on 2 August 2002
Miwon Kwon has written a short but thoughtful book on the topic of site-specific practices in contemporary art, which in many respects summarises and reworks the topics that she first articulated in her highly acclaimed journal articles, "One Place after Another" (October 80, Spring 1997) and "The Wrong Place" (Art Journal, Spring 2000). Her limpid prose and well chosen, finely-researched case studies make this a work that is a pleasure to read.
Readers who are more interested in understanding the origins and significance of site-specificity in the art practices of the sixties are likely to be less well served by this book than those who are committed to issues of identity politics and community based art projects in the eighties and nineties. Although Kwon offers a helpful, albeit curt, history of the development of site-specificity in Chapter 1, this serves mainly as a prelude for her main theme, which is the question of the construction of identity in relation to community and location, and how this has been addressed in various public projects.
Kwon's assertion that 'community' is a word that is much abused, under-theorised and problematically deployed in contemporary art practices is timely and an important contribution to current debates. Her approach here complements Rosalyn Deutsche's analysis of the uses of the term 'public space' in Evictions, Art and Spatial Politics. However, Kwon's token recourse to Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of an 'inoperative' society strikes me as unconvincing, or at least in need of considerably more fleshing out, if it really is to offer the "different model of collectivity and belonging" that she claims for it in the introduction.
More compelling, however, is Kwon's last chapter, which is undoubtedly more engaged with urban sociology and a critique of globalisation. She concludes her book by refusing to be drawn into a partisan commitment to art practices that embrace either endless nomadism or exclusively advocate the sedentary and the local - which so much writing on contemporary art tends to endorse unquestioningly. Instead, Kwon calls for an art that addresses the relation between these two contradictory aspirations: the experience of desiring to be contantly on the move, elsewhere, travelling, and the equally powerful investment in wanting to have roots, and to belong to a particular place. Moreover, she also points to the way in which these experiences are mediated through and through by the uneven distribution of wealth within globalisation. And without saying anything more, she ends her text with an illustration of Gabril Orozco's 'Isla dentro de la isla'. No other image in this book carries so much weight, and does so with such great ease.