top of page

Theme     Space & Place

The following is an excerpt from an essay in Teaching Contemporary Art with Young People by Rachael Delaney.

“Space is a practiced place” – Michel de Certeau 

Place takes many forms in contemporary art—sometimes place requires an actual location, like a site-specific work, and sometimes place is a representation of a location, like a map. No matter, the kinds of places artists construct for us to visit or experience always exist as spaces for dialogue and inquiry. 

Aram Han Sifuentes

Aram Han Sifuentes Protest Banner Lendin

Aram Han Sifuentes
Protest Banner Lending Library

In Aram Han Sifuentes’s Protest Banner Lending Library the production of the work is reliant on the community for its conception, production, and implementation. 

Through a series of sewing workshops, Sifuentes created a space for immigrant and disenfranchised communities to come together and create fabric protest banners. Along with the workshops, where visitors can learn to create their own banners, the studio/library also serves as a place where banners made by other contributors of the project can be checked out and used to protest social injustices. The Protest Banner Lending Library builds a space of resistance for a community to question socially constructed beliefs about identity, power, and equity.


Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle has worked to engage in dialogues that blur the boundaries between private and public spaces as she lures participants into her mischievous games. A work titled Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery (2017); invites visitors to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, to write down a secret and then slide the secret into a slot cut into a giant obelisk-shaped tombstone designed by the artist.

Sophie Calle Here Lie the Secrets of the

Sophie Calle
Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery 

Further Consideration of Place and Space

Artists approach the theme of place and space in many ways. They are inspired by places and their history, use, and cultural meanings. They also work with spaces—physical environments—and the affect they have on social and personal life. Artists also transform physical places into conceptual spaces: zones of possibility and creative thinking. Places and spaces frequently fall into two categories: personal places/spaces and public places/spaces. Artists often investigate the boundaries and overlaps between the two.

When an artwork directly responds to a place or space, it is called site-specific

Public Art 

Public art is a genre of art that over time has had many purposes and taken many forms. Its forms range from patriotic monuments, to landscape architecture, to large abstract decorative sculptures, to story-telling murals and public events. Its purposes include decorating spaces, telling histories and revealing historical realities, making public spaces more livable, reinforcing cultural values, glorifying the past, building a sense of community and promoting or satirizing power structures.

Contemporary Public Art

This is a vast and ever evolving category of art. Therefore, we focus on some big ideas and a few examples. We hope this will serve as an entryway for your further research

The Fourth Plinth Commission: Trafalgar Square, London

Trafalgar square is the historic heart of London where the battle of Trafalgar and its hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, are memorialized. Three out of four plinths gracing central London’s Trafalgar Square are pedestals for monumental sculptures of historic figures. The top of the fourth plinth is empty. To fill this void, the Fourth Plinth Commission has been installing various temporary artworks since 1991. The two artworks discussed here present two ironic responses to the history and meaning of Trafalgar Square.

Lord Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010-2012), Yinka Shonibare

The empty fourth plinth provides the space where an artist can poke fun at what Trafalgar Square honors: the hero, heroism, war, nationalism and imperialism. Yinka Shonibare fills the fourth plinth space with biting wit and a bit of whimsy. His Lord Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle wraps the mighty ship in an historic form of kitsch, shrinking it down to model size and sealing it in a container. What was a symbol of real power is now a souvenir or artifact or an enthusiast’s craft project. The ship, the hero, the battle, and the war are sentimentalized and rendered powerless.

Yinka Shonibare Lord Nelson's Ship in a Bottle .png
Yinka Shonibare
Lord Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist
(2018-2020) Michael Rakowitz


Trafalgar square celebrates the might and glory of the British Empire and, by extension, colonialism, cultural arrogance and racism. Michael Rakowitz, an American artist of Iraqi-Jewish descent disrupts this narrative with a monumental recreation of a lost Iraqi treasure: the winged sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull) that stood at the Nergal Gate in Nineva until it was destroyed by Isis in 2015. Rakowitz’s recreation is constructed in contemporary date syrup containers, representing the demise of the date industry in Iraq. Placement of the Lamassu in Trafalgar Square expands the implications of the artwork beyond the narrow allusion to a specific industry. Now it references how some powerful entities oppress others by destroying their cultural heritage, while others do the same by stealing them. Rakowitz reminds us that Trafalgar square and the British Museum (close by), with its purloined collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts, many of them portraying Lamassu, embody the same story. Monumental and proud, the Lamassu is also a grand expression of a powerful culture, more ancient, and perhaps more enduring than the empire its counterparts on the other plinths represent. Invading the sacred space of Western supremacy, the work reminds us that great cultures and empires reigned far before the British Empire.

Michael Rakowitz The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist.png

Michael Rakowitz
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist  (2018-2020)

Humanizing Public Space

Kelly Monico’s artwork Alley Cats joins eight other artists who installed work in the city’s alleys through the Between Us project. The intent by the producers, Downtown Denver Partnership and the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District is to draw attention to overlooked places in the city with the hopes of generating curiosity in pedestrians and prompting further wandering and discovery of public space.

Many artists have humanized public streets by way of mending and embellishing
depersonalized spaces. Ememen fills potholes with mosaic designs in Northern Europe while Juliana Santacruz Herrera mends holes and cracks in Paris with yarn. Both harken back to Jan Vormann’s Dispatchwork , a project where Vormann fills holes and cavities in city architecture and streets worldwide with legos. He invites others to mimic his practice and post their own dispatchwork to his website. 


Art and Public Issues 

Art can have a powerful social impact. As way to grab attention and bring an idea to life, art uses imagination and audacity to create vivid experiences that raise awareness and build empathy. These experiences often are contextual; they happen in a particular place. For our example of the power of place, London is once again the spot.

The Lantana Elephant Herds in London (2021)

In the summer of 2021, nine herds of elephant sculptures roamed throughout the city. The lumbering creatures were part of an ongoing collaboration between two nonprofits, CoExistence and Elephant Family Collective, that explores how public art projects can build awareness of ecological issues and promote ways to enable humans live alongside animals.  

Each elephant in the herd is life-sized, based on a real elephant and constructed by hand out of Lantana weeds by a collective of Indian artisans. Because they are handcrafted and meticulously faithful to their subjects, each elephant has a personality of its own. Each seems alive and worthy of empathy. Together, as a series of herds, the elephants become a massive peaceful army invading urban spaces where wildlife can never roam. The presence of wild animals in urban places surprises and delights; the animals become a refreshing part of the environment and they are welcomed into human places. Here the placement of these creatures is the key to the message and its power. 

The elephant project not only builds empathy for elephants and other wildlife, it also is proactively practical, raising funds to support grassroots organizations throughout India that promote Indigenous culture and establish technology and infrastructure that allows humans and animals to live symbiotically. 

The Latana Elephants in London.png

Place Makes a Difference

A classic example of how placement can enrich the meaning of an artwork is Do Ho Suh’s Home Within Home, (2019) in Inchon International Airport, Seoul, South Korea. Over the years, Suh has constructed various diaphanous tents that evoke the feeling of home. These tents are silky, translucent recreations of various homes the artist has inhabited, in particular his childhood Korean home. Museums and international art shows are the places where these works are usually seen. The Seoul airport, however, is the perfect home for a Do Ho Suh Home. The artwork there is a multi-colored recreation of 2 traditional Korean homes hovering like spirits overhead, one below the other. Beneath passersby are busily leaving home, coming home, going home or far from home. Here a soaring, glorious evocation of home can catapult a traveler out of the mundane hustle and hassle of travel to meditation on the deeper implications of moving around, particularly our notions of where we go, where we have been, where we dream of being and where we belong.

Do Ho Suh Home Within Home .png

Do Ho Suh
Home Within Home  (2019)
Inchon International Airport. Seoul, S. Korea.


Place and Historic/Cultural Meaning

Artists also explore the places where it happened--places that are rich with historical significance where real people lived in and played out the monumental social, cultural and political issues of their times. The practice of examining and reinterpreting the past became mainstream around 1990. It was then that many artists became creative historians who unearthed the human side of history. Their work often was in response to the places where history happened. Indeed, the work derived its power and meaning from the place in which it was located.   

The Places with a Past exhibit (1991) at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, a ground-breaking assembly of site-specific installations that reanimated history, was the first major show of this kind of art. 29 artists created environments in different locations around the city that, while evoking the life and times of the old South, led the way for the historic research-based site-specific art that followed.

Ann Hamilton’s Indigo Blue was one of the seminal works in A Place with a Past. It consisted of 18,000 blue work shirts neatly stacked in a heap, much like a mass grave. Next to the pile, a live person sat calmly erasing history books. The place was an old garage. The installation addressed the indigo industry, which thrived at one time in the south, while it honored the anonymous workers whose names never made it into the history books. Indeed, their stories have been erased by the passage of time. (contemporary art)
Ann Hamilton Indigo Blue.png

Ann Hamilton
Indigo Blue (1991)

Contemporary Art

An example of more contemporary work in this vein is Rebecca Keller’s Excavating History project in Chicago. This series of exhibitions in historic sites around Chicago explores and reinterprets the narratives imbedded in these places. Keller emphasizes the collaborative and pedagogical aspects of the project—using sites as the foci for her classes at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The project involves teams of students researching the history, people, events, ideas and issues that surround each of these sites. As Keller states, “The projects are research-driven. They enlarge the stories that these places tell” (Hartigan, 2012). In this statement, Keller, while acknowledging the fact-based foundation of each project, hints at the power of art-based research: while learning begins with investigation, it expands exponentially when artistic invention and interpretation take over. Keller also tells us how critical and catalytic the content of the research is. She says:
"My recent focus has been on working with collections, archives and historic     places/materials. These projects, conducted under the umbrella title "Excavating History" begin with research, and culminate in imaginative, evocative installations that  unpack the overlapping narratives of place, memory and objects. In these works, research becomes the 'imagination fuel' for artmaking." - Rebecca Keller,( nd), Rebeccakeller full professor SAIC,
Keller calls her work “site-complicit” (Hartigan, 2011)—a term that stretches the notion of site- specific art to emphasize the interactivity of the art and its place. In her book, Excavating History, (2012) Keller and her collaborators discuss one major site-complicit project, a series of installations (“interventions”) in Jane Adam’s Hull House in Chicago. As in many site-complicit, historic evocations, these installations are not just about history or an historical moment, but about humanity in general.  The ideas, issues and stories may emanate from the past, but they also resonate today. Keller and her classes create a space for exploring these topics while they bring history alive through imagination and an aesthetic lens, and give it a human face.To see images of Keller’s and her collaborators' work, go to:
Rebecca Keller.png

Rebecca Keller, inaugural resident artist, at The International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago (2012). 


Hartigan, P. (2011) Interview with artist Rebecca Keller.

International Museum of Surgical Science (

Keller, R. (2012) Excavating History: Artists take on Historic Sites. Step Sister Press.

Jacobs, M. J. (1991) Places with a Past. Rizzoli.

bottom of page