Farewell to Place by Magdalena Jetelova – reflections from an abandoned phd about the sculpture trail

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(I have credited the photographers where I know who it was.)

I worked for the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust for several years and developed a fondness for Place by Magdalena Jetelova. Today Place (more commonly known locally as The Giants Chair) was dismantled and later in the week will be converted into charcoal, an ancient tradition used in the Forest of Dean. It completes the circle of this temporary artworks’ lifecycle.

The Sculpture Trust has considered the history of the sculpture respectfully and are following the wishes of the artist. Knowing that new artworks will be created using this recycled material is heartening and points in a positive way to the current growth of the trail. New commissions will be installed in the near future – you can read more about that on their website. I look forward to seeing them come to fruition.

And there’s a lovely film about Place here by Jamie Brightmore.

I’ve dug out a few photos I have on my drive – farewell to a work that was loved by many and will be missed.

This feels an apt time to dig out old files from my backup drive and revisit the drafts of the Phd I began about 8 years ago. It was a learning curve and a mistake for me and I conceded I would never complete it. It was about the Sculpture Trail.

I loved doing the research and was fascinated by many theories that related to ethnography,  encounter, public engagement, walking, cultural geography and of course contemporary socially engaged practice. So here are a few extracts – first one about Place and next a section about theories relating to ‘space and place’. I may dig out more soon – a bit like leafing through old family photos.

PHD EXTRACTS © CAROLYN BLACK 2015 – previously unpublished

Magdalena Jetelova elected to use timber in her construction. Following her visit to the forest in 1985, newly arrived in England from Czechoslavakia, Jetelova submitted a proposal for a huge chair to be positioned on a high viewing point looking out across the Cannop Valley. The area had recently been felled so was barren of trees and a special mound of earth was constructed to raise the sculpture high up and take it out of the way of the logging tracks, so as not to create an obstruction in the working forest. This ‘landscaping’ set a precedent and future maintenance plans took into consideration how the artworks were physically sited and the maintenance area around them required to be considered.

Rupert Martin writes eloquently in describing Place:

Place was not constructed on-site but made at the Sculpture Shed in Bristol, where the oak was delivered to and the joints constructed. The timber was then seasoned on-site in the forest for some six months before being erected using a 10 ton crane to move the limbs, which each weighed around four tons.

Entitled Place, the sculpture is a place both to walk to, and from which to survey the landscape. It is not just an object to look at, but with its skeletal construction, a portal, a gate through which the valley can be framed. It has become known as the ‘Giants Chair’, the throne of some creature whose domain is the forest. With its irregular gait it has the look of an animal traversing the land, and brings to mind the myths and fairytales of our childhood. It is also an almost abstract structure, with its rhythm of horizontals and verticals changing from each angle to form an asymmetrical composition. The character of the sculpture varies with each season, so that its harsh face in winter becomes benign and welcoming in summer. When first constructed it overlooked the devastation of a slope of recently felled trees, like an overlord surveying the scene of some battle. In summer the slope was clothed in pink foxgloves and soon, as the pine trees grow, a sea of green will break like waves at the foot of the chair. Comparisons have been made with Henry Moore’s King and Queen, placed on a hill slope above a lake in Dumfriesshire. With its human scale and figuration, Moore’s work has an unassuming intimacy and sense of human frailty and companionship. In its bold isolation and dramatic scale, Jetelova’s work has by contrast an awe inspiring grandeur. The work expresses some of the ideas which she developed out of the oppression in her native Czechoslavakia, where the monolithic state dominated every aspect of life. She has written that what fascinates her is “the possibility of expressing constant change in these objects”.

That change is provided by the changing nature of the forest.

 Rupert Martin

The particularities of space and place in public art practice

Not all public art is site or place specific, but both concepts have come to predominate and inform public art commissioning programmes. The concept of site-specificity has changed since it was first used in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. According to Kwon, site-specificity originally emerged from minimalism:

Site-specific art was initially based on a phenomenological or experiential understanding of the site, defined primarily as an agglomeration of the actual physical attributes of a particular location…..(Kwon 2002:3)

Kwon describes how those conditions have shifted over the years and proposes that they have turned full-circle, but that now the location has changed from being that of the site to that of the artist. She suggests that this has come about partly through the nomadic nature of the artist. In response to international exhibiting opportunities, artists are required to visit places (more often than not cities) and respond to them, without sufficient opportunity to have a deep or meaningful engagement with those places. If the site is imperative to an artwork, and that artwork could not exist if it were removed from the site, it is inferred that the site itself is the author of the work, and without it the work becomes meaningless. Kwon describes this period as being when:

The uncontaminated and pure idealist space of dominant modernisms was radically displaced by the materiality of the natural landscape or the impure and ordinary space of the everyday. And the space of art was no longer perceived as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, but a real place. …Site-specific work in its earliest formation, then, focused on establishing an inextricable, indivisible relationship between the work and its site, and demanded the physical presence of the viewer for the work’s completion. (Kwon 2002:11)

The case of Serra’s Tilted Arc notoriously confronted these issues. Serra had been commissioned to create a public sculpture for the Federal Plaza in Washington, but when it was installed there was public outcry and demands were made for it to be removed or relocated. Kwon refers to a letter Serra wrote to the director of the Art-in-Architecture Program, who had commissioned this enormous steel sculpture – some 120 feet long – for the Federal Plaza in Washington. Serra stated in his letter that Tilted Arc was “commissioned and designed for one particular site: Federal Plaza. It is a site-specific work and as such not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work”. (Kwon 2002:12)

Kwon lists the following current variations on the theme of site-specific as including site-determined, site-orientated, site-conscious, site-responsive and site-related – note that the term specific is avoided. She suggests that the emergence of these terms in recent years indicates a return to the anti-idealist, anti-commercial site-specific practices of those early days, yet proceeds to suggest that the shift away from the original term site-specificity may be an attempt to:

….mark a difference from the artistic precedents of site-specificity whose dominant positivist formulations (the most well known being Richard Serra’s) are deemed to have reached a point of aesthetic and political exhaustion. (Kwon 2002:1)

Although Kwon refers to the fact that “site-specificity is here conceived as what art historian Deutsche has called an ‘urban-aesthetic’ or ‘spatial cultural’ discourse” (Kwon 2004, pg 2), her review of the development of contemporary site-specific practices touches on several things that also relate to commissioning in a rural context. Site-specific art grew out of land-art, which sought to reject galleries, institutions and commercial markets. But gradually galleries and institutions adopted and modified site-specificity to meet their own needs, and some artists responded by making site-specificity the content of the work. Artists such as Buren and Bochner installed artworks in galleries that challenged them as containers of art and, in the case of Buren, his work Within And Beyond The Frame (1973), literally broke out of the gallery into the public space of the street beyond. At the same time other artists and curators were looking beyond the galleries, turning their backs on the urban and working outside.

During the late 1980’s performance artists also began to respond to the site-specific, creating temporary interventions often in non-art sites. Kwon describes this period as being when:

…the site of art begins to diverge from the literal space of art and the physical condition of a specific location recedes as the primary element in the conception of a site. (Kwon 2004:24)

These temporary interventions abandoned the formal boundaries of sculpture, performance, theatre and event, instead embracing all, or any combination of, a wide range of processes:

Site-specific art adopts strategies that are either aggressively anti visual – informational, textual, expositional, didactic – or immaterial altogether – gestures, events, or performances bracketed by temporal boundaries. The ‘work’ no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verbal/process, provoking the viewers’ critical (not just physical) acuity regarding ideological conditions of this viewing. (Kwon 2004:24)

Mirroring this shift in understanding of the term site-specific there occurred a re-evaluation of public art, which began to embrace the importance of the relational dynamic between the participants, the art and the site itself. Public art had long been aligned with monumental sculpture and object-centred practices, yet ‘new-genre public art’, as referred to by Lacy, shifted the focus away from the object and its site to the processes which informed it, be they art or not art processes, and the engagement of the people involved in that process. The artists themselves then became the ‘site’ of the interaction and it was their action of mediating between location and community that replaced the role of the site as the context. The location is still important, as are the narratives that inform it, but the site has moved elsewhere and become relational. When the roots of site-specificity are grounded (literally) in location, rather than site, then the artist becomes the site out of necessity, and indeed is the site of the artwork, the location of the authorship. When in the 1960’s and 1970’s the location of the artwork, the object, was tied to the site to which it responded and where it was located, questions had arisen about the authorship of the artwork, as the site was the author, as Serra clearly asserted in his statement.

Kwon refers to the action of ‘unhinging art from its site’ and it could be said that by doing so the authorship was transferred from the site to the artist. Kwon suggests that the concept of the site of authorship returning to the artist as author is a rejection of Barthes and all those that hailed the ‘death of the author’. At the same time, the curator, previously more commonly known as the arts administrator, stepped into the void. Kwon describes the late 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when the ‘aesthetics of administration’ became the ‘administration of aesthetics’. She describes this process as being whereby “the artist is no longer necessarily the maker of aesthetic objects but has become a facilitator, educator, coordinator and bureaucrat.” (Kwon 2004:51)

The concept of site-specificity in terms of location became important again when non-gallery exhibitions became absorbed into the cultural identity of cities, often operating outside of the established gallery network. Artist-led projects increased substantially in the 1980’s and many sought empty buildings in areas of regeneration, spaces big enough to accommodate the huge number of art students now leaving the university system.[1] With urban regeneration had come homogeneity – if one city successfully rebuilt its docks area as a cultural quarter, the next city would follow. When artists used empty building to draw attention to the life of a city, by doing so they were boosting the cultural economy and making that place unique. This may not have been so predominant in USA, but it was certainly a force of change here in Britain, most evidently in the east End of London.[2] According to Kwon:

Significantly, the appropriation of site-specific art for the valorization of urban identities comes at a time of a fundamental cultural shift in which architecture and urban planning, formerly the primary media for expressing a vision of a city, are displaced by other media more intimate with marketing and advertising. (Kwon 2002:53)

Regeneration resulted in the adoption of site-specific practices by the mainstream, and public art commissioners embraced its potential of contributing to place-making, using site-specific art to celebrate sense of place:

Certainly site-specific art can lead to the unearthing of repressed histories, help provide greater visibility to marginalized groups and issues, and initiate the re(dis)covery of ‘minor’ places so far ignored by the dominant culture. But inasmuch as the current socioeconomic order thrives on the (artificial) production and (mass) consumption of difference (for difference sake), the siting of art in ‘real’ places can also be a means to extract the social and historical dimensions of these places in order to variously serve the thematic drive of an artist, satisfy institutional demographic preference profiles, or fulfil the fiscal needs of a city. (Kwon 2002:53)

Tuan refers to this place-making as topophilia: “The term topophilia couples sentiment with place” (Tuan 1974:113) and continues by saying:

The appreciation of landscape is more personal and longer lasting when it is mixed with the memory of human incidents. It also endures beyond the fleeting when aesthetic pleasure is combined with scientific curiosity.

Tuan also offers a distinction between space and place:

In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. Architects speak of locational (place) qualities of space. The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (Tuan 1977:53)

Cartiere also refers to the often-confused terms of space and place:

Within the lexicon of public art, terms such as site, space and place are often used interchangeably. This indiscriminate interchange can cause confusion and can be detrimental to understanding the distinct nature of both site-specific and place-specific work. (Cartiere 2003:96)

[1] cee.lse.ac.uk/cee%20dps/ceedp57.pdf As higher education participation rose in the 1980s and 1990s, this became increasingly problematic. Firstly, the level of per capita resourcing in HE fell dramatically, as student numbers were expanded whilst funding remained more or less constant in real terms.

[2] http://disappearheremag.com/features/article/the_rise_and_rise_of_the_east_end/

In the 1980’s SPACE and Acme Studios would play, amongst others, a significant role in pioneering the East End. Both artist-run, not for profit initiatives, would utilize abandoned houses on the bomb peppered streets of East London as affordable live/work spaces, to counteract ever-increasing living costs.

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