When it comes to studying art history, we’ve come a fair way since projector slides. Interactive online resources, archives, and image databases have made viewing and researching art much more accessible to the public. Still, contemporary art is moving in such a direction that historians and students simply can’t rely on the tried-and-true methods they have used to study art in decades past, especially when it comes to themes of site-specificity, collaboration, and interactive installations. Much of the site-specific art we see today is partly experiential, for example. Often times, a photographic reproduction only serves to destroy the integrity of the piece and neglect the artist’s original intent.
This issue isn’t unique to contemporary art. Site-specific art dates back even to the days of Renaissance-era illusionistic frescoes. Consider Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling fresco in the Ducal Palace, with its illusionistic oculus adorned by curious putti observing the viewers below. Art has evolved exponentially since then, so it seems absurd that we should study Mantegna in the same way we study the site-specific works of contemporary artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In our technologically savvy era, why haven’t we discovered more innovative ways to study and analyze unconventional media? In this project, I will cite several case studies of artists whose work eludes traditional means of representation.
Felice Varini creates illusionistic, site-specific work atop various architectural landscapes. Dubbed a “perspective-localized painter,” Varini manipulates his painted surfaces to appear flat and geometric, creating contrast between 3-dimensional building façades and 2-dimensional paintings. However, Varini manipulates his “canvas” in such a way that the image is only coherent from one specific vantage point. From any other perspective, the mural dissolves into a series of jagged, nonsensical lines. In one sense, these artworks imply the necessity of the viewer’s participation to bring a painting to life. In another sense, the painting technically lives on, whether or not the viewer is there to confirm its existence—not just from its original viewpoint, but from an infinite number of viewpoints. In a 2008 interview, Varini himself claims, “It is not therefore through this original vantage point that I see the work achieved; it takes place in the set of vantage points the viewer can have on it.” He also believes that his artwork truly lives “outside the vantage point, where reality allows for all shapes to live.”
Varini’s work is difficult to describe even textually—his work is entirely experiential, and raises questions about the painting-viewer relationship. The annotated image above of his work, Trapèze désaxé autour d’un rectangle (1996), exemplifies a need for a more hands-on, intuitive method of representing his work. Interactive media might remedy this issue, perhaps by utilizing a 360-degree camera to capture several angles of the work, from different vantage points, so the viewer can witness the alignment and subsequent destruction of the geometric pattern as if they were moving around the space in real time.
Laura Owens is a contemporary painter who aims to explore the limitations of the medium of painting. Her paintings are all conceived digitally, despite their gestural quality. Owens’ paintings retain a distinct human quality, full of emotion. In addition to raising objections to the notion of digital art feeling impersonal and mechanical, Owens’ paintings raise questions about the nature of the viewing experience. Her paintings feature many hidden phrases and small details which are not easily translated through photographic reproductions. Additionally, viewing her digital paintings through the additional lens of a computer screen or physical reproduction distances the viewer from the paintings’ emotional, gestural aura. Despite the fact that the paintings are conceived digitally, viewing them digitally defeats the purpose of Owens’ work, as she aims to highlight the capacity of digital painting to bear intense emotion, as well as reform the concept of what the painterly gesture can look like.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are a monumental duo in the field of modern site-specific art and architecture. Notably, they have tackled projects in which they wrapped famous monuments in massive amounts of tarp, such as the Reichstag and Pont Neuf. At the heart of their work is the concept of questioning the quotidian by transforming monuments which otherwise provide some stability within their respective bustling, urban landscapes. Because they aim to cause a rift within the quotidian urban superstructure, their work requires viewer presence to be fully realized as the artists intended. Is a photograph of one of their artworks, then, an inherent rebellion against their mission? A photograph could never provide the same effect as one of their installations visited in-person. Just imagine: a municipal building, for example, one which effectively grounds the city in its specific place in space and time, yet remains understandably overlooked and invisible. Now imagine having a bright orange tarp placed over the building. This calls new attention to the building but also makes one reconsider the structure as distinct from its previous, unremarkable state. People would reform how they consider the space in theory, as well as how they physically move around the space. That being said, a photographic reproduction of this experience would fail to capture the essence of the project.
Site-specific and interactive art, in our present digital age, pose problems regarding how to represent and archive them. When the focus of an artwork is its temporality—its urgency of being right-here-right-now—it becomes difficult to effectively document it in traditional formats. Interactive media is a budding field which might remedy the solution of learning about and admiring these types of artworks. Media such as virtual reality could provide promising solutions to these problems. Virtual museum tours, for example, begin to address the need for viewing experiential or site-specific art with integrity. The possibilities are as limitless as the infinite strings of programming code with which to create these resources.