Case study ‘A Place Beyond Belief’



Fig. 1 A Place Beyond Belief,  Prishtina, 2012

Initial response and first questions

My first response to the piece is a series of questions. What am I looking at? Where is it? What does the text refer to? Religion? The word belief and the church on the background seem to lead in this direction. Is this installation temporary or permanent? The scaffolding would indicate a temporary structure. I enjoy the contrast between the white lights and the dark blue sky, but of course this would look different in daylight, perhaps less dramatic, it would possibly get lost in the daily environment and activity.

I cannot say that I ‘like’ this piece straight away, but by now, since I started the Creative Arts course, I have come to know that when confronted with a contemporary art work I have to be patient with myself and take the time to look and think through different layers, to try to get to the core of what I am seeing.

So I am now zooming in on the image in front of me and considering the questions to ask in more depth.

First comes the text: is there really a religious meaning to it? For a start, linguistically it looks ambiguous or at least open, because a place that is beyond belief may be amazingly good, or amazingly bad, or perhaps even a place that cannot be imagined, an unreal place. It seems like a statement, without a verb, but what exactly about? Or is it an invitation, a call to something?

The scaffolding: is it an integral part of the piece, contributing to it as a whole, or is it only a support? Was it chosen because of convenience being light and easy to move, or for other artistic reasons? Perhaps because the artist wanted to give a sense of something provisional and impermanent, or fit his work into a contemporary everyday frame.

The place: is this piece site-specific or movable? And if it is site-specific what are the reasons for choosing this place?  The presence of a church?  It being a special place for other reasons? The apparent emptiness all around it? This is a question that I think cannot be answered without looking at contextual information.

As to the type of art this piece might fit in, I think in general terms definitely Conceptual art, but also Light art, Textual art, or more specifically Light or Text sculpture – but are these perhaps only subgroups of Conceptual art? more research on this – and even Land art because the piece seems to interact strongly with the place.

All in all and before getting more information I think the text DOES refer to religion, not to a specific religion but more to religiousness, or to a human religious feeling that goes beyond the different faiths.

I am uploading a collage of pictures of commercial signs from various origins as a contextual visual note to me. These are everyday neon signs, while Coley’s text is written in light bulbs, but I think there is some common ground or at least a possible connection.


Fig. 2

Contextual information added


Fig. 4 Nathan Coley speaking about the origin of his work A Place Beyond Belief


After looking into the information and the images on the artist’s website and listening to his monologue on the original idea for A Place Beyond Belief the initial picture gets more focused and richer and I am slowly beginning to get a better grasp of what I am looking at.

The installation in Prishtina was disclosed to the public exactly on September 11th in 2012, thus connecting it explicitly to 9/11 as confirmed also by the artist who in his monologue recalls the words said by a woman travelling in an underground train in New York just a few days after the terrorist attack, that ‘for New York to move forward and be the great and beautiful city that it once was, New York had to find a place beyond belief.’ (Fig. 4)

It seems to me that in this context the words ‘a place beyond belief’ refer to something different from religious values, something that has more to do with the positive search for shared human values that go BEYOND religious, social, political and race differences. This human effort and hope may include religion but can also be thought without it.

In this respect I have given a first look to the other works by this artist and found that he has dealt with the religious theme in several occasions. I shall get back to these pieces at the end of this blog post.


Fig. 3 A Place Beyond Belief, Prishtina, 2012

It is interesting that this installation, whose initial inspiration was born from the tragic events of 2001  in the USA, has been conceived and mounted with another place in mind, Prishtina, in a totally different political and social context. So it was thought as site-specific but has broader associations. In Charlotte Higgins’ words, ‘placed here, the phrase loses its original context and goes out into the world to find a new life.’ (Higgins, 2012).

If I look closely I see that the illuminated text has been placed close to a church, but I now know that it is a church that was never completely built and is already partially destroyed and that in any case it was seen as a symbol of religious interdivision and ethnic conflict. So this is a point in common between 9/11 and Kosovo: in both cases religion has been misinterpreted and abused to bring destruction. Perhaps ‘beyond belief’ could be seen as a call to go beyond bad religion.

The place in which this piece has been installed is also far from beautiful: on the front an empty unkempt ground with scrubby grass and scanty trees, on the back anonymous buildings finished off by ugly aerials on the roof, on everything a sky that is half grey half yellow. I see now that the unpretentious scaffolding fits just perfectly there, it naturally belongs there. And it seems to me that exactly because the context is dreary the text gains power and calls for attention: there is hope, there is a way to slowly gain back control if we stay human. As Nathan Coley succinctly says: ‘It’s somehow the hill beyond the hill you can see’ (Nathan Coley, cited in Higgins, 2012)

Thinking about contextual information at this point I really see that it is not only useful but really essential to get some understanding of a contemporary piece like this. And I am also starting to think that if a viewer does not put in some personal effort when confronted with a contemporary piece perhaps it does not make sense to see it at all and very easily the viewer will  go home with nothing of value gained. So yes, I believe that some appreciation of context is a necessary ingredient if one is to be left with something on a personal emotional or intellectual level.

Beside Prishtina the installation has been put up in other locations, in 2012 in London at Haunch of Venison Gallery together with other works by the artist in a major solo exhibition (Jenkins, 2012), in 2013 at NDSM-Werf in Amsterdam, on a concrete plinth in the water (NDSM, 2013)  and in Bruges at Triennale Brugge in 2015 (Triennale Brugge, 2015), every time in different contexts that opened the work to new meanings and interpretations.

In 2013 the structure was installed at Kunstverein in Freiburg, Germany, in a minimalist gallery environment (Kunstverein, 2015) : only the text on its scaffolding at the centre of a white walled room space with nothing else around it. I think that in such an empty context the piece is of course deprived of all its other place specific connections but on the plus side it gains a stronger presence and acquires a clear universal value: no religious associations anymore, no local surroundings, only a powerful and energetic message. My only doubt is that without a preliminary investigation into this forceful piece, in this type of context a viewer would have been thoroughly left to her or his own resources for its interpretation. But perhaps this was the intention of the artist.


Fig. 5 A Place Beyond Belief, at Kunstverein in Freiburg, 2013


Other works by the artist

A Place Beyond Belief is not the only light and text sculpture created by Nathan Coley since the artist has used texts in several other works he has installed. His texts are taken from different sources, for instance from something that he has heard like in A Place Beyond Belief, or from literature like he did for the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014 (Fig. 6). In this particular case the text You Imagine What You Desire is a quote from a work of playwright George Bernard Shaw (The Serpent, Pt. I, Act I in Back to Methuselah, 1921): ‘Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.’ and had been chosen as the title of Sydney Biennale in 2014.

Coley decided to divide Shaw’s text into parts and to install them separately in three different locations in Australia: You Imagine What You Desire and You Will What You Imagine respectively on the façades of the Museum of Contemporary Art like the title statement of the Biennale and of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the third You Create What You Will as the Eastern Apron of Cockatoo Island (Biennale of Sydney, 2014).


Fig. 6 19th Biennale of Sydney, 2014

I think that his idea to divide the quotation into three parts does much to strengthen his invitation to use one’s own creativity and resources to build a new world, and that this message mirrors his previous one A Place Beyond Belief in interesting ways and makes it more powerful and clear, particularly so when considering other texts of his like We Must Cultivate Our Garden, There Will Be No Miracles Here, Heaven Is A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens. Together all these messages launched year after year by the artist make a strong connected statement and reinforce each other giving life to an ongoing conversation with the viewers.

In 2015 Coley reinstalled the first part of the text, You Imagine What You Desire, in an old church in Brighton, again generating new meanings for the text set as it is this time in a religious context. And at this point I am curious to see where this work will go afterwards and how it will subtly change depending on the location.


Fig. 7 You Imagine What You Desire, 2015, at St Nicholas of Myra Church, Brighton


I shall now briefly look into another of Coley’s works, a particularly complex three-part installation he created in 2006 at Mount Stuart in the Isle of Bute in Scotland (Schlieker, 2006 and Gale, 2006): the first piece consists of three hardboard models of places of worship, a synagogue, a church and a mosque all three dazzle-camouflaged  with a stripe pattern used on ships during World War I and II.


Fig. 8 Camouflage Mosque/Synagogue/Church, Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland, 2006

The second piece is a light sculpture set in a clearing on a scaffolding spelling out the text ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’, which is very recognizable as Coley’s work.

Fig. 9 There Will Be No Miracles Here, Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland, 2006


The third piece, of which I could not find a picture, is in Gale words: ‘The most powerful piece in Coley’s installation … [It] requires you to enter the house, which is the legacy of that renowned scholar and theologian the 3rd Marquess of Bute. Here, before the altar, sits a glass display case mounted on a wooden plinth. Inside is a silver casket, shaped like a heart and with a lid bearing a fine engraving of the crucified Christ and the words: “Thy wounds are my merits”.


This is too complex an installation to be examined even shortly here and it would certainly deserve a study on its own (perhaps in the future). There are many elements to be investigated: the use and the interpretation of the religious buildings, the intent and the meaning of the war camouflage, the text, the association of the various parts in this particular place, the relationships between religion and human values and  much more else. I read also that Coley is an atheist, and this element should be further investigated too.

So even if reluctantly I must stop here at this point.



List of illustrations

Figure 1 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 [illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m] Installation at National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina At: (Accessed 28/09/16)

Figure 2 Commercial signs on the road

Figure 3 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2012 [illuminated text on scaffolding, 6m x 7m x 3m] Installation at National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina At: (Accessed 28/09/16)

Figure 4 At: (Accessed 29/09/16)

Figure 5 Coley, Nathan A Place Beyond Belief, 2013 [illuminated text, scaffolding, 5m x 5.2m x 5m] Installation at Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany At:

Figure 6, Coley, Nathan You Imagine What You Desire, You Create What You Will, You Will What You Desire, 2014 [illuminated text, scaffolding, various dimensions] Installation at different locations At:

Figure 7 Coley, Nathan You Imagine What You Desire, 2015 [illuminated text, scaffolding
5m x 5.2m x 2.5m] Installation at St Nicholas of Myra Church, Brighton, England At:

Figure 8 Coley, Nathan Camouflage Mosque/Synagogue/Church, 2006 [painted hardboard, 85cm x 82cm x 69 cm, 36cm x 61cm x 41cm, 91cm x 53cm x 33cm] Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland At:
Figure 9 Coley, Nathan There Will Be No Miracles Here, 2006 [scaffolding and illuminated text, 6m x 6m x 4m] Installation at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland At:



Bibliography (Accessed 29/09/16)

Higgins, Charlotte (2012) ‘Nathan Coley’s Kosovan sculpture: a beacon in bulbs’ In: The Guardian [online] At: (Accessed 30/09/16)

Jenkins, Maia (2012) ‘Nathan Coley: A Place Beyond Belief at the Haunch of Venison’ In: The Upcoming [online] At: (Accessed 30/09/16) At: (Accessed 30/09/16) At: (Accessed 30/09/16) At: (Accessed 30/09/16) At: (Accessed 3/10/16)
Andrea Schlieker, Andrea Negotiating the Invisible At: (Accessed 4/10/16)

Gale, Iain, in Scotland on Sunday, May 28, 2006, At:… (Accessed 4/10/16)




Research point #2 – Notes on the use of text in art

This article on the Tate website gives an introduction to the use of text and language in art during the twentieth and the early twenty first centuries. I’m taking some notes with a brief record of points to consider for future investigation. The bold characters in the text are mine.

For every point made in the article I jot down my notes after the arrow —>


Main concepts

‘The use of letters and words in artworks is traditionally associated with authorship – the artist’s signature or inscription, often towards bottom of a painting or drawing’. —> question of authorship in contemporary work, what’s the role of individual artistic expression today, is technical skill still important?

‘Works form the early twentieth century where appropriated words, letters and symbols were increasingly incorporated, such as Francis Picabia’s The Fig-Leaf 1922 and Kurt Schwitters’s Mz.299 1922, reflected the emerging avant-garde movements of the time.’  —> use of texts in collage and mixed media artworks in Cubism, Futurism etc.

‘This period also saw an increasing presence of the printed word in the urban landscape and the developing sophistication of marketing and advertising.’ —> connections between use of text in fine art and advancement of popular culture and mass-media, Pop art development

‘Picabia, Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp were all associated with the dada movement and rejected traditional art materials, processes and subjects through the appropriation of found objects, known as ready-mades. …  By the time Duchamp had created Fountain he had already defined ‘the artist’ as someone able to rethink the world and remake meaning through language.’ —>  role of the artist in ready mades (Notes and sources on Marcel DuchampExercise 1 – Fountain by Marcel Duchamp)

‘ … it was Sol LeWitt who first coined the term ‘conceptual art’ in the article Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, 1967. LeWitt, along with the text-based artists Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, represented a fundamental strand in the conceptual art movement. Text and language became a crucial vehicle for artists challenging the notion that an artwork should consist of a physical object.’ —> relationship between conceptual art and use of text and language.

‘Conceptual art represented a shift towards ideas and systems that invited the viewer to engage with an intellectual concept, art became increasingly ephemeral and transient – famously described by Duchamp as the “dematerialisation of the art object”.’ —> connection between conceptual art and installation art.



Artists mentioned on Tate website in connection to text and language in art


Early twentieth century:

Marcel Duchamp Notes and sources on Marcel Duchamp

Francis Picabia

Kurt Schwitters


Conceptual art movement:

Sol Levitt

Joseph Kosuth

Art & Language

Hamish Fulton

Richard Long

Lawrence Weiner

Edward Ruscha

Bruce Nauman

Martin Creed

Mario Merz

Jenny Holzer

Joseph Beuys

Richard Long

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Cy Twombly

John smith

Raymond Pettibon

John Baldessari

Dan Graham

Mel Bochner





Research point – Some notes on installation art

Notes taken on reading the article But is it installation art? by Claire Bishop, published on 1 January 2005 on Tate Etc. issue 3: Spring 2005, accessible at:

The article deals with how the concept of installation art was born and how it developed through the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties till today.

Today  installation art has come to denote almost any arrangement of objects in a closed or open space and being so general seems to have almost lost any meaning.

But in the Sixties the word installation was more specific and described the way in which an exhibition was arranged, whereas the photographic documentation of this arrangement was called an installation shot. So the term had a neutral quality, especially in connection to Minimalism, which drew attention to the space where the exhibition was staged and to the direct engagement between the objects and this space.

Since then, the distinction between installation art and an installation of works of art has become blurred. Both point to a desire to heighten the viewer’s awareness of how objects are positioned (installed) in a space, and of our response to that arrangement. But there are important differences. In installation art the environment in which the objects are installed is also part of the work: the whole situation in its totality claims to be the work of art —> totalising approach. Whereas in an installation of works of art the objects exist as separate entities.

The totalising approach of installation art creates for the viewer an immersive experience. In Kabakov‘s words:

‘The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.’

In the Seventies, the involvement (‘activation‘) of the viewer is seen as an alternative to the passive (‘pacifying‘) effects of mass-media television, mainstream films and magazines.  Interactivity could function as an artistic parallel for political activism.

In the Eighties, by contrast, installation art was more visual and lavish, often characterised by giganticism and excessive use of materials.

The way in which installation art insists upon the viewer’s presence in a space has necessarily led to a number of problems about how it is remembered. You have to make big imaginative leaps if you haven’t actually experienced the work first hand.

In the Nineties, we see its glorification as the institutionally approved artform par excellence, best seen in the spectacular pieces that fill museums such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Some critics have argued that this trajectory signals the final capitulation of installation art to the culture industry.

But installation art is rarely acquired by museums, which prefer to buy painting, sculpture, photography and even video as forms of safer investments. Instead, installation art is used to create high-impact gestures within huge exhibition spaces: wall-size video/film projections, oversize photographs and overwhelming sculptures. Rather than ‘inducing awareness and provoking thought’, wrote Meyer, this type of art is ‘marshalled to overwhelm and pacify’.

Another increasingly visible aspect of installation art is the artist-curated exhibition (Mike Kelley, John Bock).

Conclusion of the author, Claire Bishop: installation art means many things, the term describes ‘a mode and type of production rather than a movement or strong ideological framework’ (Gillick). It is still characterised by a desire to activate the viewer – as opposed to the passivity of mass-media consumption – and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves. The best installation art is marked by a sense of antagonism towards its environment, a friction with its context that resists organisational pressure and instead exerts its own terms of engagement.

Installation artists mentioned in the Tate article, for further study:


Gabriel Orozco – Allan Kaprow – Claes Oldenburg – Ilya Kabakov – Vito Acconci – Hélio Oiticica – Bruce Nauman – Olafur Eliasson –  Ann Hamilton – Cildo Meireles – Martin Creed – Anish Kapoor – Matthew Barney – Liam Gillick –  Thomas Hirschhorn – Paul McCarthy –  Dominique Gonzales-Foerster – Rirkrit Tiravanija – Christine Hill – Carsten Höller – Jorge Pardo – Michael Lin –  Gregor Schneider – John Block – Mike Kelley – John Bock –

Exercise 3 Gallery visit to MACRO, Rome

For my gallery visit exercise I chose

MACRO – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Via Nizza 138, Rome

which is currently hosting the exhibition Dall’oggi al domani. 24 ore nell’arte contemporanea (English: From Today to Tomorrow. 24 hours in contemporary art) running from 30 April to 2 October 2016.

The exhibition is named after a work on show by Alighiero Boetti, Dall’oggi al domani (From Today to Tomorrow), 1988, and collects 70 pieces by Italian and international artists around the theme of time.

It is for me a very good opportunity to explore the work of one very influential Italian contemporary artist, Alighiero Boetti, with several pieces on show at Macro. And I am concentrating particularly on the tapestry that gave its name to the exhibition.


Alighiero Boetti (Turin 1940 – Rome 1994)

Dall’oggi al domani (English: From Today to Tomorrow), 1988

Embroidery on canvas, cm 16,5 x 18



Fig. 1

Alighiero Boetti has been a prominent Italian conceptual artist.  In the Sixties he was a member of the art movement Arte Povera which means literally ‘poor art’, an art made with an heterogeneous range of unconventional processes and non traditional ‘everyday’ materials (1). Traditional embroidery was certainly one of his favourite media and he used it for many conceptual pieces, after discovering it during his travels in Afghanistan.

The work at MACRO is to be understood within this context. As he often did, he only conceived the original idea but this tapestry was physically executed by Afghan women embroiderers. As he said: ‘ … that this work is done by me, by you, by Picasso or by Ingres, it does not matter.’ (2). Also the choice of colours and other design decisions were often left to the makers and so many of his works were intentionally created like collaborative art pieces, sometimes of huge dimensions as his Maps which involved hundreds of workers in the making.

The grid of letters on show is one of many other similar works he commissioned, and all of them include short sentences in Italian or word plays he carefully selected. Here is a choice of these tapestries taken from  Archivio Alighiero Boetti.


Fig. 2

Dall’oggi al domani has been probably chosen for the exhibition running at MACRO because its title is connected to time. The letters forming the words are scattered through the grid in what seems a random order creating an anagram, suggesting perhaps the impermanence of time or the casual flow of events. The grid arrangement seems to imply a secret order in things, the colour combination is pleasing and decorative and it makes me think of traditional costumes and of an ancient civilization where time perhaps does not matter. The theme of place and culture is relevant too, obliquely addressed through the patient manual work of Afghan women. So I believe that this piece says something both on time and place.

I think that when looking at a conceptual art work like Dall’oggi al domani it is important to gather some information, otherwise it might seem beautifully shallow and seemingly easy, like a work of good craft.  Context seems paramount here.

On the Tate website I have listened to an interesting video of artist Francesco Clemente who speaks about his friend Boetti and gives some hints that can be helpful to gain a better understanding of his work.



Fig. 3 Still frame


Another important artist now on show at MACRO is Roman Opalka, born in France from Polish parents, who throughout his life was involved with recording the progression of time and his own aging.

Roman Opalka (Abbeville-Saint-Lucien 1931 – Rome 2011)

On his website Opalka himself describes very clearly his rigorous and mathematical method of work (3), which is conceptual in its essence:

The fundamental basis of my work, to which I have dedicated my life, manifests itself in a process of recording a progression that both documents time and also defines it. It began on a single date in 1965, the one on which I undertook my first “Detail”.

Each “Detail” is a part of a greater idea conceived on that date. My work records the progression to infinity, through the first and the last number painted on the canvas.

I inscribe the progression of numbers beginning with one, proceeding to infinity, on canvases of the same size, 77.17 x 53.15 in (196 x 135 cm), in white by hand with a paintbrush. Since 1972 I have been making each canvas’ background about 1% whiter each time. Thus the moment will arrive when I will paint white on white. Since 2008, I have painted in white on a white background, which I call “blanc mérité” (white well earned).

After each work session in my studio, I take a photograph of my face in front of the “Detail” that I have been working on. Each “Detail” is accompanied by a tape recording of my voice saying the numbers out loud as I write them.


MACRO exhibits a good collection of his works, both the canvases and the portraits. In the museum I took a quick photo of the seven self portraits on show.



Fig. 4

Series of seven Détails (English: Details), various dates 1968 onwards

Unique photographic prints, different sizes.


These seven photographic self portraits are only a very small sample of the thousands the artist took in around 40 years of work, from 1968 till his death in 2011, one each at the end of each day of painting, every one of them in black and white.

As I read this information at the exhibition I almost felt sick. I stared at this inscrutable face, who remained as expressionless as humanly possible, whereas his features inevitably aged and changed through the years, his hair progressively thinning and whitening from portrait to portrait. Nothing personal emerges, no emotion is shown, only the passing of time on this face, but it could have been anybody’s face.

Together these images look to me as an immense mind-boggling conceptual ‘memento mori’ mercilessly reiterated for a whole life, a sort of terrible self effacement, as if life had been lived by the artist only to be observed in its passing. I thought about Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life and A Little Death: in those films there was a violent, frightening decay we could see in motion, in these photos everything from the background to the shirt remains unchanged and in all this stillness the only movement is that of time.

Place here seems absent, as if irrelevant, as if only time mattered and all the rest, places, people, their lives were beside the point.

List of illustrations

Figure 1 Boetti, Alighiero,  Dall’oggi al domani (English: From today to tomorrow) ( 1988) [embroidery on canvas] cm 16,5 x 18 Location MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Roma Image at: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 2 At: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 3

At: (Accessed 26/09/16)

Figure 4 Taken at the MACRO, 3/09/16



(1) (Accessed 26/09/16)

(2) Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, “In quell’artista c’è uno sciamano”, from an interview with Boetti published in Il Messaggero, Rome, 23 March 1977, quoted by Alberto Boatto and Guido Natti (curated by) Alighiero & Boetti (exhibition catalogue), 1984, Ravenna, Edizioni Essegi.

(3) At: (Accessed 27/09/16)

Exercise 2 Developing research skills – Katie Paterson




Katie Paterson (1981) is a multimedia Scottish artist whose works  are mainly concerned with cosmological, geological and ecological themes. For many of her installations, which are conceptual in nature, she does extensive research in cooperation with an extended network of scientists.

On her website I looked at the impressive number of pieces that she has produced in less than 10 years of activity and I have been astounded by her rich inspiration and the poetic strength of her work: everything she does seems simple and powerful at the same time, her ideas forceful and realized with an apparently effortless economy of means.

Vatnajökull (the sound of) was Katie Paterson’s MA graduation piece at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 2007.  A white neon sign bearing the number 7757001122 hung in the gallery on a black background and whoever called it, from whichever phone wherever in the world, was put through to the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland and could listen live to the sounds made by the water melting into the Jökulsárlón lagoon.

The artist describes this piece as ‘A live phone-line to Vatnajökull glacier’ and today we can still listen to a short registration of those sounds on her website. So technically her work lives on as a sound installation with the visual aid of photos of the glacier and an image of that phone number, but I think that at the time it was something different and more intense: who called that number could listen live to the real crackles and noises made by the ice melting, so could acoustically experience what was happening in that remote glacier at that very moment and through those trickles have vivid visual images of the dying glacier.

It also seems to me that that installation needed an active intervention of the public to be fully alive, so in a sense it was a cooperative work and that neon sign was a very real call to awareness, a very physical connection with an urgent problem: who called that number could have a direct experience of what is happening to our world, could not ignore it anymore. Glaciers ARE melting and I’m listening to them.

As mentioned in Creative Arts handbook, this work is truly site-specific: a microphone is placed in that very glacier, that far off place has a very real life of its own and who listens to its sounds has a sort of double place experience, of being in a place and being at the same time in that remote place in Iceland.  (Accessed 23/09/16)


Research point: introductory notes on some artists named in Dean § Millar’s book ‘Place’

This post is a bit frustrating because obviously there would be so much more to explore on each of the following artists. So just some brief notes to put away for future use.


Vitaly Komer (1943) and Alex Melamid  (1945)

A team of two Russian dissident artists, founders of the movement called Sots Art – a version of Soviet pop combined with Conceptual art. Settled in the USA since 1978, they signed their works together until 2004.

In Place they are named for their project The People’s Choice (1993) which investigates aesthetic tastes in a dozen countries around the world coming to the conclusion that the most wanted painting in many of them is a landscape in blue, with mountains, a tree and some people in the foreground. I remember that these popular ‘tastes’ were wittingly mentioned in Grayson Perry’s Ted

An example of work by them with text in it might be the Stalin Monument (2006): in the red light district of The Hague in the Netherlands a bust of Stalin was placed in a phone booth with a paraphernalia of objects arranged around him: a lamp, a red velvet cloth, a fish. It comes natural to think of prostitutes behind a glass wall. On top of the booth the words: Alarm Brand-Politie (eng.: fire police). It was later relocated to the museum area. The first impression is one of estrangement: what does Stalin have to do with this seedy place, why is he there? (Accessed 20/09/16)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006)

He was a Scottish poet, writer and artist. Little Sparta is a 2 ha Arcadian garden at Dunsyre near Edinburgh which was created since 1966 by the artist and his wife Sue. The garden stays at the core of this artist multi-faceted work and includes poems and aphorisms inscribed on stones, sculptures, objects, garden rooms and installations, reflecting his involvement with poetry, philosophy, history and landscaping. It’s a place for meditation and memory.

Originally a poet, in 1963 he published his first collection of concrete poems – in which words are arranged according to a pattern or shape – and began inscribing them on stone. These poetic objects are then set in the natural environment. All his work has to do with language and place, language becomes physically place on stones and in the landscape, it seems even that these poems need a place to exist.  (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16)


Douglas Heubler (1924-1997)

This American conceptual artist used to work in different media, painting, sculpture and especially photography through which he investigated social environments, places and the passage of time in a number of series significantly named Duration and Location. If Location Piece#2 is mainly involved with people’s arbitrary perception of places, in another ambitious series of his, Variable Piece #70 (1971) he started ‘to photographically document the existence of everyone alive’, collecting tens of thousands of people and including sometimes texts, declarations, lists to characterize them. Obviously this was an ongoing project that for its very nature could never be completed. There is a sense of disturbing detachment and perhaps of alienation in this type of desperate artistic enterprise. (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16) (Accessed 20/09/16)



Robert Smithson (1938-1973)

A somewhat similar sense of detachment is to be found in the work by the American artist Robert Smithson, A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967). He too worked in several media, landscape art, sculpture, photography. I feel particularly drawn to his rich series of drawings and collages which very often include texts, like Saint John in the Desert (1961) or A Heap of Language, a pencil drawing of 1966, where words are visually arranged in a heap – perhaps an example of concrete poetry? Definitely another artist I would like to have time to study. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)


Marine Hugonnier (1969)

With a background in anthropology and philosophy, this French artist now living in London investigates social conditions and perceptions through landscape using photographs, films, like Ariana mentioned in the essay, and sculptures. She is also interested in the relation between written text and images as shown in a collage series started in 2004, Art for Modern Architecture, in which she replaces original newspaper images with abstract blocks of colour based on Ellsworth Kelly’s geometric shapes. In these works on paper the attention seems to be shifted from place to time, and my feeling is that these attractive images, because of their abstract timeless shapes, have the power to make actuality in the newspaper timeless too. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)


Guy Moreton (1971)

Guy Moreton is a British artist and photographer with a strong interest in cultural history and representation of landscape in relation to philosophy and literature. His photo Wittgenstein’s Cottage (2002-4) included in Dean and Millar’s book Place is part of a collaborative project exhibiting works by him, Alec Finlay and Jeremy Millar and centred around Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought on language.

In this project they presented their cooperative works both in text and photography about the site and the remains of the philosopher’s house overlooking Lake Eidsvatnet, a place that for Wittgenstein represented a ‘house for thought’. So even if Moreton’s photo does not directly include text, it is connected to it and is in an interrelated engagement with that place on different levels. (Accessed 21/09/16) (Accessed 21/09/16)



Exercise 1 Exploring ‘place’


I read the text twice and I am now reading it for the third time.

The first time I skimmed through the text trying to understand where it was going, where its ‘place’ was, and to get a general feeling of its language. I found that this introductory chapter is very dense and touches upon many themes, all of them related and each of them redirecting in turn towards new directions.

In my second reading I aimed to extract from it the parts and concepts that most interest me for the time being and that I feel I might want to explore in more depth in the near future.

During my third close reading that I shall commence now I will jot down my temporary notes and understandings as I go again through the text.  I underline that it’s still a temporary reading because the themes are so rich and complex that I may well reconsider them in different ways in some time.


Main questions raised

What is place in relation to space, what’s the meaning of other related words like site, location, territory, land, dwelling, home etc and in which connection they stay to place.

How did the concept of place historically and philosophically evolve.

How place is related to humans and their experiences.

Is there a relationship between place and time and how it is shown.

In which ways artists make use of place in their works and what are their attitudes towards it.

Connections between place and identity.


Notes on reading

First of all I see that the Introduction in this book is called very appropriately entrance: as we read we are entering a place, getting past a threshold. I also see that the chapters are interestingly called rooms, like the rooms of a house that as readers we are going to explore.

So the first pages are my entrance into this book. In what follows, quotations from the text are in italics.

Page 11:  ‘Place can be difficult to locate. One might think that one can spot it somewhere … and yet as one approaches it seems to disappear’

—-> ironically place cannot be placed, what at a first look denotes something physical, place, is difficult to grasp and is ever changing, never set. It keeps shifting, I see a place where others do not see it. What was once an emotional place is no more and is now empty, waiting for new meanings.

Page 12: ‘One might say that ‘place’ is to landscape as ‘identity’ is to portraiture … It is certainly a word that is used to describe our relationship to the world around us’

—-> Very interesting suggestion I think: place has to do with personal identity, landscape has more to do with ways of representing what we see.

Page 13: ‘A landscape is the land transformed, whether through the physical act of inhabitation or enclosure, clearance or cultivation, or through human perception’

—-> landscape depends on man for its existence, it does not exist if is not looked upon or considered by man, as against nature which can be thought as existing in the absence of man.

Page 14: ‘When space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place’ (remark by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1976)

—-> It takes time before a space becomes a place, so time and place are related, within a place there is time, and this connects the exploration of place to that of time. And in place the quality of time is human, charged with memories and emotions, it’s a time felt, not necessarily lived (Henri Bergson’s notion of time, not Einstein’s)

Page 14-15: it is considered how the contemporary meaning of place was born and how it has changed from the past. For Aristotle place was necessary because all that exists and happens does so in a place (there is nothing outside of place). So place had for him part of the meanings of what we now understand by ‘space’. Being place ‘all that there is’, later thinkers identified place with God, and as a matter of fact the Hebrew name for God, Makon, means place. Philo of Alexandria wrote: ‘God Himself is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.’  By the XV century the word space had gradually replaced place whenever it was meant as a limitless extension, and ‘not only was space seen as the more useful concept with which to explore the infinite, but the very things to which place seemed best suited – a sense of belonging, for example – were now considered intellectually irrelevant. The particular had been eclipsed by the universal; space had triumphed over place.’

—-> obviously space was a more useful concept in mathematics and for the development of modern physics, but if it is true that place was in a certain sense demoted to a lower rank and came to identify something hard to pin down and for ever shifting it also meant that place took on new, richer undertones and could now be used by artists as a tool to explore intimate areas of human experience that have much to do with individual identity.

Page 15: ‘There are many places within place, many regions, each with their own identities, dialects and dialectics’

—-> being difficult to circumscribe and denote, the word place has become very vast and can embed and accommodate an infinite variety of human situations: they all can find their ‘place’in it.

Page 16-17: ‘We retain a strong sense of place, even if we find it hard to define with any satisfaction’ 

‘nature is a dull affair , soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessy’  according to the words of XIX century philosopher of science Whitehead.

—-> it seems to me that here, again, as in the debate of Einstein and Bergson in 1922 on the nature of time, we see at work two visions of things that cannot be reconciled but that can coexist without no harm and that are both useful in their own right to investigate different areas of experience. Even if they are antagonistic in many respects, they can offer interesting intellectual food for thought to one another.


Philosophers, writers and thinkers mentioned in the text

In the first part of this text many thinkers are mentioned in connection with place and space. I make a list here as a reminder for my own use:

Saint Augustine (Christian theologian and philosopher, 354 – 430 AD)

Samuel Smiles (English social reformer, 1815 – 1904)

Yi-Fu Tuan (Chinese geographer, 1930)

Henri Bergson (French philosopher, 1859 – 1941)

Thomas Hardy (British writer, 1840 – 1928)

James Joyce (Irish writer, 1882 – 1941)

Archytas of Tarentum (Greek philosopher,  428 – 347 BC)

Aristotle (Greek philosopher,  384 – 322 BC)

Philo of Alexandria (Hellenistic philosopher, 25 BC – 50 AD)

Johannes Philoponus (Christian philosopher, 490 – 570)

Thomas Aquinas (Italian philosopher and theologian, 1225-1274)

Blaise Pascal (French philosopher, 1623 – 1662)

John Locke (English philosopher and physician,  1632 – 1704)

Isaac Newton (English physicist and mathematician, 1642 – 1726/7)

René Descartes (French philosopher,  1596 – 1650)

Gottfried Leibniz (German mathematician and philosopher, 1646 – 1716)

A.N. Whitehead (English mathematician and philosopher, 1861 – 1947)


From page 17 onward the authors start to examine works by artists who express these concepts in different ways, and I am going to concentrate on them in my next post.


Bibliography – Extract from Dean, T., and Millar, J. (2005) Place. London: Thames and Hudson