Architectures of Truth
For the last 40 years, cultural pundits have focused their attention on the ever-expanding dominion of the mass media. Whether broadcast through television or the Internet, its shimmering blue-light tendrils meander and creep kudzu-like into every aspect of our life. Yet if the play of the news and advertising extends itself like so many curling vines of a lush foreign weed, then we are but the fertilizer. We are its willing victims.
For the Frenchman Guy Debord, however, writing in the '60s, the relationship among marketplace, vendor and consumer was one of violent submission rather than pleasurable capitulation. While a unifying social force, the mass media function as though they were a bewitching yet self-aggrandizing "spectacle"--a force of persuasion covering "the entire surface of the world [that] bathes endlessly in its own glory," Debord argued. An iconoclast paradoxically regarded as an icon of his own generation, Debord saw the mass media "spectacle" as but a bearer of lies. Far less apocalyptic in tone, the Canadian Marshall McLuhan humanized the mass media, describing their technology and means of dissemination as extensions of the human body. Also a voice of the '60s, McLuhan viewed the mass media as a generator of effects, the very stuff of which serves as the glue of society. Whether true or false, the mass media build and construct society as we know it through their games of power and persuasion.
The French artist Pierre Huyghe (pronounced "Weeg") transforms such grist and seed into art, hewing for himself a new niche as creator. Huyghe is an artist of the mass media who operates somewhere in between our two social critics, Debord and McLuhan. While undoubtedly working through the philosophy of the "spectacle" set forth by Debord, his French brother in arms, Huyghe is ultimately more a McLuhan-ite. The three videos of One Million + Kingdoms now showing at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth reveal Huyghe to be fascinated by mass media technique--the almost ingenious interweaving of truths and falsehoods performed on a daily basis. He is a mass media artist in two senses of the term: in that he sees the perverse constructions of news events and advertising as the stuff of art and as he literally works through a variety of artistic media. A Parisian by birth, Huyghe chose to attend the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs because the school did not require students to immediately focus on a specific medium. Training there in the early '80s, Huyghe experimented liberally with various materials, working through the standard technological media and finally finding his forte as an artist who goes "from field to field." While he claims not to prioritize cinema, its flux and shift of images is an accurate metaphor for Huyghe's penchant for working from medium to medium.
Each of the three videos showing at the Fort Worth Modern makes a clear and concise statement on how both ideals and ideas based at some level on facts and even statistical data quickly come to occupy the realm of what another French social critic, Jean Baudrillard, has called "hyperreality." Once shot through the technological apparatus of the mass media and distributed en masse, the real, however minute it may be, has a tendency to become bombastically unreal. In turn, our reality becomes "hyperreality."
Les Grands Ensembles, the first of three videos, is a commentary on an ideal gone tragically wrong. Installed in a large, open dark room about the size of a small theater, the video offers a view into a belief system "thingified" into urban form. Emerging in the '30s and coming of age in full form throughout the French landscape in the late '50s, the "grand ensemble" is a prototype for mass housing in which the design is based on the principles of high modern urbanism. According to the functionalist witches' brew of yesterday's modernists, life was to occur within a carefully orchestrated set of mandates based in part on the rules of composition set forth by 20th-century avant-garde painting (De Stijl, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism and Purism). The abstract lines and bars of master-plan drawing gave rise in real form to residential slabs and towers separated by large swaths of open green space with major thoroughfares, both automotive and pedestrian, re-routed around the residential complex. While based on ideals of beautiful form and universal housing, many French have deemed the grand ensemble a failure today. The great strength of Huyghe's video is that he nevertheless captures the beauty of the original ideals.
Two towers stand eerily on an open flat plane that has been meagerly manicured with ground lighting and ailing shrubbery. With no people in sight, the two towers come to life. Communication seems to erupt as lights shout forth from cell-like windows, battling to and fro for visual airtime as if so many words uttered by bantering friends. Huyghe has enhanced the anthropomorphic quality of the buildings by including a soundtrack of pulsating respiration that is carefully choreographed according to lights and the passage of seasons. Further enhancing the unreal of the real--or the hyperreal of the real, I should say--Huyghe has substituted a model of the grand ensemble for the real thing. That's cardboard and foam core you see, not concrete and mortar.
On the opposing wall across the room one finds One Million Kingdoms, the second video of the exhibition running on a loop carefully timed to start once Les Grands Ensembles has ended. The two videos situated crosswise make for a nice rhetoric of light, video and space as both share a commitment to architecture and landscape. Beyond that, the two videos are worlds apart. One Million Kingdoms features "Annlee," a doe-eyed and lonesome adolescent girl modeled after Japanese anime and manga, or figures from Japanese comic books. Huyghe and his colleague and collaborator, Philippe Parreno, bought the rights to Annlee, making her the starlet of a series of animation shorts. We are lucky to see Annlee here in our own back yard as videos of her are now rare. She starred in only a few after being laid to rest by her owners. Huyghe and Parreno officially banned the use of Annlee at the close of 2002 after making 17 shorts.
In One Million Kingdoms we see Annlee walking in a lunar landscape that she creates with each footstep. Her voice is that of Neil Armstrong. Once again turning reality topsy-turvy, the landscape is not based on the moon but rather a region of Iceland used by NASA for training in the 1960s. And, while the voice is Armstrong's, Annlee recites passages from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Here references abound like gales in a maelstrom of fact quickly becoming fiction quickly becoming fact once again. Annlee becomes the solemn but witty bearer of doubt about the historic event of the moon landing, suggesting that perhaps it was on the flat, pock-ridden anti-summits of Iceland that Armstrong planted the American flag, rooting one hallowed moment of a nation's pride in the kitsch of a stage production rather than the true grandeur of galactic exploration.
In The Third Memory the wind thrusts of reference and memory give rise to a full-fledged tornado of storytelling and truth combined. Huyghe's video is based on a historical event inspired by cinema, the 1972 robbery committed by the bank teller-turned-buccaneer John Wojtowicz. After watching The Godfather in a nearby theater, Wojtowicz decided to rob a bank in Brooklyn in order to get money for his gay lover, Ernest Aron, to have a sex change operation. This all may begin to ring a bell as, beyond mere coverage in the news, a movie was made in 1975 based on the momentous occasion--Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino as Wojtowicz.
The installation takes up two rooms, the first room devoted to news clips from both television and newspaper and the second to a room-scale video installation of Wojtowicz re-enacting the robbery in 1999. While the newspaper clips hung on the wall are informative, the video clip of a talk show is humorous. From 1978, it stars a very John Currin-esque Liz Eden, né Ernest Aron, alternately in discussion with the show host, Jeanne Parr, and Wojtowicz, who is beamed in from jail by satellite. Flash forward 21 years; Eden has died an AIDS-related death, and the "truth" fabricated by Dog Day Afternoon has infiltrated Wojtowicz's personal memories of the event. Wojtowicz seems to confuse the constructed truths of Dog Day Afternoon with the actual truths of the robbery. The video in the next room shows Wojtowicz re-enacting the robbery on a Parisian set inter-spliced with news footage of the actual event and Pacino's performance in the movie. We ask ourselves: Which is real? Which was real? Which has become real?
Huyghe's videos make palpable the surreal quality of reality. They are ironic and refreshing--and both critical and philosophical-minded as well. But there's no moralizing here, just pure fun and folly and at no one's expense except our own. We are the ones who willfully gather at the elixir-bearing tap of the spectacle, soaking up its liquor stupor that turns us into so many happy and hardy bleary-eyed consumers of our collective constructed reality.
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