spatial disorientation / navigation / spatial artwork

The Clandulla State Gallery looks to most people like a typical dry Australian bush, and where anyone unfamiliar with the bush will easily get lost because there are no obvious landmarks.

For The Survey Show, this potential for us to get lost will be addressed by Alex’s bush-regeneration friend, Dave, who plans to make a ready-made cycle path sufficiently navigable (visible) for visitors using a leaf blower.  Even apart from that, it may also be solved when The Survey Show is installed if it happens to include works that are visible from anywhere other than close-up. Otherwise there seem to be no maps showing the cycle paths or detail within the Clandulla State Gallery space, but people could bring a compass or GPS to help navigate if they wanted assistance. Or you could spend a lot of time in the Gallery to familiarise yourself with it, and develop your own Clandulla way-finding techniques.

However, as well as preventing us literally getting lost if we wander off the leaf-blown path, navigational methods are also relevant to artwork constructed for the Clandulla State Gallery. This is because, though its tendency to look the same in all directions makes it resemble the white cube (that, according to Brian O’Doherty[i], evolved to try to maintain the spatial autonomy long valued in painting and sculpture), the particular reason why it looks the same in all directions (being a certain type of bush) actually encourages artwork that does the opposite, artwork that draws on its physical context for part of its meaning—such as site-specific or land art.[ii]

Methods of navigation have an interesting connection with site-specificity because different methods of navigation also draw on different sites. These are not identical to the sites normally discussed in site-specificity—which tend to be grouped as actual physical space/places, art institutions and broader non-locational ‘sites’ such as groups of people or bodies of knowledge, etc, named by writer on site-specificity, Miwon Kwon as the phenomenological, institutional critique and discursive sites respectively.[iii]

But there is some overlap with the sites that seem to be drawn on by different navigation methods: way-finding techniques draw on the behaviour of water, animals, wind, light etc in one’s immediate geographical locale[iv]; compasses and satellite navigation tools such as GPS draw on distant sites (magnetic poles, satellites etc); and dead-reckoning and maps draw on mathematical or visual abstractions.  These are not identical to those discussed by Miwon Kwon, but there is an obvious overlap between the phenomenological site in art, and the site drawn on by way-finding methods of navigation—both of which are the actual physical place or geographical locale being occupied by the art or the navigator.

Navigational methods that draw on other sites can be understood as part of the distantiation discussed by Anthony Giddens in his account of the first appearance of modernity in seventeenth century Europe and its evolution into the global modernity familiar by the late twentieth century.[v] In this account he identified the devaluation of place as integral to its formation and as evolving from the gradual devaluation of locally sourced data (light, wind, animal behaviour etc) and its replacement in early modernity by information available from maps and clocks etc, making people’s geographical locale less and less important to their social activities as this distantiation grew with modernity over the centuries. He discusses the possible future consequences of this devaluation of place in terms of environmental collapse, and asks how we can redirect modernity away from such devastation by instead devising new ways of revaluing place—which he can only see as coming through the small steps that might accumulate into a sufficiently broad social movement to create an alternate future that we might thereby produce but cannot yet imagine.

Against this context discussed by Giddens, the capacity for art to model alternate realities makes me more optimistic about the social relationships we engage in when making art. It admits the possibility that the ways artworks value their own physical locations gives them the potential to contribute to that broad social movement, and provide a political voice that many artists seek in this time of environmental despair. I think that it is unfortunate that this potential is not recognised by Miwon Kwon, as a major writer on site-specificity. Kwon overlooks this potential that I believe her early ‘phenomenological’ model of site specificity provides for artists to intervene in cultural values about the environment. Instead she rejects this model on the grounds of its ‘aesthetic and political exhaustion’[vi].  It is almost as if she does not see that the content of artworks is in their form as much as any more literal or overt ‘message’—and that there may be a chance that the new relationships artworks construct with their physical locations might eventually be echoed in changes in the relationships human activity more generally constructs with its environment. (At the very least, the revaluing of place by individual artworks is a way on which they can be critical of dominant social values, regardless of whether one thinks there is any possibility of impact on broader human behaviour.)

So the potential for spatial disorientation in the Clandulla State Gallery seems to me like a wonderful material to devise an artwork with.

Margaret Roberts

[i] Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976) University of California Press 1986

[ii] No doubt this is part of the ambiguity that Alex enjoyed setting up by naming the Clandulla State Forest the Clandulla State Gallery—more is to be found in its acronym.

[iii] Miwon Kwon One Place After Another: site-specific art and locational identity The MIT Press 2002

[iv] way-finding, local navigation:  human navigation:; Gatty, Harold (1999), Finding Your Ways Without Map or Compass, Dover ; Polynesian navigation:; Hawaiian navigation/wayfinding:;

[v] Anthony Giddens The Consequences of Modernity  Stanford University Press, California, 1990

[vi] Kwon One Place After Another p 1


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