Yet another approach to a critique of the institutional frame is indicated by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 1973 series of “maintenance art” performances at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. In two of the performances, Ukeles, literally on her hands and knees, washed the entry plaza and steps of the museum for four hours, then scrubbed the floors inside the exhibition galleries for another four hours. In doing so, she forced the menial domestic tasks usually associated with women – cleaning, washing, dusting and tidying – to the level of aesthetic contemplation, and revealed the extent to which the museum’s pristine self-preservation, its perfectly immaculate white spaces as emblematic of its “neutrality”, is structurally dependent on the hidden and devalued labour of daily maintenance and upkeep. By foregrounding this dependence, Ukeles posed the museum as a hierarchical system of labour relations and complicated the social and gendered division between the notions of the public and the private.
In these ways, the site of art begins to diverge from the literal space of art, and the physical condition of a specific location recedes as the primary element in the conception of a site. Whether articulated in political and economic terms, as in Haacke’s case, in epistemological terms, as in Asher’s displacements, or in systemic terms of uneven (gendered) labor relations, as in Ukeles’s performances, it is rather the techniques and effects of the art institution as they circumscribe and delimit the definition, production, presentation and dissemination of art that become the sites of critical intervention. Concurrent with this move toward the dematerialization of the site is the simultaneous deaestheticization (that is, withdrawal of visual pleasure) and dematerialization of the art work. Going against the grain of institutional habits and desires, and continuing to resist the commodification of art in/for the marketplace, site-specific art adopts strategies that are either aggressively antivisual – informational, textual, expositional, didactic – or immaterial altogether – gestures, events, or performances bracketed by temporal boundaries. The “work” no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verb/process, provoking the viewers critical (not just physical) acuity regarding the ideological conditions of their viewing. In this context, the guarantee of a specific relationship between an art work and its site is not based on a physical permanence of that relationship (as demanded by Serra, for example) but rather on the recognition of its unfixed impermanence, to be experienced as an unrepeatable and fleeting situation.
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: site-specific art and locational identity