Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 5, 2022
James Nisbet Second Site POINT: Essays on Architecture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. 144 pp.; 29 color ills.; 5 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 ( 9780691194950)

Land art is back in the limelight. On September 2, 2022, Michael Heizer publicly unveiled his colossal City (1970–2022), which comprises a mile-and-a-half-long by half-mile-wide installation of mounds and depressions made of dirt, rock, and concrete in the Nevada desert. In recent contemporary art scholarship, many have looked to histories of Land art or earthworks from the late 1960s and 1970s to think through our current environmental crises and Heizer’s City seems remarkably timed for this discussion. How informed or invested were first-generation Land artists, particularly in the American West, in ecological issues? To what degree did their monumental or explosive markings in the desert reflect an awareness of local environments, or was the desert merely a blank slate for their anthropocentric gestures?

James Nisbet’s Second Site (2021) calls for a second look at the longer lives of these site-specific artworks. It is a welcome addition to a body of literature on site-specificity, or the idea that a particular space or place is integral to the meaning of an artwork, where activities, events, or objects turn a location into a unique site. In its most compelling moments, however, Second Site is, in fact, a book about time-specificity, or how the mythological fixing of first-generation Land art in our art historical imagination demands a considered and considerable double take. Nisbet writes about “secondness” to suggest the centrality of temporal duration to any understanding of art making. When interpreting well-known pieces such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) or Richard Serra’s Shift (1970–72), in other words, we should take a long-term view of them, investigating their ecological and social transformations over time and through cultural memory. The images of them in our mind’s eye typically do not match the reality of their existence on the living land of a dynamically, socioenvironmentally interconnected world.

Second Site is a concise and thought-provoking exploratory essay on different aspects of site-specificity. It is neatly organized around three body chapters, all conceptually hinged on questions of time. In the first chapter, “Succession,” Nisbet borrows this scientific term from a discourse of ecology in order to think through the meaning of environmental changes that occur on or around site-specific Land art, such as Serra’s Shift and Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1978). In a secondary succession, a completely new set of ecological relations replaces the original makeup of an ecosystem, and this idea may serve as a kind of metaphor for many artworks that look quite different than they did forty or fifty years ago. This is most evident in a piece like Time Landscape, in which Sonfist attempted to reestablish a native forest in New York City’s Greenwich Village as it existed before the colonial seizure of Manhattan from the Lenape people in the 1700s. The fantasy of such a time-traveling project clearly clashes with the actual, lived circumstances of the small urban forest, creating what Nisbet points to as a completely new set of ecological relationships, “formed through decades of activity by a series of authors and agents whose collective efforts now exceed the conditions of any singular plan or design” (30).

In his second chapter, “Time Worlds,” Nisbet more overtly turns to questions of settler colonialism and an “outlook of conquest and possession” characteristic of the first generation of site-specific artists (41). He maintains that just as one should look to the accumulated, durational outgrowth of site-specific works, so should one attend to the socioenvironmental histories that came before their original installation, that contextualize their specific moments of creation. This allows viewers to unsettle such site-specific artworks as fixed, cultural markers, allowing a piece such as Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp (1973) to be newly questioned within layers of socioenvironmental history involving, for example, US military storage facilities and the forced removal of Native Americans. Last, the chapter “Site-Images” points to the value of photography and documentary media in understanding the temporal fullness of site-specific art. Viewing photographs of these works through time becomes integral to a site’s ecology and enables a “more aggregational understanding of duration” (71–72). In his focus on a holistic temporal picture of site-specific artworks, Nisbet challenges conventional notions of artistic authorship, control, and intention—not so much as a straw man for renewed debate on this well-hashed topic—but rather as a matter of ethics, for understanding “how we . . . treat the vast array of different places on our planet” (xxxiv).

As I read it, Nisbet echoes a growing sense that a more inclusive, interdisciplinary approach in contemporary art history is still much needed. Last year, I read an illuminating article on Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) by legal scholar K-Sue Park (X-tra: Contemporary Art Quarterly, 2019) that has completely transformed my understanding of the piece in terms of settler colonialism. An expert in the creation of the US property system and its histories of land dispossession from Indigenous peoples, Park argues that The Lightning Field “distills the very essence of [the settler’s] claim” (11) with its settler’s log cabin placed on a forty-acre tract (the standard unit of a settler’s claim, recalling the violent land redistribution failure following the Civil War of “forty acres and a mule” for former slaves in the South). In a highly controlled way, the Dia Art Foundation encourages a small number of visitors to experience the piece aesthetically and phenomenologically on site, staying in a homesteader’s cabin without any mention of these histories, in an “environment saturated by cabin porn and fantasies of living ‘off the grid’” (12). According to Park, De Maria’s gridded field, in fact, perfectly emblematizes the mark of the surveyor’s lines on the land and a Western perspectival view that erases violent histories of Indigenous land expropriation. The expertise in critical race studies and property law that Park brings to her interpretation reflects a burgeoning body of scholarship, including Nisbet’s coedited volume with Lyle Massey, The Invention of the American Desert: Art, Land and the Politics of Environment (2021), that offers newly eye-opening perspectives in contemporary art history through work that is both intersectional and interdisciplinary.

Second Site reflects a critical awareness of this shifting methodological terrain in the field of art history, in offering “secondary” interpretations of canonical pieces of Land art by figures such as Smithson and Serra alongside more marginalized site-specific pieces by ecofeminists and ecoartists such as Rebecca Belmore and Bonnie Devine (both Indigenous as well). Many lesser-known artworks by feminist and Indigenous artists in the US—including not only Mierle Ukeles Laderman, Ana Mendieta, Agnes Denes, or Nancy Holt, but also Belmore, Devine, Bonnie Sherk, Aviva Rahmani, Jody Pinto, Basia Irland, Betsy Damon, Betty Beaumont, Patricia Johanson, among others—grappled with the urgent questions that Second Site invokes: How do we conceive of artistic authorship and intention more ecologically, collectively, and collaboratively, often with nonhuman beings? How might art engage with sites more durationally, and more ethically and reciprocally in terms of land relations? In their very conception, site-specific projects by the artists listed above often dove deeply into matters of site through time—or in Nesbit’s useful coinage, succession, time-worlds, and site-images—and could serve as generative works to think through our current, pressing environmental crises. This is not even to mention the numerous site-specific, environmentally engaged artworks in a global context that nuance such insights through an additional array of cultural lenses.

Crucially, Second Site highlights a “fantasy of firstness” that attends the mythologized, first generation of site-specific, monumental Land art (xxxiii). It offers a more varied description of site-specific works from around the world and in later decades, such as Belmore’s and Devine’s. It also eloquently traverses and layers different aesthetic philosophical ideas of secondness, explicating work from philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to city planner and architectural theorist Kevin Lynch to sociologist and Indigenous philosopher Vanessa Watts. As the disciplinary and methodological contours of art history shift, to what extent will primary works of Land art offer the best means to conceive of the interdependent relationships of a more-than-human world? The meaning of these works morphs through time, as Nisbet carefully considers, and our methods for understanding their ecological and social transformations should necessarily follow suit.

Brianne Cohen
Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History, University of Colorado Boulder