Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Photon Articulator Museum (and Gift Shop) - The Ithaca Years

The Photon Articulator Museum (and Gift Shop) - The Ithaca Years at Station 923, is the latest iteration of a long-term project by Caroline Byrne. The Photon Articulator Museum engages with the aesthetics of a museum experience, its language and narrative. Like the timeline that is established in the small, confined space of Station 923, we follow the Photon Articulator from "the beginning" to an end, which in this case is a decorous gift shop installed in a small hutch, with jewelry, cloth-covered soaps, light-up souvenirs, and shot glasses. Information is painted directly on papier-mache walls, or on elegant scarves. 

We find allusions to past versions of the Photon Articulator Museum, reminding us of its institutional morphology: This tells us there may be more to be found, somewhere in the past or the future. 

The phrase "God is in details" comes to mind taking in the sensitivity of the colors, the attention to line and type, the varying surfaces of paper, cloth, and fiber. The parallel universe of the museum is sustained consistently: There is an unknown in it, which pulls in our attention like a net. 

If I emphasize the parodic aspects to the installation I fear I will lessen its experience beyond its humor in regards to the special settings our world gives to the privileged information of museums, exalted crucibles of knowledge and illumination. The Photon Articulator Museum (and Gift Shop) is too delirious to be seen simply as a locus of great laughter in our local woods (although there is that, too, thank you). That said, the humor of the installation is at a perfect pitch, deadpan & laugh out loud.

The general form of the Museum reminds me of Los Angeles projects like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, or the Velaslavasay Panorama: how nice for us in the Southern Tier of the Finger Lakes to have a brief museological moment.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Guy Tillim, Avenue Patrice Lumumba @ the Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis

The first book by Guy Tillim I saw was Jo'Burg. Jo'Burg is physically small, an accordion book of urban views of Johannesburg, South Africa, bound in stiff boards. The images are of a derelict spaces occupied by an urban poor who have moved in to what had been a bourgeois modern metropolis. Johannesburg looks remarkably like our cities in the US which have followed paths of expansion and collapse. If there is a spectral aspect, a sense of a lost past, it is in a sense of prosperity and progress, inscribed in the now grimy, unkempt architecture.

What appeals to me primarily in this work is its delicacy in terms of depicting habitation, its lack of sensationalism in terms of dealing with individual instances of poverty. Compared to a document such as Bruce Davidson's East 100th Street, it is downright cool. In Davidson's book, the lush, intimate photographs become their own parallel universe of community, cohesion and sentiment. In Tillim's images the sterile, generic architecture overwhelms  us in its wrecked indifference to the difficult lives it contains. The architecture enacts a historical narrative by itself, as a container.

The built environment assumes an even greater presence in Tillim's book Leopold and Mobutu, which documents the physical residue of Leopold II of Belgium and Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, following their stewardships of the country. The traces of monuments, bureaucracies, names on a land appear as metaphoric lash marks of history as disaster: looking back, it is one big catastrophe. In contrast with Jo'Burg which can still be read as a more conventional form of journalism, Leopold/Mobuto involves looking at that which is now discarded or concealed - it explores detritus as potential evidence of retrospective horrors, gussied up in monumentality, which now litters the world in fragments, a post-colonial Ozymandias.

Architecture as a scaffold of history is even more apparent in Tillim's book Avenue Patrice Lumumba, which I saw as an exhibit this past winter at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. The title itself alludes to both the nomenclature of post-colonial self-rule in southern Africa, transposed in street names, as well as one its first tragedies, the imprisonment and execution of Patrice Lumumba. Avenue Patrice Lumumba shows the remains of a not-so-long-ago colonial architecture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola - generic modernist structures which in the West appear as universal, ahistorical, totalizing, in a perpetual present tense: a modernity from which there is no going back. In Tillim's images the decayed remnants of colonial organization have been adapted and retrofitted. It has always seemed to me that modern architecture is not meant to age or decay, and when it does it looks similar to ruins - Pompeii or Herculaneum.

The potential of such ruins in contradistinction to our mortal lives comes up in a brief scene in the Rossellini film Voyage to Italy, of tracking shots of antiquities in the museum at Naples, in contrast to the domestic abyss wrought by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders - how small they seem compared to a sense of eternity. The same edit is invoked in Godard's Contempt, with the film within the film, The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang.

But in consideration of Tillim's photographs, such a sense of the eternal becomes unmoored, it seems so Western. Instead I think of a remarkable video I saw several years ago by the Stalker Group, about a 1970s housing complex on the outskirts of Rome, Corviale. Considered a disaster, Corviale has nevertheless evolved its own infrastructure, its own communities within the superstructure of the architecture. These pragmatic movements seem the truly radical gesture. In Tillim's photographs, in their somber colors and lighting, one can see, nevertheless, a movement towards autonomy.