- Introduction:Site Specificity Without Borders
In the summer of 2016, the Storm King Art Center presented Terrestrial Studio, the first posthumous exhibition of works by the American artist dennis oppenheim, who died in 2011 at the age of 72. It was his first U.S. museum show in almost ten years.1 Oppenheim has long been associated with the rise of site-specific artistic practices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which the geographic contexts of production and display are integral to the meanings and purposes of a given artwork. So while Oppenheim's oeuvre is too various to admit of only that label, comprising as it does works associated with movements such as body art, video, performance, conceptual art, and installation, the Terrestrial Studio show offers an opportunity to introduce the central topic of this special issue of asap/journal—namely, the life and afterlife of site specificity in the twenty-first century. How has the language and practice of site-specific art traveled (or failed to travel) through time and across space, over the boundaries among media and disciplines, and across the frontiers that divide and demarcate nations and social worlds?
Oppenheim's early work clearly demonstrates the site-specific artist's signature escape from the studio and gallery, with the new geographic site of manufacture and display turned into a constitutive element of the work of art. In Gallery Transplant (1969), for instance, Oppenheim drew an architectural outline of the Cornell University Andrew Dickinson White Museum's sculpture hall in the snow-covered ground outside the gallery. In drawing a line in the earth that would disappear as the snow melted or more precipitation fell, Oppenheim produced work that was at once fixed and transient—and which, for both reasons, held out the potential of resisting curatorial objectification and economic [End Page 483] commodification. Part of Cornell's famous 1969 Earth Art exhibition—curated by Willoughby Sharp and also featuring pioneering early land artists such as Robert Smithson, Hans Haacke, and Richard Long—Gallery Transplant illustrates Oppenheim's importance to the development of artistic techniques and values indelibly associated with popular and scholarly ideas about site specificity.2 In his play with earth and snow, we witness the way site-specific practices expanded the media and means of symbolic expression, tied to the project of critically examining the art world's institutional structures in and through those media and means.
The museum portion of Storm King's Terrestrial Studio show contains several works from Oppenheim's land art period, including documentation of Gallery Transplant as well as of contemporaneous works such as Boundary Split (1968), in which the artist cut a channel into the frozen surface of the St. John River in Maine, perpendicular to the temporal boundary between the United States (Eastern Standard Time) and Canada (Atlantic Time). However, the first Oppenheim works that a visitor to Storm King would likely encounter were not constructed into, or out of, the earth. Rather, these bright fiberglass and aluminum fabrications—cartoonish semblances of prickly pear cacti native to the desert southwest—seem to mock the idea that they might possess any necessary or autochthonous relation to the green Hudson Valley landscape in which they are displayed. The Architectural Cactus sculptures quite literally stand out. Dotted around a wooded lawn, they flaunt their foreignness. Considered as "natural" objects—that is, as cacti—they look like an alien species; understood as architectural constructions, their combination of materials and style are, likewise, a world away from the grassy undulations of a famous Storm King piece such as Maya Lin's Wavefield (2007-08), a gigantic earthwork built on a reclaimed gravel pit once used to construct the nearby New York State Thruway.3 If the earliest works in Terrestrial Studio showcase canonical examples of site-specific practice, then the later pieces seem to flip a middle finger to the idea that artworks ought to have some necessary relation to their site of display.
The contrast we're foregrounding here suggests an art-historical tale in which Oppenheim's Architectural Cactus series functions as a kind of autocritique—a sign that site...