"You know, art can be something which can really disempower people, or it can be a vehicle which can empower people."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 1 (2001)
"America is a country made of places," writes curator Thelma Golden for the Art in the Twenty-First Century companion book, "not just the places marked by road signs and maps, but also the less tangible but no less meaningful places forged in the crucible of memory, longing and desire." “Place” is shot on location in New York, New York; San Francisco, California; Lexington, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Bilbao, Spain.
"Most of the work that I do as an artist, whether it's music, or images or a story, begins with a place," says renown multi-media performance and recording artist Laurie Anderson in the introductory segment she created for Art21. "A room, a road, a city, a country...these places become jumping off points for my imagination." Filmed on location in New York City and featuring talking and tropical billboards, the Statue of Liberty, a choreographed dance with red chinese fans, and a trip to a Japanese grocery store, Anderson's whimsical work plays with scale, point of view, and virtual spaces to create a fanciful dreamscape. For this premiere opening segment, Anderson combines the roles of artists and host.
The first featured artist in the “Place” hour is Richard Serra. The segment follows Serra as he guides the viewer through several massive installations he has done in New York, San Francisco, and Bilbao, Spain. Having worked with metal for the past forty years, Serra creates sculptures shape and stretch steel like rubber, carving intimate moments out of public spaces. "I was surprised that people who had absolutely no information about sculpture were able to enter into these pieces," says the artist. "The experience for them was fulfilling because, in some sense, it was startling, it was new, because they couldn't locate themselves."
The documentary shifts to Lexington, Virginia where Sally Mann is working in her studio on a new series of "dog bone" photographs. “What I like about these dog bones is their ambiguity. I mean, I love that aspect of photography, the mendacity of photography. It’s got to have some kind of peculiarity in it or it’s not interesting to me.” The work-ethic of Sally Mann, whose intricate photographic techniques record the historical scars and romanticism of the South, is as she takes photos both in her studio and outdoors. The farm where Mann lives and works becomes a meaningful backdrop as her inspired process of capturing it on film is revealed.
"I like things that are handmade," says Margaret Kilgallen, referring to the hand-painted signs of San Francisco's Mission District that influenced her work. "In that they did it themselves—that's what I find beautiful." The segment follows Kilgallen as she bikes around the Mission, paints in her studio, visits the San Francisco train yards with artist and husband Barry McGee, and creates a new painting installation at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum. While hand-painting wall sized letters on a ladder, Kilgallen describes her process: "I do spend a lot of time trying to perfect my line work...when you get close up, you can always see the line waver. And I think that's where the beauty is."
Barry McGee, who has a passion for graffiti art, says, "I like that process of a thing discarded, then picked up, and intercepted." In this segment, McGee discloses an urban inspiration for his art. The segment follows McGee and Kilgallen to the local train yards where the artists point out their favorite markings and leave some of their own, contributing to a graphic conversation that spans train cars across the nation. McGee is also filmed atop a water tower painting one of his signature figures. Traveling to the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum, the segment follows McGee as he installs a new room-sized work, a two-story mural, as well as a storefront painting looking out on the streets of Los Angeles.
The final artist in the hour is Pepón Osorio, filmed on location in his birthplace of Puerto Rico and his residence in Philadelphia, PA. Osorio leads the viewer on a tour of three complex, multidimensional installations where the artist's Puerto Rican heritage and experience as a social worker inform his staged confrontations between public life and private spaces. Says Osorio, "When this piece, 'The Scene of the Crime,' was at the Whitney Museum, it almost felt as if I'd taken a piece of the South Bronx and placed it in the middle of Madison Avenue." Also featured in this hour is the work "Home Visits" which transforms the homes of ordinary people into neighborhood-based galleries for a traveling work of art.