Margaret Roberts Polygon Landscape 2013 (triwall cardboard and Kandos) in Cementa13, contemporary art festival in Kandos, NSW February 1- 4, 2013. Photo: Jo Rankine
Cementa 2013, Kandos
Polygon Landscape is an artwork that came out of the opportunity and context provided by the first Cementa festival in 2013. Since then Cementa has become well known, self-described as ‘a biennial festival of contemporary art that brings together over 60 regional and urban artists for a four-day celebration of Australian contemporary art and the small town that hosts it’.(1) Back in 2013 though, I only knew Cementa’s most immediate context—a NSW town called Kandos, a place I knew must be unique as all towns are once you get to know them but, like all human settlements, also located on landscape that is within the continental and global context of the increasing urgency of the climate crisis. Even though that broader context crept into the way I later thought about Polygon Landscape, I didn’t set out to address the climate crisis in any deliberate way, preferring the adventure of getting sufficiently absorbed in a new place for it to show me the beginnings of a new work.
That began when Ann Finegan introduced me to Kandos in 2012 by driving me around it. It was the shapes of the houses that began to pull me in, and as I started to walk around the town, they began to seem like inhabited sculptures: each with its distinctive front-on view, but leaving you to imagine what its sides and back and patch of ground might be like if you could freely walk in past the front gate. When standing on the footpath facing them, I also began to notice subtle differences in the presence of each house and used those differences as a way to select which ones to photograph.
Later, on the computer screen, I could see that the front of each house makes an enclosed flat shape, just as the whole house is an enclosed form, the flatness making polygons in contrast to the polyhedrons that the actual houses resemble. I saw that if I treated certain parts, such as the chimneys, as extraneous, and deleted them, the frontal house shapes could also be cut loose from their house even more, opening them to more relationships than the link they have with these geometric cousins. They would also be more easily cut out with a circular saw or similar tool if I made them in tri-wall cardboard, which I realised would mean they could be enlarged and still be light enough for me to carry. I had discovered the useful and inviting qualities of tri-wall cardboard when introduced to it by architects Col James and Hugo Moline and artist Marley Dawson in an earlier project.(2)
At the time I was making the polygons, it was possible to order tri-wall cardboard to be delivered in 1m x 2m sheets, and artist-friend Margaret Seymour agreed to do the cutting in my studio with her efficient Festool circular saw, and together we got it done in a day or two. All 40 polygons fitted on a large flat board in the back of Alex Wisser’s van on one of his Kandos trips, and they were delivered to the Kandos Scout Hall on the edge of town, which I was fortunate to be allocated for the Cementa13 festival.
By this stage, in my mind these frontal house shapes weren’t just houses or polygons, they had also become potential remnants of an extreme climate event that, as I mentioned earlier, is increasingly likely to put towns like Kandos at risk. When fire or flood ravages a place, bodies may be retrieved from flood waters or burned houses and perhaps lined up in a communal hall—like the Scout Hall in Kandos—for identification and claiming by those who care about them most. Fires and floods are also more generally like an extremely fast form of weathering, which rounds off forms to their basic shapes, as we did to the house frontals in cutting out the polygons. Just as I have selected the houses through random walks around Kandos, victims also seem to be randomly selected by climate events, as if certain individuals are made to pay and certain others are mysteriously spared. People may try to avoid the impending climate danger by moving to Tasmania and/or building bunkers, but even then surviving climate change is a gamble, and I think the situation is better addressed communally.
This thinking led me to laying out as many of the 40 cardboard shapes as would fit on the Scout Hall floor in two rows, so that visitors could easily walk between them to inspect their shapes, identify and claim them to take home. The remainder were leant against walls. The 40 thumbnail photographs of the original frontal house views were available to visitors as well.
But all my preparation didn’t help me know what to expect of local people who came to the Scout Hall and, once they worked out the process, began looking through the thumbnail photographs for their own house. Conversations showed that many people needed help to go from recognising a house among the small photos, to recognising its cardboard polygon, seemingly because it had changed so much through its enlargement and removal of details and context. It also quickly became clear that people needed to be able to adopt another person’s house if they could not find their own in the thumbnails, as my random selection of houses and the random self-selection of those who decided to visit, left many orphan houses and keen adopters that needed to be matched up. Once people started claiming or adopting the cardboard shapes and carrying them home, it also became pleasingly evident (to me at least) that people were walking out with shapes that, due to their dimensions, resembled them in some generalised way.
In the weeks and months after Cementa13, I visited Kandos to continue dispersing other polygons. In the end, around half of the polygons were taken by the residents of their houses, or were adopted out to another house. It seemed to me that in taking a cardboard polygon home, people show that they value the place where they live and I hope those who were keen to participate also felt something the same. This is where the story of Polygon Landscape itselfends, withthe final dispersal stage where polygons are taken ‘home’ and become whatever their new owners want to make of them. Some are still in the houses they belong to or were adopted into. One that was taken by enterprising children may have been burned in a house fire one Father’s Day. One was attached to the outside of a house, until wild weather blew it away. Some were left in houses after the adopter moved elsewhere, or were given away and taken elsewhere. Three are being exhibited in a remnant Polygon show at Kandos Projects in March 2022.
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This dispersal stage is not quite the same as the ‘de-install’ of a regular exhibition because usually such de-install is not seen as contributing to the meaning of the work being removed. However, with Polygon Landscape I envisaged the dispersal as public and as part of the work, knowing that what people would actually do with their polygons would probably vary and would often not itself be public.
The decision to include the dispersal stage in the work was made because once a cardboard polygon is installed in a house, I envisaged its blank and generalised nature would likely pair with the house’s particularity as complementary opposites—the familiarity of a lived-in actual place that now hosts a polygon, and the polygon itself, sufficiently generalised to stand in for the possibility of reflection on its context. The pairing reminded me of the link between experience and reflection that philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty advocates when he says:
Left to itself, perception forgets itself and is ignorant of its own accomplishments. Far from thinking that philosophy is a useless repetition of life I think, on the contrary, that without reflection life would probably dissipate itself in ignorance of itself or in chaos. But this does not mean that reflection should be carried away with itself or pretend to be ignorant of its origins. By fleeing difficulties it would only fail in its task.(3)
This pairing of reflection and experience was partly why it seemed important to promote the return of polygons to the buildings of their origin. The polygon shape is made from the view of its house from the front footpath—just as reflection is a process outside experience. Once located inside, however, the material blankness of each polygon’s unmarked cardboard faces a more intimate situation, such as someone’s lounge room or hallway, or even the semi public or community situation of a front veranda. It has the potential to become an installation made by the people who take their polygons home, and that I imagine as an encounter between polygon and place that advocates for the reflection on human settlement that should go hand in hand with living in one.
Such reflection can draw on the innumerable frameworks people have available. I saw this reflection as drawing on the art practices from which the site specific nature of Polygon Landscape emerged. In being blank shapes of smooth cardboard with no interior detail, each installed polygon would emphasise the exterior detail of its cut shape, the edge that abuts its host and where it transitions from polygon to its subject/host, its place. I expected that once installed in a house, this edge would acknowledge the polygon’s location, resembling what artist/writer Robert Morris saw in the 1960s artwork that later became known as minimal art—he saw this type of work as being constructed so that its lack of interior detail refuses to provide the illusion that viewers expect will take them ‘out of the space in which the object exists’ and away to an imagined elsewhere. (4) He understands this refusal to ‘take you away’ as instead directing attention onto the actual place that the materiality of an artwork shares with the materiality of its viewers, the physical location that became known as ‘the phenomenological site’ in what is usually regarded as the earliest form of site specificity (the term ‘site’ being the art discourse term for place, and used interchangeably here).
My own discovery of site-specific (5) art practices was important to me as an art student in the 1980s because it began to solve the puzzle I faced then about why art school was training us to represent places that are somewhere else, and to ignore the wonder of the actual place we are in (even as the culture I live in hides so much of this potential wonder under bitumen and cement). But later, I found some of what is written about these practices created another puzzle—how to explain the growing acceptance from the late 1990s onwards of the idea that the physical places in which site-specific artists had been siting their artworks in previous decades are too ‘innocent’ for the edgy artworld reputation of site specificity, and needed to be superseded by ’discursive’ rather than physical sites. (6)
That idea seems to me to advocate a return to the convention that artwork be spatially autonomous from its location—the very convention that site-specific art was invented to challenge—by replacing the key role of the physical or phenomenological site with some aspect of a site’s occupation (for example, creating works of institutional critique sited in art museums), or with site-related bodies of thought (such as the discipline of botany), as if those aspects of a site are more ‘discursive’ than its physical nature. However, this wish to separate the physical from the discursive aspects of places seems blind to the discursive nature of our embeddedness in culturally specific meaning, and which we ‘bring’ to any site. It assumes we can know a place sufficiently to recognise or work in it outside of such meaning. It also seems to be blind to the potential for site-specific artwork to advocate for the revaluation of place by giving its physical place a key role in the construction of its meaning, in contrast to artworks whose meaning and interpretation are independent of their immediate physical location.
So I was grateful then, to find an account of modernity that enabled me to look at this puzzle from the perspective of social theory as well as art theory. When discussing site specificity, it seems important to cross disciplines because one of the challenges of site specificity comes from the cross-disciplinary nature of site-specific artwork, which attempts to fuse aspects of art tradition with aspects of places and objects found ‘in the world’ outside of the art arena. This account enables us to understand place as discursive as much as physical, identifying the peculiarly modern devaluation of place and discussing the development of this devaluation and its likely consequences (including the climate crisis that motivates many artists to advocate for awareness of place via, for example, various forms of site specificity). Framing art practices within the context of such an account enables place to be restored to a position of key concern within discussions of site specificity because of its problematic devaluation in modern culture. Site specificity evolved in the culture of modernity and may have kept its ‘edgy’ reputation because it is implicitly critical of the low regard in which place is held in this culture. Site specificity would not make the same sense as a critique in cultures that value place more highly, as most obviously in Indigenous cultures.
I found this account of modernity in the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens who discusses the changing value of place in modernity, describing modern place in ways that suggest to me a type of Swiss cheese, its presence hollowed out by the distanciated relations that have re-located elsewhere the important influences on place:
‘Place’ is best conceptualised by means of the idea of locale, which refers to the physical settings of social activity as situated geographically. In pre-modern societies, space and place largely coincide, since the spatial dimensions of social life, are, for most of the population, and in most respects, dominated by ‘presence’—by localised activities. The advent of modernity increasingly tears space away from place by fostering relations between ‘absent’ others, locationally distant from any given face-to-face interaction. In conditions of modernity, place becomes increasingly phantasmagoric: that is to say, locales are thoroughly penetrated by and shaped in terms of social influences quite distant from them. What structures the locale is not simply that which is present on the scene; the ‘visible form’ of the locale conceals the distanciated relations which determine its nature.(7)
When the polygons are installed in places that are partly hollowed out in the way Giddens describes here, their visible blankness seems to stand in for their invisible ‘absent’ or distanciated parts, the parts that are made evident through the sorts of reflection provided by Giddens’ analysis. Their blankness also suggests that reflection on place is open (Giddens’ analysis being but one good example). I like to think it also stands in for the optimism of the people who participated in this project for their own reasons, including those who just took polygons as curious bits of blank cardboard. I would love to hear the reflections that taking the polygons provoked in them, if they could ever translate them into words.
Margaret Roberts 2022
3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences’ (1946), (trans. James M. Edie), in James M. Edie (ed), The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, USA: Northwestern University Press (1964) p. 19.
4. Robert Morris ‘Notes on Sculpture Part II’, Artforum, vol. 5, no. 2, October (1966), p. 21: ‘The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer's field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer esthetic. It is in some ways more reflexive, because one's awareness of oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work, with its many internal relationships. One is more aware than before that he himself [sic] is establishing relationships as he [sic] apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context. Every internal relationship, whether set up by a structural division, a rich surface, or what have you, reduces the public, external quality of the object and tends to eliminate the viewer to the degree that these details pull him [sic] into an intimate relation with the work and out of the space in which the object exists.’
5. I am using site-specific synonymously with the various other terms that are used in the art literature: site-oriented, site-sympathetic, site-responsive etc., as each is an attempt to identify how an artwork engages with its actual site in its construction of meaning. More important than these distinctions is the misuse of these terms for artworks that represent places in spatially autonomous ways (i.e. where the location of the artwork is not part of the artwork), rather than making the artwork’s actual physical site part of the work.
6. This view was popularised by Miwon Kwon’s proposal that ‘discursive sites’, such as communities of people or bodies of knowledge, supersede ‘the “innocence” of space and the accompanying presumption of a universal viewing subject (albeit one in possession of a corporeal body) as espoused in the phenomenological model’. Miwon Kwon One Place after Another: Site-specificity and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: MIT Press (2002), p. 13.
7. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press (1994) pp. 18–19.