UCI art historian's book explores how the elements transform outdoor art
A Q&A with writer Megan Cole and Professor James Nisbet
Outdoor art installations might retain their awe-inspiring and iconic qualities for years – even decades or centuries – after their creation. But what happens to these works of art when they’re changed 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), UCI Art History and Visual Studies Associate Professor James Nisbet tackles these questions and more as he explores the nature of “site-specific” art – that is, art created to exist in a specific space – in a dynamic, ever-changing world.
Here, Nisbet, an expert on contemporary environmental art and photography, discusses his new book and its implications for art aficionados everywhere.
What was the genesis of this book project? Were there any particular visits to site-specific artworks that inspired it?
The project began with some visits I made to a work of Richard Serra’s called “Shift,” which is located just a bit north of Toronto, where I’m from. I had been studying outdoor, site-specific work for a while before I realized just how close “Shift” was to a road that I had travelled many times to visit family. By the time I finally made a trip there, I was shocked to see the condition of the work. In photographs from the early 1970s, “Shift” is always depicted as a series of exposed concrete walls arranged as an abstract sculpture within a barren field. But when I got there, the field was full of corn; it was an active agricultural field. Although the work still exists, my experience of it was fundamentally different than the photographs had led me to expect.
As I continued to visit more site-specific artworks installed in the 20th century, I realized that “Shift” is not a one-off situation. There are some works that have been eroded, and there are others that have been more dramatically altered by the effects of climate change, by the use of local communities and by alterations in urban planning. All these factors are part of the life of these works, which were often entirely unanticipated at the moment they were created.
It wasn't just one work – or even a couple of works – that generated the project, but the experience of spending years visiting lots of places and trying to work through what exactly I was seeing. It was a project that couldn't have happened through a single case study. It's a book about duration, so it took an extended period to process and to come to terms with what, exactly, was missing in the accounts of so many of these works.
What does “second site” mean in the context of this book?
It means a few things. Most importantly, it evokes the notion that no site is ever original or stable. Artists might imagine that the places in which they begin to do their outdoor work are untouched, but these sites have their own complex histories. Part of the book is thinking about the history of settlement in North America, in particular, and about the colonial histories of places that have long-standing and continuous Indigenous pasts and presents, all of which need to be thought about in relation to contemporary art. “Secondness” also has to do with the way that art changes over time, so that the works we might encounter today have new relationships, new meanings and new kinds of ecological entanglements than they did when they were made 40 or 50 years ago.
Essentially, “secondness” looks to the past as well as to the way that the present is continually being reshaped. It also considers the way that certain works communicate through different media, and how a photograph of a work from, say, 1975 is not an essential picture of that work. It might be thought of instead as a version of the work that exists now within an expanded media ecology.
Central to your essay is a meditation on Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), a large earthwork sculpture built on the edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. You mention that “Spiral Jetty” was originally created during a low-tide period and thus remained largely submerged beneath the lake for three decades. Recently, though, due to changes in the local environment and climate, the work has rarely been covered by water. How might climate change and shifting 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 outdoor, site-specific artworks – it’s even Utah’s official state work of land art – is a good touchstone for thinking about the expanded network of relationships that exists between works and their environments. As an artist, Robert Smithson thought so poetically and trenchantly about the passage of time through entropy, so there are some aspects of “Spiral Jetty” that anticipate an alteration or a breakdown over time. Still, there are other aspects of its degradation that are beyond what Smithson himself addresses in his writing, and climate change is certainly one of these.
The significance of this, for me, is not only about how we understand the importance of this particular artwork over time. The real stakes of the project revolve around how our experience of these sites – as registers of the ecological volatility of the world in which we exist – provides a kind of attentiveness that far exceeds how we experience art alone. It helps us see works of art as a ground on which we can develop – or refine, or calibrate – ways to exist and to inhabit places in general.
You point out that human activity, in addition to changing environmental conditions, can alter the meaning of site-specific artworks. One example you provide is Ant Farm’s famous “Cadillac Ranch” (1974) installation in Amarillo, Texas – a line of ten cars half-buried in the ground, which was originally considered a period-specific piece about automobiles and consumer culture in the 1970s. “Cadillac Ranch” has since become a popular tourist destination, where it's a tradition for members of the public to spray-paint their initials on the cars and leave other forms of “creative interpretation.” You argue that the history of “Cadillac Ranch” is “a testimony to how abruptly 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” artworks in this way?
That's a great question. I think one of the lessons of these instances of unanticipated alteration is that they open up our understanding of what a work is or what its maker might have originally intended.
With “Cadillac Ranch,” we see various groups of people with different investments in the work. It has cultivated a public art audience that is remarkably diverse, and they’re also a group of artists in the sense that they are actively painting on the work. I find that truly remarkable. At the same time, one of the founding members of Ant Farm who created the work in the 1970s, Chip Lord, doesn't actively attempt to stop people from painting on the work, but he’s not on board with the kind of breakdown that's happening to it either. That's not a version of “Cadillac Ranch” that he, himself, wants.
Nevertheless, the work now exists within this expanded assemblage of creative forces and receptive forces. That is important because it speaks to how things really exist in the world. Things don't come into being simply through the creative force of one person, and they don't exist simply within the possession of a single institution or individual. One of the things that fascinates me about these site-specific works is that they help us to appreciate the complexities that attend any kind of object in the world. Similar things could be said of a painting in a museum, a pair of shoes placed by the door or a collection of trash. Although the conditions attending these other objects and situations tend to be so mundane that we typically don't think of their larger and messier footprints, they’re still there.
Most of the examples of site-specific art in your book happen to be contemporary works. Is the radical art-environment interaction you're discussing a recent phenomenon?
In one sense, I think there’s something very contemporary about the ways in which I’m thinking through these sites in the book. The climate crisis we're facing, the contestation over territories, and the importance of thinking about duration for ecological vitality and sustainability, are very much questions that are at the forefront of our own time.
On the other hand, it's not as if ecological relationships and similar issues have not always attended works of art. So, while I think that the kind of attentiveness that I'm hoping to invoke through the book is related to very pressing questions of our own time, I'm also hoping that, as an example of a way to approach the environmental conditions of art, this book might also open up ways to think about works created long before our time.
The way that an artwork exists – the way an artwork has a key place within an ecology that both exists at the moment of its making and is altered by the new environments and relationships that it moves through over time – that's not specific to contemporary art or even to outdoor, site-specific works of art. These just provide the extreme case studies that allow us to cultivate a way of seeing, a way of understanding, the challenging kinds of situatedness exemplified by artworks and cultural objects.
Learn more about Second Site here.
Photo of James Nisbet by Micherlange Hemsley. Background image of Ylöjärvi, Finland by James Nisbet.