This thesis critically examines site-specific art projects in Australian museums from the late 1960s onwards. Despite the fact that site-specific art practice is relatively widespread, there have been few in-depth or systematic studies published on this subject, particularly in terms of its historical and theoretical foundations. More importantly, there have been no in-depth studies explicitly on Australian site-specific art, and so my research aims to extend the existing knowledge on this art form while applying it to an Australian context.
Because the site-specific field is vast, I narrowed my research to focus on artworks located in museums, including art, natural history, cultural history museums, historic houses and sites, and botanic gardens. The inclusion of such a wide range of museums is in part due to the fact that the artistic projects in these institutions vary greatly. Additionally, the comparisons between art museums, and those in which art is a (usually) temporary visitor reveal certain aspects of Australian culture, values and colonial history, than discussing art museums alone. The title, ‘the museum as art’, refers to the role of the museum as site, subject and medium in the site-specific works of art under examination. It reinforces the significant relationship and dialogue with the museum in question - the museum is an integral part of the artwork.
The key aim of this thesis is to identify and critically analyse significant site-specific art projects undertaken in Australian museums by both local and international artists. I also critique existing theoretical writings about site-specific art, particularly the paradigms established by Miwon Kwon and James Meyer and devise my own working models as applicable to museum-based site-specific art. The aim is not to replace these paradigms, but to expand on existing models using local and more recent examples. Although this thesis focuses on Australian site-specific art practice, and the way in which Australian museums construct knowledge and reflect national values, my models are equally relevant to international museums.
The chapters in this thesis are arranged thematically, centred around significant art examples which are in turn used to illustrate wider issues relating to site-specific art practice. In analysing a large number of art projects, I have observed a range of strategies used by artists working in museums. Firstly, an artwork may respond to the physical or spatial aspects of the museum. Artworks also frequently interact with a museum’s collection or archives, or question the institution’s representation of history or social constructions of nature. Others mimic museum classification strategies or highlight ingrained display methods that have become normalised, almost invisible, to the average visitor. More functionally, the work might be used by curators to enliven tired museum spaces or communicate aspects of history poetically, allowing for speculative histories or subjective responses – methods unavailable to regular historians. Lastly, an artwork may seek to preserve intangible heritage or highlight gaps in knowledge or history, particularly when it comes to the representation of Aboriginal Australians or women.
I argue that current site-specific art practice reflects a move away from the Modernist frame, illustrated by the growing popularity of non-art museum sites and converted ex-industrial ‘raw’ spaces, particularly since the mid-1990s. Theorists such as Kwon and Meyer tend to ignore the pre-Modernist philosophy towards art, where art frequently sat in dialogue with the site. However, contemporary site-specific art practice, although distinctly different to the pre-Modern site/art relationship, indicates an acknowledgment and celebration of the unavoidable influence of exhibition environments on works of art.
At the start of this research, I questioned the notion of an ‘Australian art’; however, I can now demonstrate that site-specific art, more than any other art form, has the ability to address distinctly Australian concerns. It can reveal how a nation’s museums not only reflect, but also develop and promote particular values and knowledge. The very marginality of art practice makes it an ideal method in which to critically examine cultural assumptions and norms, and despite the risk of site-specific art projects becoming a form of institutionalised institutional critique, I have demonstrated how artworks can question institutional authority and highlight gaps in knowledge in a way that curators, historians and museum directors simply cannot. By recording a range of artistic interventions in Australia’s public museums, and analysing them in relation to both existing site-specific theories as well as my new extended models, this thesis demonstrates not only the complexities of site-specific art practice, but also the role that art can play in interpreting, challenging and re-presenting existing knowledge as mediated by the museum.