A Fine Sense of Place

In recent years, a lot of what passes for site-specific art seems like a recapitulation of average moments drawn from the land and environmental art of the Sixties and Seventies -- from Richard Long's grass-walking, to Robert Smithson's invasive Spiral Hill, to Michael Heizer's desert ground-scarring, to Gordon Matta-Clark's urban wrecking.

Back then, during the Cold War and before the oil crisis of the Seventies, the environment wasn't considered so important. Then throughout the Nineties, as anything related to nature became "cutting edge," curators and theorists brought back the tenets of land art. The idea was not to go back to those early "intrusions," but to monumentalize nature inside museums and galleries. It was an interesting development but something was missing: authenticity.

To repeat those pioneer gestures today (as revolutionary as they were) would be irresponsible. The environment, ecologically speaking, has been messed with for much too long. So the derelict inner city has become the "new environment" for two reasons: During the late Twentieth Century, as capitalism's urban utopia failed in its promise of better living, our abandoned inner cities became artists' sanctuaries, "pristine" urban forms. Now those forsaken areas are again attractive to market forces, which have begun to reclaim them through gentrification.

Against this backdrop, I'd like to point to two site-specific initiatives, both created to coincide with this year's Art Basel. A number of the works will be available to the public for limited periods over the next several weeks, and they are worth seeing because they address some of these crucial issues. One project is OMNIART, which commandeered warehouses and streets along NE Thirteenth Street between Second Avenue and Miami Court. Miami artist Tina Spiro organized and conceptualized installations, site-specific work, and street performances by more than 50 artists with encouragement from the City of Miami and the cooperation of faculty, students, and alumni from the University of Miami's and FIU's art departments (Carol Damian co-curated some of the installations). The idea was to present "the neighborhood as a work of art."

For site-specific art to succeed, it must establish a particular relationship with its environs. It must add or contrast meaningful dialogue (aesthetic, social, political) to its surroundings. Rehashing stuff just to fill space rarely works, though regrettably this often happens. On the other hand, it's difficult for a curator to achieve specificity without time and money; some of these projects just happen when they happen.

According to Spiro, OMNIART "was an opportunity to produce an urban intervention," by which she intended to take the normal experience of seeing art in a gallery or museum and transform it into something all-encompassing. You could walk by the art, over the art, into the art. You could touch it, hear it, and smell it. In keeping with Spiro's conception of the neighborhood as a work of art, she built replicas of the area's warehouses and filled them with color photos of the actual buildings. You felt the outside inside, and vice versa.

In Warehouse 1, Edouard Duval-Carrié's big and dramatic head totem, bathed in blue light, looked handsome. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's white sound room was barely discernible and dark -- too cryptic to do anything for me. In contrast, Chris Culver's big mural showed smart geometry and color scheme in rendering urban possibilities that were less than obvious. (Culver just graduated from Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High this past June).

Though Tania Bruguera is an important international performance artist, I wasn't impressed with her Autobiografía, a stage surrounded by white walls, microphone on a stand, and the sound of revolutionary harangues blasting through loudspeakers. The room's cold, intense light and the speech felt too sterile to properly convey the mesmerizing "empty" locus of power she obviously intended. Totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt and Georges Bataille have observed, appeals to theatrical grandiosity; Castro's revolution is no exception. What Bruguera's site needed was raw spectacle.

The best site-specific work here was Magnus Sigurdarson's massive L-shaped installation of thousands of Miami Heralds -- as if a huge mausoleum -- perhaps an unintended pun.

Warehouse 2 had Hugo Moro's Failed Crop, a dimly lit room with dressed mannequins sinking into the ground, a clever take on how our individual economies are faring in today's global economy. Also witty and fun was Endoderm 2 by Leslie A. Speicher, a pouch-shaped room interior made of glued-together slices of white foam, which felt (without shoes) biomorphically shielding and futuristic.

Mangrove, a drawing series by Xavier Cortada, was elegant and a promising new direction for the artist. Natasha Duwin's Cuntal Objects was an assembly of provocative sculptures representing the female womb -- simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Out on the street was Fernando Calzadilla's peculiar wall installation Open Secret. A number of human silhouettes were sledgehammered through the walls (as if strolling along with us) and illuminated by a yellowish light coming from within the crevices. The result was hallucinogenic. I also had fun with Mark Koven's group of kids performing (quite seriously) their art homework from school.