For 2 weeks, two exhibitions in NY about Corbusier overlapped. In addition to the MoMA retrospective that closed on September 23, Amie Siegel’s Provenance at the Simon Preston Gallery on the LES (through October 6) examines a rather different slice: from the point of view of the furniture created for Chandigarh, the Indian planned city of the 1950s.
The film that forms the core of this installation travels in reverse, de- and re-contexualizing the objects. It starts with Chandigarh chairs, settees, and tables in their new homes in the West from apartments to lofts to townhouses and even yachts seen in slow tracking shots and lockoffs by cinematographer Christine A. Maier. These are perfectly crafted interiors that are pristine, light, airy, signaling the curated good life as seen in Architectural Digest. Peeking out are the inventory numbers, like a Holocaust tattoo or cattle branding. Does it give the furniture a limited-edition cache? The pieces are like adopted children who have been lucky enough to be given a new life, but they are out of their native culture and are isolated from their tribe. Even in their new surroundings with other treasures, one can always pick out the Corbusier piece, with the sharply angled forms—triangles are a distinct feature—and geometric planes, even in their new clothes of reupholstered checks, squares and luxury leather. Questions about preservation, neglect, restoration, reinterpretation, and fetishism arise.
We then peel back to a photography shoot for an auction catalogue that isolates the furniture in a neutral white space and shows off its best side. We visit the auctions which fetch high prices: $60,000 for a pair of armchairs, and a manhole cover for $24,000. The settees, floor lamps and desk chairs look perfectly at home in the Paris Beaux Arts auction house Artcurial in the 1844 Hôtel Marcel Dassault off the Champs-Élysées.
Dialing back further, we see damaged, frayed, ripped furniture waiting to be restored. Like a patient, an armless black settee is carried to the `operating theater’ where it is gently stripped of its leather upholstery and padding, and taken down to its wooden bones. Container ships have brought over this furniture, piled high, like refugees in steerage.
Winding back the clock to the city of Chandigarh is a site to behold. A vision from afar, as we get closer the city’s architecture is revealed to be weathered, rusted, and sad, an elegant but faded dowager. Think Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Monkeys climb with abandon, mildew blackens the concrete. Inside, bundles upon bundles of paper are crammed into cubbyholes amidst tangles of computer wires on metal shelves as well as the original wooden units and desks. Stacks of disused, cobwebbed original furniture are everywhere — outside and inside.
The complex has been modified: satellite dishes on the roof, pre-fab office dividers creating cubicles, turquoise office chairs on wheels, metal filing cabinets, dropped ceiling with fluorescent lights, space-saver storage systems in addition to the original furniture models we’ve seen in Western luxury homes at the beginning. Although the General Assembly and Library are more intact, the furniture is largely unloved.
Have generations of users modified the work as they needed? Nehru, who commissioned Corbusier to create Chandigarh, said the new metropolis was to be of a design “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future,” and the team designed everything from the vast sculptures outside to the door handles within. (Much of the furniture was created with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and not Charlotte Perriand.) Many of the items for sale in the U.S. and Europe came from stock “condemned” as unfit for use by the local administration and sold off at auction to dealers, often unaware of their value. Protests have been unheeded.
It’s a complicated question. One is reminded of Corbusier’s declaration: “Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
At the back of the gallery is a second filmed installation of a 360-degree loop of the Chandigarh’s Natural History Museum cyclorama “Evolution of Life, “furthering what Siegel calls the “economy of objects.”
Siegel’s photographs, sound, video and film installations have long focused on architecture and ideology. Black Moon, 2010, is set in the post-apocalyptic landscape of foreclosed housing developments in Florida and California. The Sleepers, 1999, features the architecture of city windows at night, lives glimpsed at a distance. Berlin Remake, 2005 and DDR/DDR, 2008, both deal with East German architecture, representation and surveillance, while Deathstar tracks down early German modernist buildings of the Third Reich including Templehof Airport. And she is currently in two other exhibitions, City of Disappearances at CCA in San Francisco and Mad, Bad and Sad at the Freud Museum in London.
Provenance has one more stop. On October 18 and 19, the film itself will be auctioned at Christie’s in London in the Post-War & Contemporary art sale. That event will be filmed, too, and become part of this project.
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