Michael Asher, no title, 2008. Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, California. Photo: Grant Mudford.
Michael Asher, a dean of the Conceptual Art movement, whose cerebral but playful work specialized in dismantling the institutions that show art and that shape the way people think about it, has died at the age of 69.
The post-studio practice Asher pursued since the late 1960s has often been characterized by a rigorous site-specificity limited to removing, displacing, reconfiguring, or reproducing existing or once-existing elements of the sites in which he works. Asher, along with Daniel Buren, reinterpreted the site-specific art that had emerged earlier in that decade, developing practices of formal investigation into strategies of critical intervention. The object of their critique, however, was not only the sites of art’s presentation but its traditional site of production as well. For it is the studio, and its distance from the gallery and the museum, that dictates the production of transportable and transferable works—discrete objects predisposed if not predestined to circulate as commodities. By closing the gap between sites of production and consumption, site-specificity provided for a direct and potentially critical engagement with the social contexts of art, at the same time that it freed art from the logic of commodity production.
While many artists making site-specific work have also created discrete objects, or packaged documentation, that circulate as commodities, Asher has consistently eschewed all commodity production and exchange. His is not a utopian rejection of economic exchange as such—a gesture which, in a capitalist society, can only be symbolic—but a very practical and specific substitution of one economy for another. What artists receive on sales is not payment for labor but rather a portion of the value to be realized (or not) by the buyer in the market where that value has been (or, it is hoped, will be) established: It is an advance percentage on an anticipated profit. Since the early 1970s, Asher’s only compensation for his projects has been in the form of fees. With the development of this fee structure, Asher conclusively redefined his activity, shifting from a model of goods production to a model of what, in economic terms, would be described as service provision: a form of labor that does not fix itself in a vendible commodity and can’t be subject to further exchange. However, the most radical feature of Asher’s work may be that it is not only site-specific but temporally specific as well. His installations cease to exist after a contractually determined period of time.