Responding To the Site: An Identity-Seeking Process

Xing Zhao

Artists constantly seek the right position to place an artwork. This position is metaphorical rather than literal: how can the artwork be interwoven perfectly into the texture of the physical and historical surroundings that houses it? In other words, how can it be used within the process of seeking an identity?

In the early 19th century artists such as Thomas Cole used landscape as a vehicle for defining American identity. Without a long, rich history for the country, both the sublime vistas and more intimate landscapes served well as visual references to represent the newly cultivated land. Later in the 19th century, Walt Whitman argued against the use of the Hellenistic style for American government buildings to remind people of the greatness of the Greek past. Whitman’s reasoning was that such a classicizing style was outside the frame of the country’s history and identity. American buildings should instead, he insisted, be non-referential. Frank Lloyd Wright, in his prairie period in early 20th century, developed the notion of “organic principle” in order to find an appropriate relationship between his projects and the landscape: the house, for him, was a breathing, organic being.

Efforts to define social and national identity continue in the realm of art. Modernism pointed to society-wide consumerism while minimalism went for non-referential features. In the 1960s and 1970s, various social movements formed to promote human rights and other issues.  New media artists felt they found the right identity for their artworks in the restlessness and anxiety in the society.

Ann Hamilton’s process of reading architecture in order to fit the artwork not only into the space but also into the anthropological, historical, and socioeconomic contexts is, in fact, another means to find the right identity for each of her artworks. Instead of reaching out into the larger political or social context, she chooses a smaller bed into which she “plants” her artwork. By so doing, the duration of the fragmentary memories of the architecture or the physical context becomes the soul and identity of her work. Imprinted with the artist’s language, the works find their own unique identities in different places.

Xing Zhao is a History of Art graduate student at the University of Kansas.

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