Among those who come to mind when one thinks of [Robert] Smithson’s return in the 1990s is Renée Green, whose Partially Buried in Three Parts (1996-97), an installation and seven videos, pays direct homage. A graduate and now faculty member of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program in 1990, and a participant in the so-called political Whitney Biennial of 1993, Green initially addressed issues of cultural translation through “contact zones” that reference spatial and power relations. Her work has since evolved into a more complex discourse on marginal space and its occupation through a practice that denies objects the power to colonize her work’s economic and conceptual structures. In 1997, when she made Partially Buried, Green was exploring issues of site and time through the strategic appropriation of entire systems of textual production. The 1996 installation of the work at Pat Hearn Gallery and the subsequent videos treat Smithson’s Woodshed as a lost work and attempt a kind of recovery through the narrative of memory. This is accomplished through a meandering, historiographic trek across the landscape of the now-completely buried shed on the Kent State campus. In particular she found parallels for her own way of working in Smithson’s “Dialectic of Site and Non-Site.”
What is exhilarating about this project is the relationship Green maintained with Smithson’s work (and indeed with that era), which was dialectical and agitative. Green’s intervention was entropic by nature; she functioned much like an archeologist, literally scouring the ground for remnants of what was fragmentary to begin with, searching for a work of art that no longer exists but whose legacy is staggering for her generation. And as Meyer has written, she recuperated Smithson by working as he might have:
A compelling aspect of Green’s project was its Smithsonesque character, its suggestion that the Woodshed could only be retrieved with methods akin to Smithson’s…. both artists explore a site/non-site opposition, a dialectic of place and non-place linking the earthwork or site to the gallery work or representation…. Internally heterogenous, the ‘work’ is not a formally closed entity but an open-ended activity, conducted across specific media and locations…. Extending from place to place, the project inscribes the artist’s mobility within the work…. Place is mobilized: the site is no longer a singular location…. but a waystation in a vectored circuit of passage.
Green created a kind of interstitial fiction, weaving the narrative of her own youth in Cleveland, Ohio; her mother’s experience as a graduate student at Kent State during the student uprisings; and interviews with faculty artist and a journalist who knew about Partially Buried Woodshed. The interviews appear in the video Shadows and Signals (1997). Green quite literally opened up the possibility of a fluid, non-hierarchical way of understanding history and place. Much like the text in Smithson’s Nonsites (agglomeration of relics configured in the gallery as objects alongside the text, photographs, slides and film footage), Green’s scrolling text in Partially Buried both conducts meaning and confuses it.
The extraordinary permission inherited by the two generations of artists emerging after Smithson is twofold: art as an open-ended activity encompassing, indeed even privileging, discursivity; and art as a mobile practice whose porosity allows for writing, documentation, video and photography, and the subjective culling of artifacts and information. The notion of travel through history and time in Green’s explorations of architectural space, land, bodily space, and movement—the negotiation of the past within the present—is directly related to Smithson’s formulation of the Nonsite. Indeed his list of the dialectics of site/non-site reads like a manifesto for artists working in the last decade who have internalized the imperative to move away from the tyranny of the studio and invent a different relationship to history and the institution of knowledge and its representation. Green and her colleagues working in New York in the early 1990s—including artists Greg Bordowitz, Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Simon Leung, Christian Philipp Müller, Lincoln Tobier, and Fred Wilson—invented a kind of institutional critique that insisted on interrogation from the ground up. The studio, the art object, the exhibition site, the economic imperative, and even the body of the artist were under scrutiny.
-From Butler’s chapter, “A Lurid Presence: Smithson’s Legacy and Post-Studio Art,” in Robert Smithson (University of California Press, 2004).