Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, veil, fan, 11' 2“ x 10' 6”. From “Tapis volants” (Flying Carpets).

Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, veil, fan, 11' 2“ x 10' 6”. From “Tapis volants” (Flying Carpets).

“Tapis volants”

Hans Haacke, Blue Sail, 1964–65, veil, fan, 11' 2“ x 10' 6”. From “Tapis volants” (Flying Carpets).

What could a viewer make of the Oriental carpets, arranged on the ground like Carl Andre sculptures or on the walls like allover paintings, and of the videos exhibited, one next to the other, in the spaces of the Villa Medici? After initial disorientation, a visitor understood that “Tapis volants” was not simply an exhibition of carpets, but rather, as the name of the show and installations by Hans Haacke (Blue Sail, 1964–65) and Zilvinas Kempinas (Flux, 2009) confirmed, one of flying carpets. In other words, the question of movement was central no matter the medium on display. The films shown (in digital-video transfers) ranged from the historical avant-garde (Hans Richter, Rhythmus 21, 1921–24) to 1960s experimentation (Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage), and from the 1920s abstract works by the neuropsychiatrist Émile Malespine to the technological sublime of James Whitney (Lapis, 1963). Every now and then a carpet might be glimpsed in an easel painting; but also, via the medium of film, through a train window (Ken Jacobs, Disorient Express, 1966) or the glass walls of an elevator (Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1991, by Ernie Gehr); and even heard in the music of Morton Feldman.

Carpets are structured through the virtually infinite repetition of pattern; they dissolve the two-dimensional surface and undermine any attempt to focus, destabilizing perception. In short, they are veritable vision machines. And this was the underlying idea of curator Philippe-Alain Michaud, who conceived “Tapis volants” while visiting the textile collection (installed by art historian Alois Riegl in the late-nineteenth century) of the mak Vienna: Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art. In this sense, the exhibition constituted only the latest surprising chapter in Michaud’s still-ongoing critical reconsideration of images in motion, dating back to the exhibition “Le mouvement des images,” held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2006. Michaud’s goal is to inscribe artists’ cinema, from the avant-garde movements to the present, within an expanded history of images in motion and, more broadly, of representation. Beyond its technical and spectacular aspects, he considers cinema as a way of thinking about images. The same is now true for carpets: “A carpet is not something to be walked upon, but a circumscribed space to be entered.”

In “Of Other Spaces” (1967), Michel Foucault wrote of heterotopia as the capacity for “juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” He cites as examples the theater stage, the movie screen, but also, going back in time, the Eastern garden as a microcosm, as well as carpets as symbolic reproductions of the garden, “a sort of garden that can move across space.” “Tapis volants” shows that as heterotopias, carpets and experimental films have much in common. This heterotopic condition is something both forms share with the exhibition, at least insofar as moving images have not only been projected (as in the collective experience of the movie theater), but also exhibited (as in museums).

The exhibition thus becomes an active filmic device. This was neatly illustrated by the projection of meteorological films (1959–61) by
Audouin Dollfus inside the Villa Medici’s immense sixth-century Roman cistern, which recalls a subterranean grotto and would undoubtedly have fascinated Robert Smithson. The images that passed over the bare walls seemed to be prehistoric drawings suddenly come alive, as in Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)—a sign that flying carpets arouse a sense of spatial as well as historical vertigo.

Riccardo Venturi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.