In 1967 Robert Smithson began exploring the industrial areas around New Jersey and, after assisting to dumper trucks excavating tons of earth and rocks, he described them as the equivalent of the monuments of antiquity. The series of “Non-Sites” resulted from the installation in the gallery of gravel, rocks, salt materials collected from specific mines, excavations or quarries, usually contained in boxes of galvanized steel or situated within mirrors formations.
Whereas a “Site” is scattered information, a place you can visit, experience, travel-to, a “Non Site” is a container, an abstract work about contained information. Crucial to the notion of “Non-Sites” was the condition of displacement and the conservation of meaning after the removal to another site.
Instead of putting something on the landscape, I decided it would be interesting to transfer the land indoors, to the Non-site, which is an abstract container. (Kasther and Wallis, 1998: 31)
The dialectic tension between Sites and Non-Sites is established by the photographs, and above all, by the maps exhibited with the containers. They provided the viewer the link between the original sites and their representations, – that is: between outdoors and indoors -, and implied the performance aspect of the passage between the two locations, throwing emphasis on the spatial practices based on time, duration and physical participation.
From the Robert Smithson own website: “Literal and allegorical, the Nonsites confounded the illusion of materiality and order. The mirrors functioned to order and displace, to add and subtract, while the sediments, displaced from its original site, blur distinctions between outdoors and indoors as well as refer the viewer back to the site where the materials were originally collected.”
The aesthetical and conceptual analogy between the “Non Site”s and the” One and three” series (Chairs/Tables/Saws/Lamps, and so on..) by Joseph Kosuth (1965) is evident in the linguistic analysis by Lawrence Alloway in his essay: “Sites/Nonsites,” from the book “The Writings of Robert Smithson”, where he states “The relation of a Nonsite to the Site is also like that of language to the world: it is a signifier and the Site is that which is signified.”
A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites
By drawing a diagram, a ground plan of a house, a street plan to the location of a site, or a topographic map, one draws a “logical two dimensional picture.” A “logical picture” differs from a natural or realistic picture in that it rarely looks like the thing it stands for. It is a two dimensional analogy or metaphor – A is Z.
The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork)* is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site in N.J. (The Pine Barrens Plains). It is by this dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it – this The Non-Site. To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three dimensional picture which doesn’t look like a picture. “Expressive art” avoids the problem of logic; therefore it is not truly abstract. A logical intuition can develop in an entirely “new sense of metaphor” free of natural of realistic expressive content. Between the actual site in the Pine Barrens and The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance. It could be that “travel” in this space is a vast metaphor. Everything between the two sites could become physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions. Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-Site. The “trip” becomes invented, devised, artificial; therefore, one might call it a non-trip to a site from a Non-site. Once one arrives at the “airfield”, one discovers that it is man-made in the shape of a hexagon, and that I mapped this site in terms of esthetic boundaries rather than political or economic boundaries (31 sub-division-see map).
This little theory is tentative and could be abandoned at any time. Theories like things are also abandoned. That theories are eternal is doubtful. Vanished theories compose the strata of many forgotten books.
*Non-Site #1. Smithson changed the title for this text which was initially “Some Notes on Non-Sites.” It has been partially excerpted by Lawrence Alloway in “Introductions 1: Options, Milwaukee Art Center, 1979, p. 6
from Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, published University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2nd Edition 1996
Image at the top of the post:
Airfield in the Woodmansie Quadrangle
Artists Mike and Doug Starn just built the largest bamboo structure ever out of 10,000 bamboo poles and 80,000 meters of climbing rope. Over the course of seven weeks, 25 rock climbers built the 17-meter-high installation without using a single architectural sketch. 5,000 Arms to Hold You was built at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and visitors are welcome to navigate and explore its intricate structure.
Black Maria, Central Saint Martins, London
Alittle over a decade ago Artangel, the UK arts commissioning body, asked the sculptor Richard Wentworth to create something around his home neighbourhood, King’s Cross in London. The result was “An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty”, a haunting installation in an abandoned plumbing store. A series of open-ended activities, maps and texts, it was typical Wentworth, an eccentric mix of the accidental and the deliberate, an appreciation of the ad hoc filtered through a sense of specific place.
It happened at a moment when King’s Cross was undergoing a jarring transition from red-light zone to revivified transport interchange, as the Eurostar terminal relocated from Waterloo and the area began to undergo the biggest phase of development since the arrival of its beautiful station in the 1850s. Now Wentworth has been asked to work here again, this time creating an installation entitled “Black Maria”. Reflecting the changing nature of the area, this installation is in the grand, top-lit lobby of the new Central Saint Martins art school, an institution based in a converted Victorian granary.
Wentworth was approached by Relay, the art component of the King’s Cross regeneration, to revisit his earlier work but instead settled on this very different installation. A timber theatre structure, a platform for events and gatherings, it builds on all the particularities of this strange and new place: the constant human flux of King’s Cross; the contrastingly settled (if intense and time-limited) focus of student life; the odd confluence of the grand Victorian granary and the clean glass and concrete of Stanton Williams’ new interior. The old and the new structures seem to be settling down together, while the central spine that acts as a student “street” brings vibrant everyday life to the space. The installation intensifies that activity at a particular point – between the private, gated world of the school and the open public lobby.
The piece is called “Black Maria” in a tribute to Thomas Edison’s 1893 timber building in New Jersey, the world’s first cinema and film production studio (rather than the black police vans once familiar to British protestors and prisoners). When I met Wentworth on site, he told me that, in designing the piece, he wondered whether it would be possible to create a structure as a “gatherer”. “Humans are good at making spaces for themselves,” he said. “It’s what we do. Whether it’s on the pavement, in a café or on a train, we create space around us” – he gestured to the bag and coat I’d put on a chair, my notebook on the table and the way we’d established ourselves at the table. “This lobby is a concourse, like [that of] the station. It is an ‘unplace’. And this is about the space between property and ownership, something we tried to make immediate and legible.”
“Black Maria”’s theatrical structure, with broad steps that function as terraced seating and a screen wall/proscenium arch, is being built (literally – some of them are carpenters) by young Swiss practice Gruppe. Like some other young designers at the moment, they see the process – the construction and the making – as being an integral part of the final product, an end in itself and not just a means. Wentworth too is interested in architecture more as process than as finished product; “Black Maria”’s audience will be a crucial part of the installation. It is, he says with obvious anticipation, “a place where anything could happen”.
At Central St Martins until March 12, www.kingscross.co.uk/blackmaria
March 2nd, 2013
The result of a major commission project, Richard Wentworth‘s “Black Maria,” a timber theatrical structure set within the atrium of the Granary Building in the Saint Martins College of Art and Design, King’s Cross, is an installation that acts as a central public space during the day and a screening and discussion room during the evening and night. The structure was opened for its 4-week run on February 13th, 2013, and is available for viewing during normal hours at Central St. Martins.
A tribute to Thomas Edison’s 1893 timber building in West Orange, New Jersey, which was the world’s first cinema and film production studio, Wentworth’s structure was built in collaboration with emerging Swiss architectural practice called GRUPPE, and seeks to explore notions of space and utility. Adapting the design of Edison’s original studio, Wentworth’s Black Maria seeks to reverse the process of passive reception that the cinema engendered, and appropriates the structure to become a space for meetings, work, and open discussion.
Wentworth describes the installation as “a concourse, like that of the station,” and “a place where anything could happen.” His intention was to bring attention to the human ability to establish personalized settings within public shared spaces. He is interested in “the space between property and ownership,” and calls the structure an “unplace,” open to constant new creations from the people who temporarily inhabit it. Reclaiming the space as a site for interaction, Wentworth projects new, more human processes of use for the art object, and blurs the line between architecture and installation.
Commissioned by RELAY, a three-year art program funded by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, a program of events will take place during selected evenings, curated by Michael Pinsky and Stéphanie Delcroix. Launched in 2012 with “IFO” by Jacques Rival, RELAY is the first dedicated art program at King’s Cross, and its initiation was inspired by the “transformation of the area.” and “the transfer from one means of transport to another.”
Richard Wentworth, Black Maria (Installation View), via King’s Cross London
“Black Maria” will remain assembled in the lobby of Saint Martins College of Art and Design until March 12th, 2013.
Richard Wentworth and Mark Boulos construct site-specific sculpture and Maoist mythology at Lisson Gallery.
I was excited about the Richard Wentworth exhibition. I’ve always been moved by encounters with his work, his elevation of the ordinary to the extraordinary seems a valiant quest. I want to see the world as he does, alive to the importance of the outwardly unremarkable, the overlooked.
Wentworth’s reappraisal of everyday and industrial materials dares us to look at them with fresh eyes. And it’s not just an emotional experience, far from it. His interest in art as a tool for disrupting visual semantics is still interesting, still relevant.
Lisson Gallery explicitly references this linguistic approach to objects. Wentworth’s images are designed to be ‘read’ as texts, and he disrupts the grammar and usage attached to objects by deploying appropriation and recontextualisation. As I say, I was excited.
Initially I was little underwhelmed by A Room Full of Lovers and the series of photographs that accompany it. The work, a steel chain which loops its way around the walls of the gallery, hanging from heavy duty hooks, was apparently inspired by Gaudi’s calculations for the structure of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Apparently, the chains enclose the viewer and represent the highs and lows of human social and physical relations. I was not conscious of a sense of enclosure. The relationship to the Sagrada Famila was unclear; without a clue of the nature of the association I was entirely in the dark. I felt unable to square the material object with the narrative presented in the gallery’s text.
The accompanying photographs speak of materiality; chicken wire is framed by wooden portholes, beyond which we can see only black. Large nails fix the photographs to their mounts creating interplay between the real nails and the photographed materials; these everyday materials are ‘present’ in varying degrees.
Wentworth’s visual vocabulary is lucid here; materiality is forefront, reference to that beyond the work itself is either oblique or absent. From a formal perspective, A Room Full of Lovers is articulate, the loops and twists beguiling, the relationship between chain and hook – the tension and interdependence, eloquent.
When viewed in this way, the title’s reference to lovers gains meaning and the work suddenly opens up. Ignore the Gaudi red herring and the quiet beauty of the work becomes apparent.