Realidade/Bens imóveis/Agente imobiliário 1
A palavra grega Oikonomos (economia) deriva parcialmente de Oikos, que significa “casa”. Mesmo no grego contemporâneo, que usa spiti para “casa”, existem termos associados, como oika, katoika, oikiakos, entre outros.
As ruínas recordam-nos da materialidade muda do mundo, as coisas que em nada se importam dos nossos projectos fúteis, que em nenhum aspecto reconhecem a ordem que as nossas arquitecturas tentam impor no mundo. Todavia, na sua esmagadora maioria, as ruínas são um dos cenários feitos da história, e a partir deles muitos significados e representações foram edificadas. Pense-se na fotografia de ruínas americanas: os edifícios queimados em Atlanta em 1864, os panoramas de Arnold Genthe de São Francisco depois do terramoto na viragem do século XX, os barracões abandonados dos agricultores foreiros nas fotografias do projecto da Farm Secutiry Administration, as mansões desertas e decrépitas das plantações do Mississippi fotografadas por Clarence John Laughlin nos anos 1940, as fotografias de imprensa dos blocos de apartamentos incendiados de Newark e noutros lugares onde os negros norte-americanos se sublevaram na década de 60, cidades-fantasma e motéis destituidos e invadidos pelas ervas daninhas, os projectos de Lewis Baltz sobre desertos de ar provisório, a casa de sonhos de Joel Sternfeld destruída pelo deslizamento de terras, e, claro está, o “Ground Zero” de Nova Iorque. Todos os desastres norte-americanos estão votados a se tornarem icónicos. São necessários para alimentar a epopeia perene que são os Estados Unidos – ou deveríamos antes dizer, “foram”? –, uma epopeia de desastres superados, certamente, mas ao mesmo tempo uma epopeia assombrada pelo sentimento da sua própria precariedade, a sua própria brevidade, a sua própria incerteza face ao local a que pertence, se é que pertence. Neste sentido, a loja da Best em Houston projetada por James Wines, construída como se já tivesse sofrido graves tremores de terra, pode ser entendida ora como um desafio face ao fatal destino ora como uma defesa contra ele. A América é uma nação de colonos. A casa, o abrigo, tem uma ressonância muito especial aqui. Qualquer desastre que implique o abrigo, a colónia, torna-se rapidamente uma metáfora de todo um processo histórico. É este o contexto no qual surge a série de Edgar Martins, “Ruins of the Gilded Age”, as ruínas da economia caseira.
3Supor que a elegância, a abstracção, e a cuidada tradução dos valores formais e a manipulação necessária existentes em muito do trabalho de Edgar Martins são de alguma forma qualidades inconvenientes para aplicar aos temas do seu trabalho actual seria um erro. É verdade que a crise social e que a infelicidade humana pressentidas em muitas destas imagens são reais o suficiente, e impõem a qualquer fotógrafo um qualquer grau de responsabilidade ética. Porém, Martins nunca foi um fotógrafo humanista nem tampouco um documentalista social. No entanto, é precisamente a ausência da figura humana que, nesta série, acentua uma paisagem profundamente humana, o humano como um princípio que se tivesse ausentado, e que deixa um silêncio visual. É na transmutação de espaços habitados em estruturas quase abstractas que as abstracções mais amplas dos mercados financeiros se revelam, e tornados reais e presentes nas desconstruções que eles mesmos desencadearam. O abandono da figura humana destes espaços é mais do que uma opção estética. Considerando-as nos termos do que Jacques Rancière apelida de “a linguagem silenciosa das coisas”2, estas imagens retratam mais do que uma realidade imediata. Elas representam uma condição que é social e empírica mas também metafísica, e que exige uma estética que jamais se poderá fundamentar somente na observação imediata, e escolhe assim abster-se da melancolia distópica comum em muita da arte de espaços vazios. Citando Rancière mais uma vez: “o real”, escreve ele, “tem de ser ficcionalizado para que possa ser pensado”3. A palavra ficção tem conotações de um movimento falso empregue para a produção de efeitos reais (uma finta) e, ao mesmo tempo, a de uma coisa feita (as palavras “facto” e “fábrica” partilham a mesma raiz), algo real apesar de manufacturado. Martins tenta, nesta série, fazer evoluir uma “forma de visibilidade”, na qual a grandeza das imagens e das imagens que as acompanham, as de construções num equilíbrio precário, construídas pelo fotógrafo a partir dos detritos deixados no interior de edifícios vazios, fazem com que traga para primeiro plano a “qualidade de factura” do seu trabalho, a sua fictividade, nesse sentido, o fabrico das suas intervenções. Mas faz mais além disso. Como se afirmou acima, estes espaços desabitados ou incompletos começam por aparecer como formas puras, sem qualquer conteúdo, tal como as abstracções económicas que as levaram a este estado. A ficção que é a factura revela a ficção que é o movimento falso, a finta, de Wall Street. Apercebemo-nos deste modo que a economia sobre a qual estas casas e interiores se construíram é tão ilusória quanto os interiores de uma fotografia de Thomas Demand. “Ruins of a Gilded Age” não produz uma verdade mas antes um processo de uma verdadeira “recomplicação da realidade”4, baseada na prova da sua própria beleza, na documentação da sua própria estética.
Ficámos a saber que aqueles que haviam encomendado este trabalho se sentiram incomodados com a manipulação digital circunscrita que o fotógrafo aplicou sobre algumas das imagens. Bom, é verdade que o trabalho interfere sobre o real, mas um real que já havia sofrido uma interferência substancial. E eu concordaria com o filósofo Peter Osborne quando este diz suspeitar que muito do pânico sobre a perda do real implicada pelas imagens digitais não é mais do que a expressão de uma angústica mais fundamental e deslocada sobre a perda do capitalismo da sua “economia real”.
© Peter D. Osborne
1 N. T. Em inglês os radicais de todas as palavras são aparentados - “Reality / Real Estate / Realtors” – o que é impossível de manter na tradução.
2Jacques Rancière, (2006) The Aesthetics of Politics [v. orig. Le Partage du sensible: Esthetique et politique, 2000], London/NY: Continuum; pg. 36.
3 Rancière, op. cit.; pg. 38.
4 Uma frase empregue por Don Delillo para descrever a função do romance.
The Greek word Oikonomos (economy) derives in part from Oikos, meaning house. This is still present in modern Greek which uses spiti for house, but also related terms such as , oika, katoika, oikiakos and others.
“… Or through the windows we shall see The nakedness and vacancy Of the dark deserted house.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Deserted House.
To begin let’s take just one image – numbered 87. It is a frontal view of part of an American house, a fragment, the corner of the house’s face brightly illuminated. It is a white house, a wooden clapboard house, probably in white pine, but it could be spruce, or cedar or cypress - all are utilised in the United States. The house has two storeys. The window on the second floor is divided into four wooden sub-frames that are in turn divided into six small glass panes. On the first or ground floor the window frame rises about a quarter higher than that on the second and is divided again into four smaller frames each further divided in this case into nine small glass panes. Some care has been taken with ratios. The two storeys are divided by a pitched half-roof sealed by grey tiling. It echoes the main roof glimpsed above. It is probably a goodly sized house to the average European and for millions of American citizens too. The mortgage on such a property would have been substantial if not astronomical. But the house is not distinctive. Some rendering of the white clapboard style is pretty well America’s default domestic architecture. It is classical American. It goes back to the settler beginnings of Anglo-America. It references an established tradition, that of deep (Euro) Americaness. It proclaims belonging – to home and nation, and the affluent middle class.
Of course we can see that this home has been undermined. The windowpanes have been shattered. Jagged glass shards remain as indices of some kind of assault. An unease in the relative proportions of the building has prepared us for this. Like a wide collar, the half-roof extends dramatically. It exceeds the extension of the main roof by an order of three. While it would have afforded increased shelter it unbalances the overall design, undermines what symmetry is striven for. And on closer inspection it is clear that the frontage has never been developed. The house is damaged and yet pristine. Perhaps it has never been inhabited; the client withdrawn, the builders departed before completion – a ruin before it ever became a dwelling. But this is not a house it is a photograph; and present in the photographic qualities is an element more disturbing that these signs of incipient destruction. The white forms of the building stand out against the darkness within, around and beyond it. It is a blackness both profound and absolutely flat, actual and equally abstract. The house contains this darkness and is contained by it. Is this just the darkness of night? Or is it an aesthetic device – the black against which to throw the white forms into dramatic relief, presenting the uninhabited house as pure design, utility become beauty? Or is it the mark of an absence that haunts all these houses and of the forces of negation that produced it – economic, political – even metaphysical?
“A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability (…) Without it, man would be a dispersed being (…) It is body and soul. It is the human being’s first world”. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space.
Ruins remind us of the mute materiality of the world, of the stuff that cares nothing for our futile projects, that recognises nothing of the order our architectures try to impose on the world. Yet, ruins are for the most part one of history’s set designs and from out of them meanings are erected, representations made. Think only of the photography of American ruins: the burnt buildings of Civil War Atlanta in 1864; Arnold Genthe’s vistas of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire, or Mark Klett’s photographic reflections on the same event from the city of 2006; the abandoned sharecropper’s shacks in the FSA photographs; the photography of the ghost town; Clarence John Laughlin’s deserted and decaying Mississippi plantation mansions shot in the 1940’s; the press photos of the torched tenements of Newark and elsewhere during Black America’s risings of the 1960’s; Robert Adam’s provisional looking Tract house projects in the desert; Joel Sternfeld’s dream house undermined by landslide, or his sites polluted by atrocity, places of ruined memory; and of course, there is the Ground Zero imagery of Meyerowitz and countless others. American disasters tend to become iconic. There are strings of websites devoted to the photography of abandoned motels and of ghost towns. One of the images from this work has already been appropriated by one as an example of “the new ghosts towns” of “subdivisions and MacMansions” that people can no longer afford. www.inquisitr.com/ 28369/the-new-ghost-towns/. The history and imagery of the ruined shelter or settlement are required to furnish the continuing epic of travelling and moving on that is the USA – or do we now say, “was”? – an epic of disasters endured and overcome for sure, but one ever attended by a sense of America’s precariousness, of its own brevity, its own uncertainty about where and if it belongs. In this regard James Wines’ cracked and crumbling Houston BEST store built as a ruin, as though already shaken apart by tremors, is either a snoop cocked at fate or an inoculation against it; or perhaps a claim to permanence posing as its opposite, that is solidified ideology. European America, then, is a Settler Nation, and at times an unsettled one. The house or the shelter has special connotations there that convey the story of established communities or of the mass triumph of privatised middle-class family life initiated from the 1890’s by Sears and Roebuck catalogues and stores. At the same time, from the cabin-in-the-clearing, through the circled wagons to the ‘gated communities’, the house and shelter is stalked by an accompanying history of fears and beleagurement. Any disaster concerning the shelter, the settlement, is extended very quickly into a metaphor for a whole historical process.
America is also the embodiment of that precarious project Modernity, and Modernity, argues Henri Lefebvre, produces two contradictory conditions. On the one hand is the promise of ‘Comfort’, of which the Home is the core both ideologically and in terms of material well-being. On the other, says Lefebvre, lies the continuous imminence of what he calls ‘Ferocity’ which can appear in the shapes of war, terrorism, technological and ecological disaster, and the visitations of economic crisis or collapse (Lefebvre 1995: 190). Martins’ images present us with the points at which these conditions have recently collided. As Norfolk, Ristelhueber and others developed the ‘Late Photography’ of the battlefields of the Gulf and Afghanistan, so Martins has done so for the aftermath of the Credit Crunch (see Campany 2003).
Photographs, says Vilhém Flusser, “dam up history in order to make it into a tableau”; in them the scene replaces the event (Writings 128). Some of Martins’ picturings in this work do evoke the idea of staging. But the effect is more than simply theatrical, a deferment or denial of history, for it is the historical or social reality of the ‘toxic economy’ that remains dramatised in the images as a condition of seeing, or rather of the visibility of the object. If the photograph halts the narrative of history here the effect is relevant, for depicted here is development paralysed, a disabled project – stasis, that condition so feared by modernity. The buildings stand before the viewer like the scenery of a bankrupt theatre, the sets of an abandoned movie project. Nothing moves in or through them. It would be a mistake to assume, as some appear to have, that the visual elegance, the abstraction, the careful rendering of formal values and the necessary manipulation that exist here as in much of Edgar Martins’ practice are inappropriate qualities when applied to the themes of this present work. It is true that the crisis and human unhappiness indicated in many of these images is real enough, whatever the class of those who bear them, and they impose on any photographer some kind of ethical responsibility. However, Martins has never been a humanist photographer, nor is he a social documentarist. There is coolness, and a distancing throughout his work, and an overriding concern with form. There is even a case for describing him as a metaphysical photographer. And yet it is precisely certain of these qualities that seem so effective here. For example, in this work it is the absence of the human figure that pronounces the landscape human; the human is the principle that has gone missing, that has left a visual silence. This is a human crisis. And it is in the transmutation of lived spaces into near-abstract structures that the wider abstractions of the financial markets, of an uninhabitable economy, are indicated, made present in the deconstructions they have brought about. The departure of the human figure from these spaces is more than an aesthetic choice. Speaking through what Jacques Ranciére terms, “the silent language of things”, these images depict more than an immediate actuality; they picture a condition which is social and empirical, yet which demands an aesthetics which cannot be served adequately by immediate observation or record alone; they by-pass both the dystopian melancholy to be found in some social documentary and the exclusion of the Social that characterises much of the art of voided places (Ranciére 2006: 36). In some instances the work summons up the conventions of landscape painting and photography, indeed landscape is the theme of much of Martin’s practice. The representation of landscape is commonly based in the retrospective, distanced and even nostalgic viewpoint, often displaced from the present. Here its effects intensify the viewer’s reading of the precise objects/events in the photographs. If one accepts Jean-Luc Nancy’s reflections, landscape art has always depicted emptiness and loss.
“Landscape begins with a notion, however vague and confused, of distancing and of a loss of sight, (une perte de vue), for both the physical eye and the eye of the mind”. (Nancy 2005: 53)
Landscape, he says, comes into being when the human figure loses the foreground or disappears completely; when the Gods have departed and the weight of allegory has lifted. It arrives as part of a deep transformation in the mentality of its time. “A presence”, he writes, “is withdrawn”, hence, “The landscape is the space of strangeness or estrangement (…)”, (Nancy 2005: 53 & 60). In Martins’ landscapes it is less the Divine that has withdrawn than the elements of a secular sacred, that is, individual citizens and private property, inhabited wealth and of course beneath it all, the loss of Capital value. The frozen constructions and deserted interiors may turn out to be symptoms of another crisis to be cured. Alternatively, they may be signifying the relative decline of America power, even the destabilising of meaning or a system of meaning. Nancy notes that as the landscape form was ushered in by a loss or a displacement of meaning, it depicted place, “as the opening onto a taking place of the unknown”, (Nancy 2005:59) No longer was land depicted as “location” (endroit) but as “dis-location” (envers), void of presence and giving no access to any elsewhere that is not itself” (Nancy 2005:59). The depth of absence in Martins’ photographs is chilling: the half-made roads running among non-houses; the construction site fading into the twilight, seemingly losing all materiality; the golf course with no players; a remoteness seeping into the neighbourhoods that failed to come into being. Perhaps an even greater absence lies in the loss of our ability to name, to recognise these places. They are no longer nature as development has overtaken them; but they are not quite material culture either, the development has halted and gone having invented ‘Nowhere’, which, as it happens, is the meaning of More’s word, ‘Utopia’. These places, unnameable, suspended between categories, Edgar Martins knows well. It is in the darkness, in the failing light and the black sky that he brings together the social and the metaphysical dimensions that inhabit his work including this. And in the darkness we can detect the absence of any alternative historical narrative in this moment or at least the inability of America to imagine one. It recalls the nothingness that stands beyond the door in Sartre’s Huis Clos / No Exit; or around Beckett’s ‘places’, signifying that there is no outside of this. For Heidegger dwelling forms part of the grounds of our Being in the world. Dwelling he writes is none other than, “the relationship between man and space” (Heidegger 1971:29). If dwelling has been undermined then in the darkness converging on the house we can detect the presence of non-Being. In this the effect of Martins’ visualizations is to complete the circle in which the historical and the metaphysical meet.
Reality / Real Estate / Realtors / the “Real Economy”
Some discomfort has been expressed over Martin’s limited digital reshaping of images in this work as if this will have diminished any claims it may have to authenticity. It is a curious reaction given the non-Social Documentary nature of his back catalogue. Furthermore, it appears to reveal a misunderstanding of photography’s present situation. This work is themed around a crisis and, as we shall see, it is also work formed by a crisis in its own medium. Now the word crisis is rooted in Greek words meaning ‘decision’. The word decision has connotations of ‘cutting’, of ‘down cutting’. The Ruins of a Gilded Age is a photographic intervention into a crisis. Before it is a set of images, it is a series of decisions, of cuttings into. In a certain sense the work is a set of fictions. And fiction is a way of cutting into, cutting out and rearranging the Real. Ranciére states that, “the real must be fictionalised in order to be thought” (Ranciére 2006: 38). So, the Real must be transformed (and translated?) in order to be understood. The word fiction, has connotations of a false move used to produce real effects (a feint), and at the same time it signifies the idea of something made (‘fact’ and ‘factory’ share its roots), something actual though manufactured (Kermode 200:II). Fictions, like decisions, and crises, are made. However much we continue to accept photography’s indexical facility, to photograph something is necessarily to fictionalise it, to select, intensify, to link the abstractions (cut) from the visual continuum into sequences and so on are all acts of fictionalising. Photographs establish not so much a reproduction of the Real, as a relationship to that federation of perceptions and reflections, discourses and simulations that, beyond brute materiality, makes up the Real. As the producer of consciously ‘aesthetic’ work Martins’ is not attempting to simply record actuality. The work plays on the borders between what Ranciére calls, “the logic of facts and the logic of fictions” (Ranciére 2006: 36); it is itself formed from that relationship, a product of another crisis in which the categories of Art Photography and Documentary Photography have not so much fallen apart as fallen into each other. Martin’s work is the bearer of the crisis it engages with, a crisis that is only in part economic. More immediately the manifest theme of The Ruins of a Gilded Age places it at a point where parallel themes converge, each governed by a fear of the loss of reality: the concern that digitalisation has undermined photographic realism and compromised any truth-telling facility in the medium and beyond; and the fear of Wall Street’s undermining of what is interestingly referred to as the real economy. The Philosopher Peter Osborne has suggested that such anxieties over the epistemological turbulence caused by the ubiquity of digitalisation are themselves the displaced instances of the more fundamental unease experienced over the loss of the real in the Snakes and Ladders practices of finance Capital whose repercussions have spread virally far beyond the obvious domains of the business quarter. Labyrinthine complexities of ownership, the speed-of-light transactions, the fictitious financial products, imaginary capital assets, the hedges and the futures, the toxic debts, foreclosed mortgages, and bankrupted businesses, are the true causes and the real effects of a loss of reality, of a world that can barely be thought. Martins’ real fictions though are foregrounded – in clear sight. Wall Street’s fictions fooled almost everybody.
Martins interferes in a real that has already been badly interfered with. His interference is made visible most dramatically through the use of the sequence of images of often precariously balanced objects forming assemblages or constructions – I’ll call them sculptures – erected by Martins in the deserted interiors from out of the debris and bric a brac left behind. The images are distributed through the work acting as a kind of dissonant counterpoint against the dominant theme of the panoramic or formalised imagery of buildings and landscapes. The sculptures resemble the near accidental found assemblages photographed by Richard Wentworth in the streets of Berlin (Berlin 117), or the playful sculptures of Fischli and Weiss and of the New Zealand artist Paul Cullen. They are like note-taking with objects; a poetic bricolage. In the way in which their precariousness mimics that of the buildings all round them, they might be seen as a form of commentary. Maybe they are the expression of Martins’ desire to make something out of the uselessness around him, a playful gesture of creativity against the desolation. For sure, there is an attempt here to evolve a ‘form of visibility’ in which the two contrasting sequences of representation and practice focus our attention onto the overall madeness of the work as a whole; that is, its fictiveness. They are markers, the indices of Martins’ activity – the photographs of others’ constructions and those of his own – as, in both sequences, an arrangement of objects, a manipulation. They record Martins’ own performance, his inclusion in the world represented, his responsibility for its depiction. They echo here Jeff Wall’s “gestures of reportage and performance” (Stimson :109), his “subjectivised witness” (Rosler 2004:211). In the light of this, Martins’ utilisation of digital processes is underscored as no more or less a manipulation than the any of the other processes and strategies he has employed.
The real has become unreal. The deserted buildings suck presence out of the landscape. Some interiors with their uncovered structures and scattered components of heating and ventilating systems, take on the appearance of gallery installations. Like the abstractions of the economic system that has brought them to this state they have become pure forms with no content. Some of the buildings resemble doll’s houses or miniature model villages. It is not photography that has made them strange but the economy upon which these houses and interiors were founded – an economy as illusory as the interiors in a Thomas Demand picture. ‘The Ruins of a Gilded Age’, produces not a singular truth but a process of truthfully ‘recomplicating reality’1, one embodied in the evidence of its own beauty and founded in the documentation of its own aesthetics.
© Peter D. Osborne
Gaston Bachelard, (1969), The Poetics of Space, (1969) Translated by Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press.
David Campany ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of Late Photography’, in Green and Lowry.
David Green and Joanne Lowry (Eds.) (2003) Where is the Photograph?, Brighton, Photoworks Martin Heidegger (1971) Poetry, Language,Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1971.
Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (Eds.) 2005, The Meaning of Photography, New Haven and London, Yale UP
Frank Kermode, (2000) The Sense of an Ending, Studies in the Theory of Fiction, 2nd Edition, Oxford: OUP.
Henri Lefebvre (1995) Introduction to Modernity, London, Verso.
Jean-Luc Nancy (2005) The Ground of the Image, New York, Fordham UP
Jacques Ranciére, (2006) The Aesthetics of Politics, London/NY: Continuum.
Martha Rosler (2004) Decoys and Disruptions – selected writings 1975-2001, Cambridge Mass., London: MIT Press/October Books.
Blake Stimson, ‘A Photograph is Never Alone’ in: Kelsey and Stimson.
Peter D. Osborne is a senior lecturer in Cultural Studies and in the History and Theory of Photography in the Faculty of Media at the London College of Communication, a constituent college of the University of the Arts London. He is the author of Travelling Light, photography, travel and visual culture, Manchester University Press, and of a number of articles, papers and catalogue essays on photography and landscape; art, photography and travel; and on Latin America photography. He is presently working on a book titled,
Commemorating the Present – photography and the contemporary cultural condition. He is on the editorial board of the New Zealand art theory journal, Z/X