A Times op-ed had me smiling earlier this summer: its author, Mark Bittman, was making an analogical comparison between Detroit and Venice. I have used the names of various cities in order to metonymically illustrate Detroit: Havana, Hollywood, Marfa, … but Venice?!? Comparing the romantic pedestrian-packed Renaissance-frozen archipelago with the skeleton of an urban lab devised to fuel the auto industry through the advertising of a futuristic lifestyle, well, it seemed like a stretch…
I recently took a trip to Venice, to scope out this year’s institutionally proclaimed elites of the international art world. I take it back: the comparison is there, albeit less through an abstract analogy between two (questionably) autonomous insulated zones than through the representation of their very material reality, as mediated by the international image markets.
I couldn’t help but warn my travel companion on his first visit to the Serenìsima, as we were landing on the Marco Polo runway: “Watch out for the ghost of Baudrillard…” Yet, as I walked through the labyrinthine streets, thrilled by the opportunity to experience the city anew through his fresh gaze, I couldn’t escape the words of Marc Augé articulating de Certeau’s notion of non-place (already hearing the predictable ‘this is me in Venice’)—thoughts immediately overshadowed by some reflection pertaining to the aura of the place, lost to the innumerable reproductions of the very stage I was walking into…
It was in the residue of such frame of mind that I entered the Biennale’s British Pavilion, site of the much-publicized installation by Mike Nelson, I, Impostor. Having stepped into the Pavilion numerous times prior, and as recently as during last year’s most amazing MUF-curated exhibit, I had a pretty clear sense of the raw shape of the space its neoclassical shell accommodated. Yet, all expectations were annihilated at the front door: a dark, low-ceiling corridor led the visitor from the entrance door around to an immediate first corner, leaving all vestiges of the giardini’s light and sights behind. And here I was, lured into the depths of this painstakingly re-re-created Turkish caravanserai (Nelson had already re-created it once, for the 2003 Istanbul Biennale), as if I was trespassing both time and space onto grounds I wasn’t meant to stand on, probably not in this lifetime, definitely not on that day. Despite what I wrote in the post below, I turned into an explorer! Seduced right into it, with no will to resist. A fully immersive experience to say the least, the multisensory dimension of the piece was overwhelming: beyond the recreated surfaces, dim passages, dusty air and other nailing of the visual details, the sounds created by the ground onto which I was stepping, the loud squeak of a heavy door hinge, the moldy smells, all amounted to the defeat of all intellectual resistance: I lost myself in the reality of the image—‘image’ being used here in a meaning closer to its Latin root imago: apparition, ghost…
Once being spat back out into the heat of the Venetian July, I could not just let the experience sit undigested, despite the artist’s obvious effort to produce something that resisted interpretation. After all, the piece was not framed by any textual explanation—no introduction or conclusion—, but more significantly, it lacked any visible spatial frame, the boundary indicating the edge of the work, aside from the very unassuming threshold of the front door, which served as both entrance and exit. From the interior, one cannot perceive or sense the architecture of the pavilion, and on the exterior, one could never possibly imagine the world these walls contained. The lack of apparent edge, or break between the host and guest pictorial spaces, is what enabled the totality of the immersion. If Giotto enabled the visitor to occupy the space of his paintings by extending them to the edges of the architecture that framed them, as Lev Manovitch explains to illustrate the principles of virtual reality, Nelson allowed his sculpture a full-bleed to the edges of the building that contained it. (The artist himself insists on calling it a ‘sculpture’, rather than an installation, a distinction I find quite logical.) The mural takes over the space of the wall, the sculpture takes over the space of the building. By contrast, the 1961 Ed Kienholz tableau Roxy, which was on exhibit just across the Grand Canal at the Pinault Foundation, highlighted the seamlessness of Nelson’s environment by not allowing the viewer to stand simultaneously in the space of the installation and in that of Tadao Ando’s museum. While similar to I, Impostor in using ‘a scale that competes with the world’, Roxy, part of an exhibit appropriately titled “In Praise of Doubt,” exists a representational layer away from the viewer. Its pictorial space wavers between that of the architecture, and that of the objects displayed, whose spatial logic ends with their respective frame, pedestal, or security rope. The scale of the tableau may equate that of the architecture; it is still a full-scale model of a 40’s Nevada whorehouse, configured for frontal viewing, like a classical theater stage before the dissolution of the boundaries between actors and spectators. I, Impostor, on the other hand, is not a copy of a 17th century Turkish caravanserai on exhibit; it wants to be it. It exists there in the same representational layer as the foreign tourists that occupy the city, on a legally granted visitor status. It contributes, no matter how temporarily, to the make-up and identity of the city the way a loaned item from a traveling international collection doesn’t.
Now I’m no expert on art but I’ve read a thing or two about representation, especially in relation to architecture, and whether Nelson wants to deny wearing an architect’s hat or not, he’s offered us architectural space. “All architecture engages issues of representation in the creation of architectural experience.” writes my colleague Keith Mitnick, “Because buildings stand up, occupy space and exist in light and shadow, they are experienced in relation to culturally constructed notions of sensory experience that condition the affects they produce. Buildings are like billboards that display images of perceptual effects, such as light and shadow, in actual light and shadow, even when the billboard is blank, or its surfaces are peeled back to show how it holds itself up.” Yet Nelson’s rejects the concept of hyperreality, a term oft mentioned in relation to his work. “Ultimately all the objects are the things they’re made out of. They’re like readymades, to some degree…” (BP, 114) he states, shunning notions of simulation. Nelson believes that the authenticity of the copy should produce the authenticity of the experience, through the immediate reality of the material artifacts: a totality built of accumulated informal (or de-formalized) details, an architecture constructed of subnatures, dust, dirt, trash: reality affect, made possible by a microscopic vision that suppress what stands outside of its frame. After all, the very real Italian gondoliers steering the authentic gondolas imported to Las Vegas’ Venetian would produce a similarly intentioned experience, if one could abstract out of the panoramic vision the fake sky and building facades from a scene framing the swirl of water stirred by an oar in expert hands. Reality affect.
But despite the material reality of the ‘stuff’ constituting the space, which may be authentic and all, Nelson’s intentions are more interesting than I may have just implied: he wants the work’s relation to the real world to be ambiguous, “a two-headed building: an architectural kind of amphisbaena…” (BP, 99). A work that goes both ways, it is both here (in Venice) and there (in Istanbul); immersive and representational; sculptural and photographic. While admittedly a sculpture, the amalgam of spaces that fill up the pavilion includes not one but two abandoned darkrooms, “the apparent workplace of an absent, obsessive photographer” (BP, 103). In an exciting self-referential move, the darkrooms reveal hundreds of drying photographs, images both of the 2003 Istanbul Büyük Valide Han and of the darkrooms installed there, then. As the only vestiges of the 2003 piece, these photographs were used to produce the work that now contains them. While referencing its own historical lineage, the temporary I, Impostor is also implying its own extermination: all that will remain, will be photographs. While seeking to be experienced, I, Impostor is also more than ready to be photographically consumed: it begs for it.
Rather than deny the piece an honest intention to resist functioning as a cinema set (a prop to maximize the realistic effect of a representation), one can make a comparison between what Nelson is trying to achieve, sculpturally, and the nature of recent trends in photography (representations serving as witnesses to the seeming authenticity of captured kairos). These commonly frame the meticulous staging of the shot as its primary subject, in order to produce highly affective and immersive images (Todd Hido), implied narratives (Jeff Wall), or both (Gregory Crewdson). I, Impostor offers the immediacy of the physical experience these photographs only tease: it enables us to step inside the image, if only to occasion an attempt to capture it, for later. It also implicates the viewers by turning them into witnesses, entrusting them with the responsibility to ponder an unresolved storyline. To the often-elaborate scenes constructed by Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson in the service of an implied action involving cast actors, photographers such as James Casabere and Thomas Demand prefer the focus of the photograph to be the stage itself, conspicuously devoid of life. This absence allows Casabere to build the scene-to-be-photographed at a perceivably smaller scale than its insinuated referent, focusing on the realistic reproduction of material effects. On the other hand, the equivocal character of Demand’s photographs lies in the obvious use of model-building materials (paper, cardboard) to recreate life-size spaces. (Demand, it seems relevant to note, was trained as a sculptor and considers himself a conceptual artist rather than a photographer.) Seen through the dual lens of Casabere and Demand’s temporary sculptures, Nelson appears generous to his public: we get to experience the space “unmediated”. Or at least as unmediated as our experience of the streets of Venice themselves, framed from a greater global reality by its waterfront, an overnight train ride or a flight: spatial and temporal buffers that privilege the immersiveness of the Venetian experience, its ‘TAZness’ of sorts.
More than giving us a taste of the Turkish caravanserai environment, Nelson transforms our sense of Venice, a town that works full time at being simultaneously experienced and conceived. As we exited the giardini, our gaze still set on a high focal length, the materiality of the built environment took on a different light. What is the relationship between the authenticity of the aesthetic experience Venice inexorably provides and the density of mystery layered into the patina of its facades—narratives to be unwrapped or imagined?
It was in the residue of such frame of mind that I returned home to Paris, where the gallery down the street was exhibiting and selling the photographs of Detroit recently published in an exorbitantly priced book by a high-end German art press. The oversized prints occupied the full frame of the storefront windowpanes. The current European popularity of the book, which can be found on the display shelves of the photography section in most Parisian bookstores and museum stores, contrasts with Detroit booksellers’ reluctance to carry it. The photographs display the same techniques of affect used by those who are presenting us with imaginary worlds. To borrow, or rather ‘sample’, the shot spaces to similar ends (anonymity of the location in the service of narrative effects) would have seamlessly inserted these prints into an existing discourse of contemporary photography, but by rejecting their fictionalization-by-framing and passing them for documentary artifacts, their authors are selling the promise of an accessible experience, one similar to that produced by Mike Nelson’s I, impostor, or to a similar extent, by a visit to Venice—experiences mediated by an image-based knowledge. So while every urban explorer in Europe is saving towards the ultimate trip to Detroit, the mecca of all that guaranteed sensation produced by the reality affect of an encroachment onto the decaying ruins of the American dream (a European’s wet dream), it would be judicious for Detroiters to think beyond rejection or denial of ruin porn as already passé, which it may be locally but is just getting started internationally. Only its image will produce the accessible reality of the city.
* Mike Nelson, British Pavilion (British Council, 2011)