20 Insight on Site-Specificity

Insight on Site-Specificity


Many contemporary artists have explored the relationship between artwork and location, and how this relationship affects the meaning of the art on display. This theme in contemporary art is referred to as site-specificity, defined by Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel as “artwork in which the work takes part of its meaning and form from the particular location where it is installed”.[1] Critics have identified different categories of sites as well as different types of art within site-specificity.

Art historian James Meyers splits site-specificity into two parts, literal site and functional site. He explains that the literal site is the actual location of the work. It is important to note that because site specific work derives part of its meaning from the location, the art is created uniquely for the literal site. Meyers describes the functional site as the process that gives meaning to the literal site. The functional site is the temporary movement of information surrounding the work such as the debates about the work, as well as the ideas, drawings, photographs and videos of the work.[2] In direct response to Meyers, Miwon Kwon proposed her own way of defining site specific work and argues that there are three parts to site-specificity. The first site Kwon identifies in her article “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity” is the physical site where the work is located. The second site Kwon identifies is the cultural site, which can be defined as the cultural, political, economic, or social meanings of the work. The third site Kwon argues is the discursive site, or the discourse of knowledge and ideas surrounding the work.[3] This last site that Kwon identifies stems from both the physical site and cultural site to create a deeper meaning that is specific and relevant to the particular time that the art is on show. However, because the discursive site is characterized by the debates and discussions about the work, this site may change and evolve over time as the work may become more or less relevant to the viewer.

Much like how there are different types of sites within site-specificity, there are also different forms of art within site specific art. One form of art is earth art or land art. This type of art began in the 1960s and can be defined as the art practice where artists use nature and the surrounding landscape to create their work.[4] Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is an example of land art as well as much of the work created by Andy Goldsworthy. Another form of art within site-specificity is installation art. In the book Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer, the author, Mark Rosenthal, defines installation art as “art that is made for a particular place, so much so that it cannot easily be moved because the work is not an object but is attached to the surroundings”.[5] Examples of installation art are Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.

By exploring the relationship between the meaning of artwork and a particular location, site specific artwork produces a deeper and more complex meaning for the viewer. Site specific art has the ability to comment on the ever-changing world in a public and unique way keeping site-specificity as a major theme in contemporary art.




Ai Weiwei


Born in Beijing, China in 1957, Ai Weiwei’s main themes deal with the essence of Chinese culture — “freedom, power, politics, and the abuse of human rights”.[6] A year after Weiwei was born, his family was exiled to the Xinjiang Province for his father’s beliefs. They were unable to return to Beijing until 1976, after Mao Zedong’s death. Weiwei studied at the Beijing Film Academy and moved to New York in 1983, where he then studied at Parsons School of Design and participated in the experimental East Village scene. He returned to China in 1993 and has become one of China’s leading contemporary artists.[7] Since his return to China, Weiwei has publicly expressed his disapproval towards the Chinese government not only through his art but also through his blog, Instagram, and Twitter. In 2011, Weiwei was arrested and sentenced to an 81-day detention for “economic crimes” against the Chinese state.[8]

Arguably one of his best-known works, Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds exhibition, shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, filled the giant room with 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. In Weiwei’s own words, he chose to replicate sunflower seeds because

The sunflower seed is a kind of nightmare haunting me, because when I was growing up, the  Communist society was very limited. We didn’t have many images, besides the hammer and sickle, Chairman Mao’s book… everywhere we saw the same images, and one of the most important was the idea that Chairman Mao is the sun and we’re all sunflowers. The idea was to represent how loyal people should be during the Cultural Revolution…But sunflower seeds were one of the few pleasures everyone had. It’s a little bit personal. In everybody’s pocket or on everybody’s table you’d have these seeds, and on happy occasions or not so happy public events – like class struggle meetings or self- criticism meetings – you would find them and people would share and tolerate each other. The sunflower seed was one of the things that helped you survive.[9]

The seeds were made in China by craftspeople hired by Weiwei in Jingdezhen, a city that is known for its porcelain.[10] The seeds were then brought to London, which is reminiscent of how much China exports mass-produced goods to other countries and reminds the viewer of the term “Made in China”. By having 100 million seeds be handmade porcelain, Weiwei is bringing attention to the relationship between handmade items and mass-produced items. Traditionally a medium for Chinese antiques, having the seeds be made out of porcelain comments on Chinese culture and adds an extra layer of meaning, creating mass-produced items out handmade items.

When the exhibition first opened, viewers were able to interact with the seeds. They could walk on them, touch them, and even lay down on them. However, after being open to the public for a short amount of time, viewers were no longer allowed to interact with the seeds because of a toxic dust that the seeds were producing. Unintentionally, Weiwei’s work took on an unexpected topic of discussion — the harsh working conditions and toxic environments that factory workers endure. However, “the work makes reference to China’s role as globalization’s manufacturer of useless goods, a role which creates situations where, say, half a million Foxconn workers live within the walled compound of a single city-factory. But the Tate commission is not a product of this; ‘Sunflower Seeds’ has helped to support traditional craft production in numerous small-scale, village-led workshops.”[11]

This is an example of installation art because Weiwei created this exhibition specifically for the Turbine Hall. If Sunflower Seeds was placed in a smaller gallery space, it would not have the same effect on the viewer. The Turbine Hall is the literal site, or the physical site of Sunflower Seeds. The functional site of this work is the process of creating each porcelain seed, while both the functional site and discursive siteare the discussions or debates about the meanings and potential meanings of Sunflower Seeds. The cultural site is the significance of the work in relation to Weiwei’s Chinese background and culture of hand- and mass-production on a global scale.






Ana Mendieta


Cuban-American Ana Mendieta, born in Havana, Cuba, 1948, explores the topic of identity by representing the theme of exile in a temporary yet concrete visual way. Identity can be defined as the permanent characteristics that make someone who they are. However, by depicting only a silhouette of a female body in a changing environment, Mendieta is questioning whether the idea of identity — gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, etc. — is something that is unchanging.[12]

Mendieta studied at the University of Iowa in 1967, where she earned both her BA and MA degrees in painting. At the time, art was becoming more exploratory and experimental, with many artists crossing between multimedia, video art, performance art, installation art, and photography. While studying painting, Mendieta also began to experiment with mixed media and performance, which she is most famous for. Mendieta’s Silueta Series, which stretched from 1973 to 1980, has become her best-known work, crossing boundaries between land art, body art, and performance art. The series of photographs which now comprise the performance work show Mendieta’s silhouette in various landscapes and nature, with her body typically absent from the photographs but occasionally present. Because the Silueta Seriesis created within nature and with the surrounding landscape, it is considered to be earth art. Representing her body or silhouette as part of the landscape, Mendieta creates a crossover between subject and object, meaning her work

points to Mendieta as a subject in so far as Mendieta is a human being who has made the work, but it also points to her as an object in so far as her very silhouette is an object of art also represented by photographic means. Nevertheless, this work of art also problematizes the sharp dichotomy between subject and object, precisely by disclosing a space where it is not clear whether Mendieta is subject or object.[13]

The sites that Mendieta chose for her Silueta Series are temporary and easy to be missed, where “the sense of absence is heightened by the feeling that the wind could make the silhouette disappear. This is a characteristic that can be found in most of the silhouettes, since Mendieta chooses to make her silhouettes in places where their disappearance is only a matter of time”.[14] In other words, Mendieta chooses particular locations in nature where her work will be fleeting and eventually erased by other elements of the environment, making the Silueta Series site-specific. In Mendieta’s Untitled (from the Silueta Series), her silhouette is documented as red flowers on the beach in Mexico, where the water is already removing the flowers and erasing Mendieta’s silhouette. In this silhouette, like many of her silhouettes in the series, Mendieta has portrayed the female silhouette with arms stretched overhead, which “recalls the pose of the goddess with outstretched arms familiar from statues of the Minoan snake goddess amongst many other ancient sculptures and reliefs”.[15] By using the goddess pose, Mendieta reinforces the idea that nature is feminine and depicts a “celebration of feminine power, energy and divinity. Mendieta’s images seem to partake of aspects of all of these meanings, while also retaining something of the opacity of the gesture, its refusal or inability to be rendered directly into speech”.[16]


While her work explores the relationship between femininity and nature, Mendieta’s work also has ties to the Santería religion,

which provided familiar connections to memories of her childhood. Santería is the religion of the Yoruba-speaking people of Nigeria who were brought in chains to Cuba. Over time, slaves blended their traditional religion with elements of Spanish Catholicism and European spiritualism. Women are powerful participants and leaders in Santería as over half of the Santería priests are women. Afro-Cuban beliefs like Santería were introduced into New York City during the 1940s and surged in popularity following the exodus from the Cuba after the revolution in 1959.[17]

In many of her works, Mendieta uses blood, which is an essential part of the Santería tradition.

Mendieta’s work also deals with the theme of exile. In 1961, the same year that Fidel Castro declared Cuba a Marxist-socialist country, Mendieta’s parents sent her and her sister to the United States under a program sponsored by the Catholic Church called Operation Peter Pan. Mendieta’s father Ignacio was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1965 for being involved with planning the Bay of Pigs invasion, and it was also discovered that Ignacio had received training from the FBI and had suspected connections to the CIA. Mendieta and her sister were moved through multiple foster homes in Iowa until being reunited with their mother and younger brother in 1966.[18] It can be seen in the Silueta Series“that having been torn from her homeland is what led her to carry out a dialogue between earth and the female form—and bring to light the ‘space of exile’ or ‘exiled space’ that is disclosed through her art”.[19] By being in exile, one is separated from their home. It seems as though Mendieta tries to portray her lack of home or find a new home in different landscapes, overcoming her exile from Cuba and accepting that the Earth is her home.

Mendieta moved to New York City in 1978 and continued to create her unique earth-body art until her unfortunate death in 1985, where she fell from her apartment window.[20] At the time of her death, Mendieta and her husband, Carl Andre, had only been married for nine months. Andre became a suspect and was “arrested and charged with Ana Mendieta’s death. At the end of the trial, however, the jury dismissed all of the charges against him. Ana’s death has remained a mystery to her family and friends. To many, Andre’s acquittal was not only a sign of a failed justice system, but also of a patriarchal disregard of domestic violence”.[21] Even after her death, Mendieta’s art continues to be relevant to the contemporary world through her discussion of femininity, nature, exile and identity.

  1. McDaniel and Robertson. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  2. James Meyers, "The Functional Site", 1995.
  3. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity”, In October Vol. 80, 85-110 (The MIT Press: 1997).
  4. Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson, Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, (New York, Oxford University Press: 2005).
  5. Mark Rosenthal, Understanding Installation Art: From Duchamp to Holzer (Prestel: 2003).
  6. Tamara Lucas, "A Window to the World of Ai Weiwei," The Lancet 386, no. 10008 (2015): 2047.
  7. Ibid
  8. David Trigg, "Ai Weiwei", Art Monthly 378, (July 2014): 21-22.
  9. Brendan McGetrick. “Ai Weiwei: Cultural Evidence", FlashArt 43, no. 275 (2010): 56-58.
  10. Ibid
  11. David Barrett, "Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds", Art Monthly343, (Febraury 2011): 24-25.
  12. Mariana Ortega, “Exiled space, in-between space: existential spatiality in Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas Series”, Philosophy & Geography, no. 1 (Carfax Publishing, 2004), 31-34, doi: 10.1080/1090377042000196001
  13. Ibid, 29.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Susan Best, “The Serial Spaces of Ana Mendieta”,Art History, vol. 30 no. 1 (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) 68.
  16. Ibid, 69.
  17. Vicki Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 228.
  18. Ibid, 226.
  19. Mariana Ortega, “Exiled space, in-between space: existential spatiality in Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas Series”, Philosophy & Geography, no. 1 (Carfax Publishing, 2004), 30, doi: 10.1080/1090377042000196001
  20. Olga Viso, Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta(Prestel: 2008), 15-17.
  21. Vicki Ruíz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 235.


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