The result was striking as it saw the emergence of various new modes of expression, in which the site-specific art was pivotal.
Published: 13th June 2022 01:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th June 2022 08:24 AM   |  A+A-
The Boat, installation by Subodh Gupta, 2012.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a radical transformation in the art world as Western artists decided to defy the rules of the medium (painting, sculpture) in their bid to resist the ‘autonomy of art’ constituted by museums, art markets and related forces. They shed their earlier position of artist-hero or artist-genius only to become ‘cultural producers’.

The result was striking as it saw the emergence of various new modes of expression, in which the site-specific art was pivotal. A specific physical site or location with certain significance plays the most integral part of the work; its place-boundedness, often with its transitory nature, had developed a critique of the ideology of ‘autonomy’ of art and the related cult of artistic genius.
Subsequently, this new mode of expression has incessantly been performed in the Indian art scene since the 1990s. However, it could not strike a chord in the new direction of thought, either in re-presenting the work or in reshaping the viewing subject. Instead, all traditional notions and values embedded in artwork and its genius have been smuggled back into the museum/gallery and have reasserted the authority of the artist as a prime source of work’s meaning. Refusing to keep pace with the intellectual and creative need of a complex world today, site-specific art, thus, seems to inoculate itself against the innumerable possibilities of contextualising a space or spatialising a discourse. Let me analyse this paradox with an example.

A site-specific installation titled The Boat by one of the celebrated Indian artists, Subodh Gupta, was presented in the Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi in Kerala in 2012. It was one of the most acclaimed works of the last decade. Its main visual property is a 15-metre long rustic wooden boat called Kettuvallam, which is infested with disused utensils and various household items. They include aluminium vessels of various kinds including old coats, beds, chairs, zinc roof-sheets, bicycles, etc. They bear traces of wear and tear due to long use by a poor family. The artist himself says, “It seeks to portray the ordinary people and their very ordinary life. It may remind you of a flood or tsunami.” A review of the work says, “It will bring to mind a picture of a family plying to escape flood.”
However, the viewers are not led to a ‘specific’ meaning pertaining to what makes this work a site-specific one, nor has the producer of the work attempted to contextualise the site as something specific to this work. In its absence, one can infer that the viewer’s experience with the work is largely reduced to a startling moment in front of a spectacular artefact. This displacement certainly deepens the excitement when one encounters the work. Moreover, the work with its inherent notions of ‘unconventionality’, ‘radicality’ and so on, may satisfy one’s snobbish craving for being part of the cultural elite that the artwork in some sense represents. However, there is more to it than meets the eye.
The ideational intent of the artist (poverty, flood, ordinary life, etc.) hardly manifests itself in any artistic means, mainly because the boat and its objects largely remain to be mere objects of our immediate surroundings without being transformed into meaningful images. If we scan the objects once again from a close quarter, we will find that to fill the voluminous space inside the boat, objects were collected as many as possible and assembled indiscriminately. 
They are incapable of reflecting the survival struggle of an ordinary life or the tremour of living when life is under threat during a flood or tsunami. This plain truth reminds us of a crucial point; the artist has to make a certain selection of the objects so as to piece them together in his composition of whatever kind, and has to explore the layers of meaning that the given objects contain within. Such different layers of investigation will enable him to transform an object into an image through ‘additional meaning’ (Danto) that may go unnoticed otherwise. It is this transformation that makes a commonplace object in an installation to be looked at as something very different from its everydayness.
Whereas, the artist here seems to have ignored this meaning-generating aspect and has not rearranged them in order to construe certain meaning felicitous to both the medium and the subject. So much so, that the way in which the various objects are sorted out, grouped together and tied and kept safe in a large boat, called Kettuvallam—which can hardly be used for an immediate transportation—does not seem to express the implicit moment of tension, but it gives rise to an impression that the disused boat may be under the disposal of a vendor in the flea market. This reduces The Boat to a deadpan site of a jumble of objects.
We, therefore, tend to think that this new mode of expression has resulted from the artist’s flimsy attraction to the ‘newness’ and radicality of the medium, without ever fully realising its ideological undertone or mediumistic significance. As a site-specific work, The Boat hardly integrates in its expressive realm the specific locality at which the work is thought to perform its meaning, except that it can claim a tenuous relation with the land, which is criss-crossed by many rivers, brooks and backwaters on the one hand, and its unprecedented water-bound tragedy wreck by a tsunami on the other. 
This water-bound life and death may be evoked by the presence of the boat for a flickering moment. If that is the case, what significance it assumes remains to be an important question, since such a wafer-thin association fails to offer imaginative involvement of the viewer, either in terms of art or ‘art as idea’.
In this sense, The Boat hardly seeks to address any aspect of reality pertaining to a specific location that a site-oriented work is expected to do. Nor does it re-present the site in symbolic form. This offers a glaring example of art today. To illustrate this further, an equally beautiful work in this sense will be analysed in the next turn.
Art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram

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