It could be postulated that that any artifact which can be visually improved by being presented on a pedestal simply reinforces its limited state of objectness.
- James Wines
I've Been Busy and Built! set me thinking (so they were successful at one critically important level) – that perhaps site-specific artists understand the crucial role of location better than most architects. Architecture has to occupy real space and insert itself into real places in order to exist, but too often there is a failure to recognise and address context. A quite astonishing number of buildings are designed without reference to their sites, which leads me to agree with Wines that '...the pedestal test seems to indicate that if a building looks better as a model on a base, there is a good chance that it should probably stay there'.
Defined by buildings, the artificial environment of outdoor spaces at Adelaide's Festival Centre provided the context for Built!. By its title and art building context, the exhibition begged a number of questions about the roles of art, architecture and the contextual relationships that are mediated by our constructed environments.
Stephanie Radok and India Flint used the simplest of means to restore to visibility the natural environment with which we have had such an insensible and brutal relationship. It was with a kind of wry, ironic elegance that the weathering away of their medium (chalk drawings on concrete pillars) then undid that restoration.
Their pieces in Built! self-consciously (and necessarily) acknowledge their contexts, simultaneously placing them in the artificiality of now and their displacement from a time before building. Their chalk marks, representing living organisms and living systems of the original place by way of semi-representational drawings of flora, spoke of a profoundly ecological sensibility and way of seeing that extended beyond the obvious. Their decision to make those images where they did simultaneously generated a critique of the built environment that provided the supporting medium.
It is in the nature of much art – and far too much architecture – that it is seen separated from its physical and temporal location. It is fundamental to all ecological understanding of the way the world works that there is always, but always, process. All things happen through time. The ephemeral nature of the medium employed by Radok and Flint spoke eloquently of the passing of the delicate majesty of the original landscape, and drew attention to the passage of time.
Radok and Flint's chalk drawings were sufficiently representational to be recognisable and it was essential to the effectiveness of the work that they were. People needed to easily understand the code that said 'there used to be flowers here'. The competence and knowledge demonstrated in their execution added authority to something that could have run the risk of being dismissed as trivial graffiti.
To be truly site-specific a work must surely bear all the scars of its being in the site. I was disappointed to learn that Sarah CrowEST's Snow Creature was repaired after an early incident of damage. Snow Creature attained its effect by speaking of another context, by being obviously out-of-place. There is good humour in this, but it's a one-liner. Once said, it doesn't go anywhere. That's where acceptance of site-specific erosion could have enriched the work (including vandalism – real snow people get attacked!).
Honor Freeman's light switches left me a little nonplussed, perhaps because the idea that switches might be anywhere and everywhere doesn't seem very challenging in a world where electronic devices really are anywhere and everywhere. Or maybe it's because I'm an architect&
The Festival Centre also hosted I've Been Busy by Roy Ananda, Andrew Best and Matthew Bradley, but it was in quite a different context; formalised as an exhibition, contained within the Art Space. It is interesting to speculate whether this work would have been as effective outside of a gallery, without the art context to frame the reading.
It is possible for framing to take place in outdoor spaces. Civic squares and Japanese gardens frame nature to draw attention to certain of its essential characteristics. And it's all in code: objects in civic squares have implied importance just by being there and, more subtly, in a Japanese garden rocks become plants. But I suspect that without the frame of a gallery space and all of its layers of coding and implied judgement, I've Been Busy wouldn't work, couldn't work, because the same objects outside of a gallery would not have been given the same value as objects of art. In this case, the pedestal effect was integral to the conception of the work.
These exhibitions took place during the SALA Festival that, for a number of weeks, had a presence in many places around the City of Adelaide. It would be good to see more site-specific works as part of future festivals, especially if they approach the quality of presentation and insight that Radok and Flint achieved with such remarkable and effective economy.