PRINT December 2007

Tom Vanderbilt


1 “Lost Vanguard: Soviet Modernist Architecture, 1922–32. Photographs by Richard Pare” (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Organized by Barry Bergdoll and Jean-Louis Cohen, Pare’s monumental photographic survey of vanguard architecture from postrevolutionary Russia had the power to make you nostalgic for something of which you had never been fully aware. Architects, from Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier to homegrown talents like Konstantin Melnikov and Grigory Simonov, aimed for a state-sponsored “reconstruction of daily life,” affecting everything from collective housing and power plants thrumming with “American tempo” to architecture parlante (“speaking architecture”), whose very form (e.g., schools laid out in a hammer-and-sickle form) contained the revolution. Brimming with utopian possibility, exuberant and eclectic in its volumes and massings, this architecture was the last bountiful harvest before the long Soviet winter set in and it fell victim to Stalinist orthodoxy and the exigencies of the Five-Year Plan.

2 “Keith Edmier, 1991–2007” (CCS Bard Hessel Museum, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY) Even without its staggering centerpiece, this show (organized by Tom Eccles) would have been remarkable, gathering the poignant, beautiful, and bizarre invocations of 1970s memories that have become Edmier’s hallmark. But then, right in the center like some historical wormhole, there was Bremen Towne, 2006–2007, the full-scale, achingly hyperauthentic suburban simulacrum of the Tinley Park, Illinois, house in which Edmier’s obsessions took root. (I grew up nearby, so the antique gold-and-black wallpaper, “z-bricked” walls, and zebra-striped paneling hit me with a particular frisson.) At the opening, the artist’s father adjusted jacquard damask curtains in the living room like an anxious host. The artist’s mother was present too, both in the flesh and in Beverly Edmier, 1967, 1998, a life-size sculpture in pink dental acrylic that features a clear window to the unborn artist, who, now fully grown, stood nearby on the Cortez Gold sculpted carpet.

3 Félix Fénéon, Novels in Three Lines (New York Review Books) Mallarmé saloniste, art dealer, anarchist dabbler, and journalist, Fénéon elevated to a high art the journalistic rubric of faits divers, or “sundry events,” with his three-line fillers for the newspaper Le Matin. Luc Sante, who translated this collection, calls the form a “miniature clockwork of language and event”; in each is the germ of a novella. Think Wisconsin Death Trip in France, circa 1906: “In a hotel in Lille, M. H. Hallynch, of Ypres, hanged himself for reasons that, according to a letter he left, will soon be made known.”

4 Richard Barnes, “Murmur” (Hosfelt Gallery, New York) The starlings over Rome are astonishing performers, ambassadors of emergent behavior, swirling and condensing through the sky, whirling like cyclones one moment, clustering into a ball the next. In Barnes’s grainy photographs, abstraction is never far away: The birds begin to look like emphatic charcoal drawings, tempestuous cloud formations, or the smudged whorls of human fingerprints (no two flocks, or “murmurs,” are alike). Some flocks are so dense the eye is drawn to the white space between the birds, which seems to morph into a winter mountain in a Japanese woodcut. Traces of banal architecture, mostly in Mussolini’s model suburb of EUR, seem to be consumed, à la Hitchcock, by the murmurs.

5 Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter) This film is like Upton Sinclair’s Jungle a century on, with bloody killing floors replaced by Silicon Valley–clean rooms (employing mostly immigrant labor), rendered by Geyrhalter with a Kubrickian formality and remove that intensifies the inhuman, inhumane, clinical coldness.

6 Mike Nelson, A Psychic Vacuum (Old Essex Street Market, New York) Nelson filled this cavernous relic of a fast-disappearing Lower East Side with a labyrinthine phantasmagoria of constructed chambers—memory lanes into some unknowable past—that seemed hurriedly quit sometime in 1971 (the year of the calendar pages strewn around the “bar”). Reprising the area’s louche past, along with random slabs of the “old, weird America,” the work confounded one’s sense of direction and of reality. Most of the material was salvaged from around the city; some of it, like the space containing a Chinese restaurant with an empty vat of MSG and a Red Dragon Exterminating inspection schedule, was simply secured in place. As eerily affecting as all this was, it was a mere foreshadowing of the work’s “penultimate truth”—the vast splay of sand that filled the entire warehouse, seemingly subsuming the spaces through which one had just walked, in a distorted echo of the Paris ’68 slogan “Beneath the paving stones, the beach.”

7 “Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969–79” (International Center of Photography, New York) A singular exhibition that revived the attenuated colors of a lost America—Sambo’s Restaurants, Howard Johnson’s wall paneling, jumbled vernacular strips—and emphatically highlighted Shore’s seminal position in photography’s embrace of color. It felt like some kind of sun-dazed, Watergate-era On the Road hangover—where the only promise and pathos left lie in making the beautiful banal and vice versa, with Shore retiring to motel rooms each night of his 1972 road trip not to record feverish musings of the self, but to meticulously log his daily purchases and television viewing habits.

8 Doug Aitken, Sleepwalkers (Museum of Modern Art, New York) Aitken exploded the white cube out of its protective covering, turning MoMA’s exterior walls into an “emotional skin,” a “hybrid space” somewhere between film and architecture, warming cold glass with large yet intimate human forms, summoning the city’s secret interiors into plain view. As I stood in the Sculpture Garden on a cold, rainy January night, there was an ineluctable sense of Japan-ness about the work; not simply the Blade Runner echoes of the imagery itself, but the diaphanous, shoji-like white grid of Yoshio Taniguchi’s renovation, the leafless birch trees, and the contemplative stillness.

9 eteam, International Airport Montello (Montello, Nevada/Art in General, New York) Unlike other nearby works of Land art—Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels—the IAM, and its accompanying runways and departure lounges, cannot be viewed via Google Earth. Without the documentation of the airport at Art in General, we would be hard-pressed to say whether this extended conceptual layover in the Silver State’s vast hinterlands ever actually existed or was some Smithson-esque “terminal mirage.” Potemkin, perhaps, but the airport’s staff—sixty-seven residents of Montello, the “town that refuses to die”—put on a larger-than-life performance.

10 Richard Ross, “The Architecture of Authority” (Aperture Gallery, New York) To power as Our Daily Bread is to food, Ross’s photographs depict empty, confining, fluorescent, and at times perversely beautiful scenes—for example, the spare, penitential, almost Turrellian shafts of light in the cells at Gitmo’s Camp X-Ray.Ross has burrowed his way into some of the world’s most sequestered quarters, but equally striking is the work drawn from the everyday world of soft power, from the Tensabarrier enclosures of airports to the “interdependence of freedom and discipline” embodied by the circle on Montessori-school floors.

Tom Vanderbilt is a frequent contributor to Artforum and writes for many other publications, including Wired, London Review of Books, Cabinet, Print, and I.D., where he is a contributing editor. He is also a regular contributor to the website Design Observer. His latest book, Traffic Signals, is forthcoming in 2008 from Alfred A. Knopf.