Amie Siegel

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Texte zur Kunst
December 2013

Valued Objects, High Returns
by Kari Rittenbach



In her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1969), Susan Sontag describes the historiography of art in rather derisive terms, as the formulation of a repertory of objects worthy of human attention. For the contemporary artist this concept is even more problematic, since “the very faculty of attention has come into question” and in fact one should “ideally [...] be able to pay attention to everything”. Reflecting on the impoverished politics of Minimal Art, which proposes a total experience by dint of absolute reduction to the narrowest forms of expression, Sontag writes: “The motion is toward less and less. But never has ‘less’ so ostentatiously advanced itself as ‘more.’”

This particular critique of modern aesthetic purity was published in the same year that the rational architect Mies van der Rohe died; author of the eminently quotable aphorism “Less is More” and contemporary of the Swiss-born, Paris-based architect Le Corbusier. Whereas Mies and his steel and glass skyscrapers found a foothold in the corporate world of the American postwar economy, Le Corbusier’s more ordinary materials, organic forms, and liberal ideas for city planning – outlined in the continental modernism of his Ville Radieuse (1924) – were less eagerly assimilated by capital markets and thus relegated to new social-democratic experiments in the former colonies; in particular, in the master plan and official and residential structures of the newly created regional capital of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh. As part of a comprehensive modernizing agenda, then-Prime Minister Nehru had invited the European architect to design the Indian city from scratch, or rather tabula rasa, essentially buying into the latter’s ethnographic explorations of tradition and modernity on a sweeping environmental scale, with the aim to produce a functionally utopian and very much postcolonial political project. The influence of Le Corbusier’s forward-looking aesthetic on the development of Indian architecture remains a fruitful field of study; so too the successes and failures of his designs for Chandigarh, on both architectural and social grounds. Despite mild congestion, some overpopulation, a dearth of pedestrian-scale thoroughfares and other spaces for loitering in public, the middle-class city of approximately one million residents is the wealthiest, per capita, in the nation; owing to the confluence of state-run agencies and a growing technology sector.

If the above information were to serve as programming notes to American filmmaker Amie Siegel’s cinematic portrait of contemporary Chandigarh, insofar as it emerges in “Provenance” (2013), it might complicate her neatly edited and sumptuously photographed inverted temporal loop with more troublesome noise, offbeat tracking, and rather less exoticism than the tasteful primitivism over which her camera lingers in the revelation of origins implied by the work’s title. A well-executed and intensely focused study, Siegel’s nearly silent film – making full use of the diegetic sound from the insulated world of global financial investment, the violent ripping of leather and splintering wood from the carpenter’s workshop, and the digital tin of Hindi music broadcast from cheap mobile phone speakers – lavishes its attention on the transformation of a handful of notable design objects in teak and rosewood once appointed for various administrative buildings at Chandigarh. Designed for the most part by Le Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanneret (who supervised construction of the entire project on-site while the former remained installed in Paris), in recent years reclaimed versions of these simple tables, desks, and chairs have begun drifting toward the foreign auction market, where they command considerable prices. In 2011 the government of Chandigarh appealed to the British High Commission in Delhi to block the sale of 20 items of furniture from the municipal court and library by the London auctioneer Bonham’s; the sale proceeded after evidence was presented that the items had been “legitimately acquired”. So West London is where Siegel’s film begins, finding Chandigarh benches, stools, and couch calmly peopling a warm, if spare, modern interior unexpectedly tucked behind a series of street-facing Regency-style porticos. Somewhere in the English countryside, several armchairs, chaise-longue and others are observed happily clustered between curtain wall windows and crackling hearth. Some minutes in, the first human figure to appear onscreen is seen casually descending the stairway of a Paris flat, before which a pony-hair upholstered divan is settled, and where the focus of Siegel’s film inevitably follows. Thus the subject of the video work is divulged formally, signaled in the quiet attention given to these angular and carefully positioned midcentury antique objects, sometimes recovered in awfully kitschy checkered patterns or else expertly restored with hand-woven cane seat and back. There is something about them – beyond the incoherent codes curlicued on the hind leg of each piece – that strikes a familial resemblance, sparking the viewer’s interest in the nature of this peculiar and presumably valuable diaspora. Traversing Amsterdam, New York City, and Long Island, Siegel traces the furniture through baroque showrooms, across auction blocks in the United States and France (where a pair of lounge chairs go for $60,000; a large conference table ¤ 70,000), stages of processing and preparation for sale, artisanal salvage, and finally sea-freight shipment from its source: Post-Partition India’s first planned city.

The return to Chandigarh, which structures the second half of Siegel’s film, presents a problematic dualism that reflects some of the issues explored in the filmmaker’s previous two-channel works, including “Berlin Remake” (2005) and “Black Moon/Mirrored Malle” (2010), which restage historic filmic events (the East German studio film; an interview with French auteur Louis Malle) in the present. Shot for shot, Siegel’s contemporary scenes play against their original doubles, to reveal a number of everyday absurdities or unexpected coincidences afforded by the passage of time. It is this thoroughly false sense of regression – evident in the reversal of the exchange of capital and the weathered nature of the inhabited urban fabric as compared to the well preserved private residences of an unseen global elite – in returning back to the foreign point of origin that gives “Provenance” its awk- ward axis, and ultimately (silently) invites symmetrical contrast. Although Siegel’s eye remains trained on the Jeanneret furniture, it is somehow more difficult to see in the context of Chandigarh itself, where modular desks stand comfortably alongside suitably proportional chairs, or else a lamp-lit library counter extends modestly into the space of the reading room (accommodating the collective studies of at least five students), or a cane chair peaks from underneath the brightly colored silk garments of a woman regarding some sculpture in the city museum. If the prized – perhaps even looted – furniture is more populous in Chandigarh, it is also less precious (receding from figure to ground) and in relation to its design, actually portrayed as functional, or at worst, serviceable (a conference table identical to one sold by Artcurial is seen plastered in gaudy political posters). A clamorous environment precludes quiet contemplation, so the filmmaker struggles to find a rarefied point of focus; at the same distance from an inanimate subject, her viewfinder necessarily encompasses more. In one exemplary passage, rolling ergonomic chairs encroaching on a busy office setting allude to a stockpile of settees – dusty and discarded – stacked high atop the concrete roof of an unidentified building that eventually frame, in the distance, an abstract view of the General Legislative Assembly.

Cursory readings of “Provenance” dwell on the evident disregard or “obliviousness” to value that the sequence described above seems to indicate, thus prioritizing the “object-oriented” view of history outlined by Sontag over any potential social, pedagogical, or public (thus ephemeral) mechanism. Yet the measure of a government or government agency does not always reflect the caliber of its interior design (as partially explored in “DDR/DDR”, 2008); and the political aspect does not actually wend its way into Siegel’s film. Rather, the discovery or determination of cultural and financial assets – here represented as unquestionably capitalist and Western, despite Nehru’s ambitions – help situate the true provenance of contemporary Chandigarh-fever. If the architectonic Immobiliers of Le Corbusier’s urban plans were never destined for the continent, then the greater liquidity of the mobilier that (still) features in his totalizing utopian projects might be repurposed for private interest in its social currency; a scalar transformation through which less is more, and scarcity produces greater worth. Now that transparent walls have become “the very index of capitalist corporate exclusivity”, organic modern furniture built for “other” uses accrues the auratic authenticity of the art object when atomized from its intended environment. Whether Siegel’s film essay can be said to critique or celebrate this phenomena of agency-free capital flow is open to interpretation.

“Provenance” ends in the space of an Economics lecture, where a professor’s voice echoes cheerily in the vicinity of a folding cane chair: “When you are investing something, it means you are getting something – it means high returns.” The formula might be applicable to modern design (collectors as rescuers of bourgeois European cultural heritage) or something even less tangible (market forces manipulated by the imbalance of supply and demand). Siegel’s work itself was considered complete only after it was auctioned by the artist and her New York gallerist at Christie’s in London, where, spurred by interest from a handful of buyers, a single edition of the film sold for £52,500 in October 2013. Is the only possible investment for contemporary art one that colludes in its own objectification, and consequently, financial speculation?