PRINT December 2004

Tom Vanderbilt

1 “The Snow Show” (Kemi and Rovaniemi, Finland) I would have used any excuse to visit the Finnish Lapland town of Rovaniemi, where Alvar Aalto’s stunning municipal buildings stand, but “The Snow Show,” curated by Lance Fung there and in Kemi, provided architecture of an even more native variety—ice and snow structures by Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and others, their medium harvested from local lakes and engineered by Finnish master ice-builder Seppo Mäkinen. Part Fitzgeraldian winter carnival, part Smithsonesque exercise in entropic dissipation, the whimsy and beauty of these glacial constructions was enough to melt your heart.

2 “Building the Unthinkable” (Apex Art, New York) The “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sits at seven minutes to midnight—back to where it was at the dawn of the cold war. Curator Christian Stayner probed the clear and present dangers with a show that reached back with a strange kind of nuclear nostalgia to a time when we were symmetrically paired against the only enemy that mattered. The show was dominated physically and metaphorically by Dominic McGill’s Model for a Deathwish Generation, 2002, a simmering diorama of Bikini Atoll set between the two hulking hemispheres of a hydrogen device, as abominable and Ozymandian as The Bomb itself.

3 An-My Lê, “29 Palms” (Murray Guy, New York) America’s live-fire landscape, captured in sober, large-format elegance. US troops mobilize in a rocky expanse that could be Tora Bora but is actually two hours from LA. This is mock war, but interspersed with the occasional poignant punctum: One soldier puts an embracing arm on another during an exercise; a cross rises from the desert floor; armored cavalry regiments move through a panorama worthy of William Henry Jackson. The brevity of the battle for Iraq suggests the worth of this verisimilitude in military terms, though the ensuing calamity demonstrates the real-world limits to war games.

4 Clifford Ross, Mountain I (Sonnabend Gallery, New York) Can a photograph ever satisfy our memory of sight? Unable to fully document the image of a Colorado mountain as he remembered it, Ross constructed a back-to-the-future hybrid device out of cannibalized Fairchild Instruments aerial cameras to take this ultra-high-res picture, in the process bringing an exhilarating, unprecedented level of clarity and depth to landscape photography.

5 “Leonardo’s Automobile” (Museo Leonardiano, Vinci, Italy) This exhibition presented the first compelling model of da Vinci’s so-called “car,” sketched in the Codex Atlanticus and long a mystery to scholars. Acting on a new theory by American robotics designer Mark Rosheim, an Italian team realized a working model of what is now thought to be a premodern robot designed for court amusement, centuries ahead of the automatons of Jacques de Vaucanson and Wolfgang von Kempelen.

6 The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Monacelli Press) “I looked in through the glass, saw some blood and ran home and called the police,” reports Sarah Abbott, doll-size resident of the miniaturized forensic-evidence world of criminal investigator Frances Glessner Lee. For years, these 1940s crime-scene tableaux (decidedly not dollhouses) have beguiled visitors to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore. Now, photographer Corinne May Botz brings Lee’s exactingly rendered interiors of scale-model death into an unsettling new light; suffused with color and shadow, and stripped of context that would reveal their true dimensions, these scenarios, crafted to help police investigators find “truth in a nutshell,” take on an outsize pathos.

7 Mike and Doug Starn, “Gravity of Light” (Färgfabriken Kunsthalle, Stockholm) The Starn brothers place a sun at the center of their own artistic universe: A looming carbonarc lamp, sizzling and snapping, some relic of Victorian science, searingly illuminates a room ringed with works exploring the meanings of light and darkness. There are photographs of moths that seem printed on moth wings, a representation of the blind Chinese monk Ganjin (whose temple is opened, to the light, once a year), and the dendritic outlines of leaves and trees that are turning black, to carbon, returning to the source of the light.

8 “Terminal 5” ( John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York) “Today my favorite kind of atmosphere is the airport atmosphere,” Andy Warhol once declared. And yet, air travel is often a blind spot for artists; as marine painting was central to the art of seagoing seventeenth-century Holland, so one would expect contemporary art to be rife with images of air travel, the agent of today’s globalization. “Terminal 5,” Rachel K. Ward’s doomed exhibit in the Eero Saarinen–designed terminal, had looked to arrest this deficiency (Ryoji Ikeda’s sound-and-light spectacle was the most winning entry), giving viewers one last time to meander through this graying, unmediated monument to the future before it’s occupied by new owner JetBlue. The supreme irony here is that the Port Authority, never completely loyal to the idea of saving the landmark, closed the show in order to protect the building.

9 Rackstraw Downes (Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York) Downes’s work here is brilliant realism for an all-seeing age that has forgotten how to look. Probing into silent, interstitial spaces and freeing our eyes from the tyranny of the decisive moment, Downes reinvigorates the tactile pleasures of sight. Consider his rugged Winslow Homer landscapes denuded by man, as in the paintings of a Rio Grande water-flow monitoring station, the dry riverbed engraved with ATV tracks, awaiting nature’s eternal return.

10 Jane and Louise Wilson, Erewhon (303 Gallery, New York) The Wilson twins again interrogate mute sites of power, this time a decaying sanatorium in New Zealand that serves as monument to that country’s statist therapeutic culture in the period after World War I. The filmed spaces are charged with a haunting Kubrickian stillness, and an air of prescient unease pervades the room as one wanders among the screens, which seem more like flickering walls of repressed memory.

New York–based writer Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).