Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio

M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center

Currently on its second stop in a traveling tour of four cities, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s installation constitutes a magnificently obsessive analysis of travel, sightseeing, and art’s seductive role in the burgeoning industry of tourism.

Influenced by an ambitious range of ideas and images, including travel writing and leisure theory, postcards and collectibles, not to mention its own status as an art event booked to travel, the exhibition is conceived around a standard module: a ubiquitous vinyl Samsonite suitcase. From a plywood drop-ceiling, 50 bags suspended from poles at eye level are arranged five across and ten deep. Each suitcase is partially open to reveal devices adapted to signify individual historical sites and tourist attractions. In both the top and the bottom compartments of each valise small clamps hold plates of glass. The bottom sheets are etched with maps of much-touted sites in the United States—a famous bedroom (Teddy Roosevelt), battlefield (Little Bighorn Park), or museum (Liberace)—while the top panels are left clear except for a brushed-on rectangular mirror in the center of each.

Extended from the central hinge of each suitcase is a slender, lighted probe holding a tourist postcard of the designated site; the picture is reflected on the lower mirror as well as on mirror-written instructions for a generic greeting and travel report. Beneath the glass panels, the storage compartments are lined with enlarged texts describing the historical site and small models of battlefields with artillery, or beds where the famous once slept. Like the protective sheath that divides each suitcase, a rubbery, translucent skin hangs down the front of each piece of baggage. All 50 are inscribed with quotations on the subject of travel from luminaries including Daniel Boorstin, Thomas Jefferson, Roland Barthes, and jingle writers for American Express; scholarly and ludicrous observations are presented side by side.

The plywood ceiling on which all this is mounted features a ghosted image of the continental United States. Black and white wires connect each suitcase to the exact location of the historical site its contents document on the overhead map. The connections between the carefully packed representation of place and the cartographic location creates a wild web to decipher. Every detail of this installation highlights the paradoxical tension between the desire for travel to actual sites and communications systems that make it possible never to leave home. Much of Diller and Scofidio’s work concerns issues of optical ambiguity, control, and possession, and here, optical ownership is embodied in the acquisitive activities of the sightseer—through the artifacts and images brought home.

Art is an accomplice to tourism. Cities and communities celebrate their museums and protect their architectural monuments to ensure a lively, lucrative tourist trade. Diller and Scofidio play with the obvious ironies of the traveling exhibition that is both a touristic lure and a device for the artist’s expanded geographic exposure. If you can’t go to art, it will come to you. One almost imagines that the suitcases filled with art could be closed, tagged for the next stop on the itinerary, and loaded into the baggage compartment of any plane.

Patricia C. Phillips