Project 3: Exercise 1 – Place

This first exercise asks us to read the opening essay in Place (Dean and Millar 2005, pp. 11-26). We are told to try and get an idea of what the authors are saying, to reflect on how we found the exercise, whether we agree with what the authors are saying, and whether the piece has expanded our understanding of what the word ‘place’ can signify.

Firstly, I found this exercise difficult for various reasons. At a basic level, I have never read such a long piece of writing relating to art in the way this one does, and the vocabulary used made it a long process to get through the whole thing. It has also been a long time since I’ve tried to take notes from a book, so I did a lot of investigating on the most efficient methods. On my first go through of taking notes, I wrote down way too much unecessary infortion. Once I’d finished that, I went back and condensed my notes into 5 sides of A4 (still probably too long, but it was a start). You can view these as a PDF here: Place – The First Of All Things Notes.

The coursebook warns that this is a complex text and I wholeheartedly agree. I had to read over some sections many times, just to understand the point. As mentioned previously, the vocabulary was a shock to me. I found there were words I knew being used in completely different ways. I had a dictionary and thesaurus by me the whole time. As an example, I’d never seen the word rent being used to mean ripping or tearing. There were other words that were just completely new to me. I had to figure out, for instance, that the word placial was to place, as spacial is to space, and it was not a word I could find in any dictionary.

Some of the main points I took from the text are as follows:

  • Within art, place is most often seen in the landscape genre
  • Place is more often sensed than understood
  • Place is something known to us, with memories of, and knowledge about, it’s past
  • Place once took priority, but space and it’s infiniteness began to take precidence
  • The are places within place, and place is always changing, just as a volcanic landscape does
  • Physical limits and boundaries are meaningless when talking about place. Place has an innumerable number of thresholds that extend past the physical limits, and even time periods, of the site or art object. They bring the elements together like a bridge
  • Without its secondary qualities, place is seen simply as site (secondary qualities being those related to the perceiver such as temperature, colour, taste, sound, and smell)
  • Art and place rarely require destruction of anything that came before. Even art that is critical of past works or thinking depends on what has come before for its very existence
  • Huebler’s Location Piece #2 demonstrated how an artist can produce a work based, seemingly, on place, but is so far removed from it, that they could not be considered to be engaged with any place at all.
    It is a similar situation for the viewer. We see the photographs and know that at least some of them characterized an anonymous person’s feelings of the erotic, the frightening etc., but we are not told which is which, and therefore, they evoke little feeling from us other than passivity and muffled emotions
  • Robert Smithson attempted to re-imagine places from his childhood as great monuments in his 1967 photo-essay ‘The Monuments of Passaic’.
    He photographed and described areas of Passaic like they were an unfamiliar alien planet. He even remarked how he felt like he was on another planet with a badly drawn map of Passaic placed over it.
    His impartiality is transferred to the reader, who feels no real connection to any of the sites he visits, as he treats them merely as museum exhibits
  • Hugo of St Victor tells us that we should maintain a sense of active engagement with place and not succumb to the complacency of familiarity
  • There is a limitation to the visual, in that pleasure may gained from looking at it, but a deep-seated engagement requires more
  • It is difficult to make the invisible element of place visible, but without it, one place looks just like any other
  • Art works featuring ‘places’ may be beautiful, as are the features captured within them, but they are really more than just what we can see with our eyes
  • Art and place need deeper consideration in order to become aware of what lies beyond our first impressions
  • Not every place becomes art, but to think about and to make art, is to make place. Indeed, looking at, and thinking about, these ideas now will cause many more works of art and place to be created in the future

I have read this essay over many times now, both directly from the book, and from my ever-condensing set of notes. Before encountering it, my idea of place was merely as a position. At a basic level, I would have described my idea of place as either a place where something is kept (everything in its place), or as somewhere with a name that you could physically visit such as a village, town, or country. I would have classed somewhere specific such as a building or named garden as a site of its own.

Having read this essay, I understand that the authors are trying to say that place is somewhere that you have a connection to, that has memories or a past that means something to you in some way, that evokes an emotional response from you. Art that features a place can be beautiful on a superficial level, but in order to really feel the sense of the ‘place’ within the artwork, you need to look deeper into the invisible elements behind it.

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