pieces of artwork that perhaps disrupt someone’s day or becomes an annoyance for some particular reason that gets the bad rap. Anyone today can make/do something and call it art. It may not always be desirable to every person who sees it, but if the creator deems it art; it must be considered to be art. When art is created outside of the museum, again, it may or may not be desirable to every person who views it. But that’s probably due to his or her own taste in art. As a function, art outside the museum can do nothing but entertain and the make the world just a little bit more enjoyable to view.