From today, my new website, designed by Ian Farmer of Upright Creative, is launched online. Ian has done a fantastic job. The website follows the recent publication of my book, Beholding: Situated Art and the Aesthetics of Reception, by Bloomsbury. Part of the intention is to connect my writing to my own practice, in that many of the problems that Beholding addresses in relation to the artwork/beholder encounter emerge directly out of my practice.
By way of introduction, I include below the preface to the book:
This book proposes a theory of beholding art. More particularly, it proposes a theory of beholding situated art. While perhaps unfamiliar to some, I use this qualifying term to encompass not only rare examples of site-specific practice (a term subject to frequent misuse), but also group portraiture, painted for anticipated locations, and what we might call site-responsive art – works that while subject to different iterations engage their situation as an essential part of the encounter. These are artworks that are sensitive to their site and anticipated audience, and while not necessarily in situ in a strong sense, are purposively sited within specific contexts, drawing aspects of that situation – spatial, but also institutional – into the remit of the encounter.
Now, this might be thought of as being rather too heterogeneous a category of art practice to have any kind of critical purchase; and, indeed, even so-called ‘autonomous’ artworks in traditional media such as painting and sculpture are affected by extrinsic factors: that is, the work’s outer apparatus, such as its frame or pedestal. Not only is an artwork’s conditions of access a factor to be taken into account, such as the ubiquitous ‘white cube’ gallery, but our experience of the artwork is altered by variants such as the position where it is hung on the wall or placed within the room, the quality of lighting, the materiality and colour of the surface on which it is hung or placed, its proximity to other works and so forth. Moreover, the juxtaposition with other similar and/or contrasting works – perhaps as part of a series by the same artist, or the gathering of artworks under a curatorial theme – will also affect our experience and understanding. In other words, extra-pictorial or extra-sculptural factors can profoundly affect how we perceive and interact with autonomous works of art, and in this sense all art is thus ‘situated’.
These curatorial factors are not, however, the subject of the book. Rather, I impose a caveat on the works to be considered in this volume, which delimits the concern to a distinct category of art practice. My subject is works where the experience of the situation is itself constitutive of the work’s meaning. Here the ‘content of the work of art’, to use the language of Susan Sontag, does not exist independently of the situation, and of the experience of that situation. A painting’s being placed too near the corner of a room, or at an awkward height, while affecting our experience at some level, is not, in and of itself, a contributory factor to the work’s semantic content. There are, however, artworks that might be said to imply a representational excess, used in a non-mimetic sense, in that the virtual space of the work extends to encompass the actual space of the beholder. Such works have an excess over and above that which is, strictly speaking, represented – an excess of meaning that must be enacted or performed by the contributory presence of the beholder, and is thus dependent upon perceptual, ideational and imaginative processes the spatially situated encounter prompts. Here, to remove a work from its original context will, indeed, change its meaning.
My primary concern is therefore with what John Shearman terms ‘transitive’ works of art (which he opposes to self-sufficient ‘intransitive’ works) that are only completed by the presence of the beholder, such that her performative role is necessary for realising this representational excess. This conceives of beholding as a process, such that the resulting interaction constitutes an effect to be experienced rather than an object to be defined. But with such a caveat, have I not moved from a very broad category of art to, seemingly, an extremely narrow category? Perhaps so. Nonetheless, and not insignificantly, this group of works includes some of the most prominent artworks within the history of art. This is perhaps indicative that something significant is going on here. Indeed, that we are so often drawn to such works suggests that while they often deliberately problematize the beholder position, in bringing our orientation into play (while eluding our grasp) we find such works deeply engaging – not least because we have work to do to complete the incomplete.
A key contention underpinning the book is that such situated works therefore perform a locative function, in terms of providing indexical cues as to the position the beholder must adopt in order to place herself in the requisite experiential connection to the work’s meaning. As such, they facilitate demonstrative or, more generally, indexical thought with respect to the virtual realm of the artwork (this, that, here, there, in front of, behind and so forth), which in situated works is indexed relative to the position we occupy in actual space. The artwork thus functions as – though is not reducible to – a variety of indexical sign characterized by its positional mode of operation. It is my contention that this involves the imagination. More specifically (though my general argument is not dependent upon such an assertion), I believe such artworks utilize the demonstrative potential of mental imagery: where quasi-perceptual experiences inherit their apparent spatiality from binding processes used by the apparatus of early vision. In other words, this is an indexing that exploits a frame of reference shared with visual perception, but also (given the body’s capacity to coordinate multiple frames of reference) other non-visual forms of spatial orientation. Unfortunately, given limited space I am not in a position to defend such a claim; nonetheless, it is at least consistent with the position advanced by the cognitive scientist Zenon Pylyshyn. Moreover, it is deeply sympathetic to the embodied perception of Merleau-Ponty and James J. Gibson (the significance of whom in the development of my position I owe an enormous intellectual debt to Brendan Prendeville). Crucially, the contention that need concern us here is that situated artworks utilize concurrently perceived spatial cues from our actual environment (whether visual, or otherwise) to locate ourselves relative to the artwork’s particular mode of virtuality, such that aspects of our actual situation are drawn into the work’s imaginative remit. Even in the case of situated painting, where we tend to be confined (though not always) to a particular viewpoint, this binds virtual space to our own bodily frame of reference, with all the implications of an embodied perception actively enmeshed in the world.
However, this does not mean that such works negate distinctions between virtual and actual space; quite the opposite, in that bringing our orientation into play is a prerequisite to constructing a tension between these two frames of reference (that of the artwork and that of the beholder), such that the distancing devices necessary for an aesthetic encounter – a communicative situation removed from everyday constraints – are allied to aspects of the work’s wider semantic content. Indeed, many of the works discussed set up an oscillation between the doubled up ‘real’ and ‘irreal’, such that the virtual is juxtaposed onto actual space, while refusing to cohere. The resulting problematizing of the beholder position operates at a phenomenological and ideational level, such that these two aspects are intimately tied to each other through the unfolding process of beholding.
Written within the broad theoretical remit of reception aesthetics, the book is neither a work of art history nor a survey of situated art. As such, the book makes no claims as to comprehensiveness. I am, for instance, aware of (and apologize for) the narrowness of its focus on the Western canon. There are other, more justifiable omissions; the book excludes, for instance, the whole category of monumental sculpture, which though generally in situ in the strong sense of the term, rarely (with exceptions, as Shearman has shown) constructs bridges from within its virtual realm to the actual space of the beholder. The book also excludes, for different reasons, the immersive and performative art of most of human history: namely Paleolithic art, such as the caves at Lascaux of which Merleau-Ponty writes so elegantly. In terms of painting, I have restricted myself to the remit of works incorporating what Meyer Schapiro refers to as the ‘late’ invention of the frame as a focusing device.
The aim, therefore, is not to map or document the field of situated art, but rather to construct a philosophically informed theory of the distinctive phenomenal encounter at least some situated or in situ art affords, and the beholder’s constitutive role therein. As such, this is an unapologetically transhistoric approach – though not, I would argue, thereby ahistorical, in that it is sensitive to the context of the art situation. Moreover, the book is written by neither an art historian nor philosopher, but a practitioner (albeit one who has taught practice and theory for many years) whose own work is situated somewhere between architecture and fine art practice; as such, it addresses art historical and philosophical issues that have indirectly emerged out of, and have informed, my own art installation practice, of which I will speak no further. This is a book of criticism by a practitioner about art practice, engaging (in the spirit of Sontag) the how it is what it is rather than what it means. This is not to belittle the role of theory – quite the opposite, as hopefully will become clear – but to underline the fact that theory is here in service of offering insights into, rather than interpretations of, the making and reception of the works of art under consideration.
The book is structured around twelve artworks and twelve texts by major theorists – philosophers, art historians and critics – such that each chapter constructs an extended dialogue between an artwork and text, though other artists and theorists are referenced throughout. The aim is not to interrogate the text as such, but to see what it brings to our understanding of each work in question. Some of these pairings may be familiar, others, hopefully, unexpected. Some of the texts refer specifically to the work under consideration, while others do not. In so doing, the book engages a diverse range of practices: from in situ Renaissance painting, group portraiture, modernist painting and sculpture, to intermedia practices of installation, video and performance art, and non-gallery based site-specific art. These various encounters allocate different constitutive roles to the beholder, bringing not only her spatial and temporal orientation into play, but a culturally and historically specific repertoire of anticipated ideas and beliefs.
The chapters are thematically grouped into four parts: ‘Sacred Imagery’; ‘Group Portraiture’; ‘Abstraction; ‘Intermedia’. The respective parts emphasize facets of beholding ‘situated’ art exemplified by the historic conditions of access under consideration. But taken together, the book makes the case for certain bodily aspects of beholding manifest by all the artworks discussed. As a phenomenological theory of beholding conceived as as a process, in one way or another all the works I consider bring the beholder’s spatial and ideological orientation into play: whether through perspectival means or utilising the organizational potential of the space of reception or demanding the beholder’s active movement through constructing a sequence of spaces that must be passed through. Collectively, the in situ and situated works considered here are juxtaposed to the Greenbergian notion of the artwork as self-sufficient, autonomous whole, and a major concern – reflecting my position as the University of the Arts London Reader in Spatial Design – is to cite the role of the space of reception as a contributory factor in the encounters they afford.