Saturday, October 18, 2014

And so to bed: David Gissen's "The Mound of Vendôme" at the CCA -- with response

 I wrote this piece a couple months ago under commission from a fancy-pants art magazine. I submitted it and they sent it back, completely changing it around so that the piece ended up praising this ridiculous show and stressing its fundamental importance. As I couldn't disagree more strongly with that point of view, I just pulled the review entirely. This wonderful story about the installation of a giant butt plug in the Place Vendôme prompts me to share the piece here, which is probably the right venue anyway.

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Like French lit, English litter derives from Latin lectus, bed. A portable bed or the stuff to make beddings, litter acquired its familiar signification—trash—by the 1730s. Such a bed made from trash was constructed by the Paris Commune on the place Vendôme in May 1871. Built of sticks, straw, and manure, this litter would protect surrounding buildings from a militaristic column erected in the square by Napoleon and toppled by the Communards on May 16, 1871. It is this same bed that David Gissen’s exhibition tracks and proposes to reconstruct.

Displaying thirteen prints and period photographs from the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s collection, the exhibition organizes time spatially. The first of four tables holds the earliest material: an engraving from 1822 depicting a sculpture of Caesar-like Napoleon, which capped the column. Reading left-to-right on each table, time is additionally indicated by black blocks with white characters dating the images—blocks cued to exemplify the column’s orientation. After May 16, 1871, the blocks align horizontally indicating the column has fallen, a miniature performance reversed on the penultimate table as the Commune itself falls and the column is re-erected. Imagined futures for the site show on the walls and a final table. Two light-box photographs offer digital renderings of the mound restored; black text reads against white gallery walls petitioning for reconstruction. A maquette of the column stands on the last table beside an odorless mound of “manure and organic moss,” which looks more like tobacco.

It is thus the exhibition makes its case for rebuilding this “earthwork” as a “counter-monument,” the latter phrase recalling a conversation about monuments and memory now some decades old. Stating terms in black and white, horizontal and vertical, the exhibition addresses the viewer as a reader asked to see the mound’s restitution as an inexorable conclusion to its story. However rousing a rhetorical strategy, this simplifying narrative also dashes past many of the key details. Absent from the gallery guide, for example, are names for several of the images’ makers and publishers—a disservice given the differences of interest they materialize so potently. If Bruno Braquehais’s 1871 photograph (above) suggests sympathy with its camera-facing guards who tower over the felled column, a page-spread from the Illustrated London News tells a different story. 

The column appears cocked at forty-five degrees, a huge wedge cut from its base. Ropes drape from its lantern as teams of men strain against capstan and windlass, mustering an encyclopedia of engineering techniques to gratify what this staunchly bourgeois newspaper called “the rage of the Communist Dictators.” More devastating is an albumen silver print from 1871 by Jules Andrieu shot gazing down to the bomb crater of the toppled column detonated in the square. Since he included this image in a series called Désastres de la guerre (following Goya, amending Callot), might Andrieu not have held a more complicated position than simply considering the demolition a “pointless act of irreverence towards the army, its leaders and veterans” as the catalogue glosses all dissent?

Most surprising is the proposed reconstruction’s vagueness. With what would Gissen remake the mound? His projections show plumes of organic matter. Yet, “part of the everyday ecology of Paris” (as Gissen describes it), the Communards’ mound audaciously wed practicality to sacrilege: receiving the toppled emperor in a bed made of litter from the modern street. Rather than anachronistically repeating hay and manure as the plans imply, why not use twenty-first century urban waste? Such a giant, festering mound would at least render under to Caesar the consumer detritus that is the by-product of the luxury retailers now ringing the place Vendôme. Asking them to lie in a bed of their own making would be a more pungent (if perhaps no more potent) gesture than this quaint, sanitized re-enactment.

[This post received the following response from David Gissen, dated Oct. 21, 2014]

I have to say that I have read many things about my work, but this is the first time I have ever felt compelled to reply. Besides your various points (a few of which I actually agree with), my desire to write this to you has to do with the anonymous way that you published this. You’re an editor of a major academic journal and a professor at a major university; so, in addition to the relative power those positions provide you in academia – places that have reviewed and published my work —I don't understand why you couldn’t stand behind this essay with full authorship.
To the various points you raised about our “ridiculous” exhibition:
In 2012 I was approached by the CCA to transform my petition regarding the Mound of Vendome into an exhibition. I believed that displaying my materials related to the petition in concert with the archival documents held by the CCA would be a powerful way to consider the archive’s relationship to experimental historical work. I agree with you that there is danger in instrumentalizing history towards some teleological message. If the exhibition conveys that the history of these events ends with the reconstruction of the mound, then I must work harder to separate archive and proposal in future iterations of this exhibition. In fact, when developing the renderings and model for this version of the exhibition, I tried to remove many signifiers that they were contemporary images – cars, signage, etc – so that they could potentially be seen as rendered reconstructions of the original.
You wrote that we did not identify the authorof the various images, but we clearly identified the author and source of each historical image in the accompanying booklet. I admit that I did not address the representational politics of Andrieu vs. Braquehais, among the other photographers and printmakers.  I am not necessarily interested in decoding the sympathies of the photographers towards the subject, but rather wanted to emphasize the quantity of representations of the events and their circulation. In the accompanying web videos I recall discussing the way the archival images circulated, which I think is more critical and in some ways worked against the authors’ original intentions. For example, Braquehais’ images were ultimately absorbed into anti-communard writings. And some of the most anti-communard photographs were republished by the Situationist International as illustrations of their pro-commune tracts.
As for your proposal to make the mound out of trash – that’s an interesting idea. But I see my project as situated within the history of urban landscape. We are witnessing an incredible moment in which historical urban landscapes are being reconstructed and renovated in contemporary cities and in many ways these establish narratives of urban history that I find troubling. I actually don’t see my proposal as a “counter-monument” – the staff of the CCA chose that term. Rather, I see my project as a “radical” landscape reconstruction. Not that the landscape of hay, manure and dirt is or was radical in and of itself (there were actually many constructions like it around Paris at the time and most were used as fortifications); but it is part of the radical history of the city that I hope to recuperate through the difficult politics of reconstruction.
As this project approaches realization perhaps there will be a way to address some of your comments above.
Thank you again and sincerely, David Gissen


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