On Site, In Context, With Place

Pauline J. Yao, Lead Curator, Visual Art

Five Artists: Sites Encountered departs from a simple conceit: art is in regular conversation with site, place, and its surroundings. The notion of site, however, can signal a multitude of meanings and trigger a wide array of artistic responses. Here, the exhibiting artists from different generations and geographies offer various interpretations of site—from intangible to tangible and imagined to real. The selected works include poetic expressions of the body, intense investigations into the built environment, and in one instance, a direct response to the M+ site. Together, the artists’ work reminds us of the unique ability of art to illuminate the human psyche and the social realities around us.

As the construction of the M+ building nears completion, the museum’s site becomes a potential gateway to thinking through these ideas and addressing our own locale—a process that M+ began six years ago. By mounting Mobile M+: Inflation!—a 2013 exhibition featuring inflatable sculptures installed on the grassy expanse of reclaimed land at the West Kowloon Cultural District—the museum invited members of the public to set foot on the yet-to-be-developed M+ site and join the conversation around art sited in public spaces. Today, the same expanse has evolved from a non-distinct space to a defined place, and it is continually altered as the district expands.

Taking these transformations occurring around the M+ Pavilion and the M+ building as a departure point, Five Artists: Sites Encountered brings together an international group of artists to explore and extend the dialogue around site and place. The exhibited works display powerful connections between art and the natural environment, architectural space, urban contexts, and discursive frameworks. Since art left the confines of studio spaces and began to intervene with actual places and contexts—during the 1960s and 1970s—particular practices, such as performance and body art, and Minimalist sculpture and installation, have been some modes by which artists seek to bring art closer to human experience, society, and to the conditions of production and distribution. In this exhibition, the five artists employ a variety of strategies that encourage us to rethink our relationships to place, the earth beneath us, and the societies we inhabit. For instance, the expression of body and the siting of artworks in public spaces—measures adopted by pioneering artists Ana Mendieta and Charlotte Posenenske—speak to anti-formalist tendencies of their time that move away from the sovereign autonomy of the artist or work of art. Lee Bul and Lara Almarcegui respond to urban surroundings via sculptures and installations, building subtle critiques around the accelerating pace of urban expansion in our cities. For May Fung, the camera provides a way to explore collective memory and experience, addressing the changing circumstances of her home environment. The site that these artists engage with is not necessarily a literal one, but a network of operations and a constellation of conditions that evolve over time and across place.

It would be difficult to find another artist with a practice more centred on ideas of site, place, and land than Cuban-born American artist Ana Mendieta. As a young art student at the University of Iowa during the 1970s, Mendieta travelled with her fellow classmates on a trip to Mexico, which marked her first journey outside the United States since she arrived from Cuba as a refugee at age thirteen. While there, she encountered ancient burial sites in Yagul, Oaxaca built by the pre-Columbian culture known as the Zapotec civilisation. The grounds of the archaeological monuments left a lasting impression upon her and became the backdrop to one of her earliest films, Silueta del Laberinto (Labyrinth Blood Imprint) (1974), a haunting journey through the ruins that settles on a bloodstained body outline in one of the ceremonial sites. From that moment on, Mendieta began carrying out performative actions whereby she impressed her body into dirt, sand, and mud and transformed the materials with water, smoke, and fire. So began the Silueta series (Silhouette series) (1974–1981), a conversation between Mendieta and the natural landscape that lasted nearly ten years, stretched across multiple locales in the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, and yielded over fifty films. Her actions, documented by still photographs and moving images, capture her presence but more often her absence—as her own body slowly recedes, a silhouette form is left behind as a wound in the landscape. With the Silueta series, Mendieta stands in opposition to her American contemporaries—mostly male—who were undertaking monumental, semi-permanent interventions in the natural landscape in the Western parts of the United States. Not only is the Silueta series unmonumental and emphatically human-scaled, but it also personifies fragility and ephemerality. In placing, or in some cases, attempting to sear her body into the ground, Mendieta was not concerned with challenging or dominating nature, but instead being in harmony with it, particularly in the spiritual sense. A believer in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria that views the earth as a living thing and a life force from which one can derive special powers, Mendieta demonstrates in her work the strong connection with forms of ritual and ceremony.

The Silueta series contains certain autobiographical elements that are hard to ignore. Having experienced the trauma of being uprooted from her Cuban homeland as a young girl and dropped into middle America, Mendieta was continually confronted with issues of cultural identity and difference. In this sense, her gesture of inscribing her body into the Iowa riverbanks takes on additional layers of meaning. The wound that she leaves behind with her body can be seen as an allusion to the absence and loss of her body/self as an immigrant woman, who tried to make an appearance on the American art scene during the 1970s.

Echoing Mendieta’s themes of loss and subjectivity, May Fung’s She Said Why Me (1989) depicts a process of searching and recovery. Set in Fung’s home town of Hong Kong, the film features a young woman using touch instead of eyesight to move through the city, tapping into concepts of history and collective memory. The journey of the main character represents not only the experience of the artist but also of the Hong Kong people at large. The film is rife with symbolism and motifs that speak to loss, precarity, and the female experience. Produced just five years after the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that sealed Hong Kong’s fate of returning to Chinese sovereignty, She Said Why Me is a powerful statement about how citizens of that time began to re-examine their city in a different light. The historical situation in which Hong Kong found itself during the late 1980s and early 1990s—being caught between two powers (Britain and China) and facing imminent disappearance of one’s home as they know it—was unprecedented. The period witnessed a resurfacing of Hong Kong–specific images and symbols in film, literature, and art. In his 1997 book, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, critic Ackbar Abbas borrows Freud’s idea of negative hallucination to articulate the unique moment in Hong Kong: ‘If hallucination means seeing ghosts and apparitions, that is, something that is not there, reverse hallucination means not seeing what is there.’ Fung’s blindfolded heroine is a nearly perfect representation of this concept—the histories and memories of a place are things that can only be partially reclaimed by the body.

Equally concerned with our relationships to land and earth, Lara Almarcegui’s newly commissioned project presents a radical turn away from the subjective approaches that define Fung’s and Mendieta’s work. Instead, Almarcegui redirects our attention to the materials and conditions of the built environment, reminding us that when notions of site, land, and place come into play, issues of economic growth and the attendant processes of urban development are never far behind. Over the past fifteen years, Almarcegui has crafted an artistic practice that merges land art with research strategies characteristic of institutional critique. Using a cool and detached lens, she investigates the relationship between land and architecture and goes to extreme lengths to help us see that what lies under our feet—namely, the earth—is not all that different from the concrete and wood used to erect the buildings we inhabit. Our lives are defined by our place and position, and yet we increasingly live in urban settings and our encounters with land adopt the form of architecture. Take, for example, the cyclical process of building and demolition. In construction, raw materials come together to form the constituent elements necessary to assemble architecture, but if and when the structure is demolished, these components are broken down and returned to their raw state. Parallel to Mendieta, Almarcegui seeks to fuse the realms of human and geological time, though for Almarcegui the earth is less a giver of spiritual power and more a giver of organic resources that are transformed into commodities used in construction. By tracing the histories of these constituent elements, Almarcegui is also tracing the ongoing movement and circulation of materials. Motivated in part to critique the modernist impulse towards progress, she reflects on how these elements mutate to become recognisable architecture. In her commissioned piece, Almarcegui presents an exact calculation of all the materials used in the construction of the M+ building in the form of a textual list mounted plainly on a blank wall. By reducing the complex mechanisms of a built structure into a list of raw ingredients, she prompts us to think about unseen relationships between what lies in the earth and the buildings that surround us.

The two remaining artists posit more complex understandings of site that are neither actual nor fixed in time or place. For Lee Bul, modernist architecture is an important point of departure. Her sculptures, crafted from industrial materials and machine-made parts, speak to a singular techno-futuristic imagination. Born to dissident parents, the artist was raised under the military dictatorship of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who came to power and set about turning the country into a development-driven capitalist state. The dictator’s idealistic vision did not materialise and the nation suffered under a repressive and autocratic regime. This later inspired the work Thaw (Takaki Masao) (2007)—a nod to Park’s Japanese name—one of many sculptures Lee has produced around the subject of utopia.

Moving frequently during her childhood, Lee constantly encountered new places and lived with the uncomfortable awareness that her circumstances were different from those around her. She came of age during the post–Korean War era—a period defined by increasing affluence, consumerism, and technological advancements, and in the early decades of her career, she focused on the body and boundary-breaking performances that gave way to the series of Monster sculptures based on non-human beings that conflate plant, animal, and machine. Soon after came her Cyborg series, which upends traditional representations of femininity and addresses myths of technological perfection.

In recent years, Lee’s focus has shifted from the body to the built environment. Ever interested in our human tendencies towards capacious idealism, she draws heavily on the urban imaginations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century utopian thinkers and architects. For the artist, their utopian visions divulge the ways in which humans continually strive to achieve perfection but fail repeatedly. Ideas of site and place are at the centre of Lee’s group of maquettes—models of real and fictional buildings that include Russian constructivism and studies for Lee’s own life-sized sculptural installations. Scale plays an important role here, since the maquettes show in miniature what we know to be of epic scale. By representing the outsized ambitions in small and intimate forms, Lee underscores the relationships between actual reality and projected imagination and points to the ways in which we look into the past to inform the present.

The work of Charlotte Posenenske poses an interesting enigma. Her artistic career coincided with the progressive era of the 1960s and embraced the reductive tendencies of the Minimalist art movement. Her work embodies aspects of both of these moments, but she herself was a forerunner to much more, including conceptualism and participatory practices. From an art historical perspective, Posenenske’s Vierkantrohre series (Square Tubes series) (1967) embraces all of the core principles found in Minimalist sculpture. Produced in a method that rigorously adheres to industrial manufacturing, the unit parts are identical and can be reproduced endlessly without the hand of the artist (aside from original mechanical drawings). Moreover, installations of the works take into account the physical elements of an exhibition space, such as its dimensions, the texture and shape of walls and rooms, the scale and proportion of interior structures, and the presence and positions of viewers. In true Minimalist form, the works aim to relocate meaning from within the art object to its surrounding context, and they are predicated on the presence of a viewer and lived bodily experience.

Due to Posenenske’s unwavering attachment to uniformity, standardisation, and modularity, she embraced a variety of unconventional approaches. For instance, the unit parts she designed have no fixed configurations. Instead, she devised a system whereby the number of unit parts used in a given sculpture are not set, meaning that they can be arranged to fit a space or continued indefinitely. Most importantly, Posenenske left each configuration to be decided by the owner or ‘end user’, thus allowing a curator or collector to assemble and change the installation according to their own wishes, and thereby eradicating the artist’s creative autonomy. With this democratic approach, Posenenske contributed to ideas of variability, participation, and a genre of art-making that had traditionally rejected even the slightest deviation from the authorised original. Furthermore, her site-responsiveness was not limited to the exhibition or gallery space, but extended to public spaces such as train stations, airports, factories, and other industrial settings, where she placed her works. She welcomed graffiti, fingerprints, or natural weathering that signal the passage of time and become indicative of the object’s existence in the real world. Her work’s lack of preciousness and its spirit of participation mirrored the calls for social change dominating the 1960s.

The ready-made appearance of Posenenske’s work can easily find roots in Conceptual art. The Vierkantrohre series is quite often mistaken for sheet-metal ventilation shafts—a confusion that one can view as partially intentional. In being interpreted as everyday objects, they cease to be ‘art objects’ per se, in other words, they become fully integrated in the world and effectively disappear. Oddly, this series of sculptures is Posenenske’s final and most lasting contribution to art. She stopped working as an artist in 1968 and withdrew from the art world, no longer believing that art could contribute to the ills and inequalities in contemporary society. The disappearance of her sculptures into their surroundings offers an uncanny parallel to the artist’s disappearance from the art scene.

From Five Artists: Sites Encountered, it is clear that art can emerge from dialogues with the site and place of its creation and the social context of its time. This overturns the long-standing misperception that art is produced in isolation, and that artists are cut off from the concerns of the day. The strategies presented in this exhibition demonstrate that artists are not just makers of objects, but rather social agents, who help to make visible the hidden operations of institutional power and socioeconomic forces of our time, and thus serve as important voices in the formation of contemporary visual culture. The adventurous and forward-thinking contributions of artists open up our readings of objects, images, and situations around us. Specifically, in exploring and examining individual and cultural identities, sense of rootedness, as well as the built environment, these five artists help us see our surroundings in a new light and draw more awareness to who we are as beings living and navigating the world.