Site-specific art is a term used particularly since the 1960s for art made with a specific location in mind, whether inside or outside. The work may be made at that location or made for it. Site-Specific art may be an intervention in a specific place, environment or landscape.
Origins of the term
While the term Site-Specific is general and broad-ranging, it came into popular use in the 1960s. Many artists, particularly in the United States, reacted against pure Minimalism, which they felt had become increasingly commercialised. In producing works of art on site they exclusively belonged to the place they were made for, and could not be reduced to decorative fodder for wealthy patrons and buyers. American artist Claes Oldenburg wrote in 1961, 'I am for an art … that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.'
One of the first artists to make use of the term was American artist Robert Irwin, who began making spectral installations exploring light and space in the 1960s. By the 1970s Site-Specific Art was a popular trend, explored by Land Art and Conceptual Artists including Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Patricia Johanson and Athena Tacha.
Throughout the 1970s local governments in Europe and USA funded range of public art projects, leading to collaborations between artists, architects, patrons, and the public; the development of site-specific projects became an increasingly popular way of transforming a location. By the end of the decade, critics including Lucy Lippard and Catherine Howett had helped define Site-Specific Art as a bona fide movement.
Some early examples: Oldenburg and Serra
Many of the earliest examples of Site-Specific art emerged out of the United States. Claes Oldenburg’s, Batcolumn, 1977, in Chicago, was an oversized steel baseball bat at 100 feet high. Comprised of locally sourced, open lattice steel, the form referenced the area’s links to baseball, but it also resembles a police truncheon, alluding to Chicago’s violent past.
Not all Site-Specific art was popular with the public; Richard Serra’s hugely controversial Titled Arc, was made for the Federal Plaza building complex in Foley Square, New York in 1981. As a curved steel blade, its shape echoed the surrounding stone patterns, while gently leaning on one side. The work was despised by many locals, who described it as a “graffiti catcher” and an “iron curtain” which some complained caused obstacles for commuters on their way to work. Several petitions were signed by the public calling for its removal, which Serra strongly objected to, arguing, 'To move the work is to destroy (it),' making it the ideal example of Site-Specific art. In 1989 the work was cut into three parts and removed permanently, yet its notoriety has made it a potent symbol of its time.
Site-Specific Art at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Site-Specific art is still a popular practice today, particularly those looking to expand the boundaries between different mediums or to create art in alternative locations. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has commissioned various artists over the decades to produce permanent and temporary works of art within the gallery spaces and on the gallery grounds that encourage us to consider the spaces in a new way. Historian and architect Charles Jencks transformed various green spaces in Scotland into immersive, interactive spaces merging land and water and his Landform, 2001 was designed for the expanse of land facing the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, encapsulating the roles of social space, garden, sculpture and viewing platform into one site.
British artist Antony Gormley’s sculptures are often Site-Specific, responding conceptually or visually to their surroundings, including his series of sculptures, 6 TIMES, 2010, where casts of his own body are situated between the gallery and the sea at Leith Docks in Edinburgh. Four of the figures were originally set inside the water of Leith, acting as gauges for the height of the ebbing and flowing river.
Richard Wright’s The Stairwell Project, 2010, was created for the interior of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two, hidden in the domed ceiling of the stairwell. A repeating flower-like motif is scattered across the ceiling in a range of sizes as if swarming in and out of view, a shape that echoes the patterning of the building’s surrounding floral décor.