The market colonizes things. Monetary value is arbitrary. The thing remains.
This is the underlying message gleaned from Amie Siegel’s video Provenance (2013) and its installation with Lot 248 (2013) and Proof (Christie’s 19 October, 2013) (2013), currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work, about 40-minutes and shot in high-definition video, follows luxury furniture backwards: beginning with their placement in posh homes in Europe and the United States, back to the auction houses where the rich acquired them, to highly staged photo shoots that whetted their fetishizing appetites, to the upholstery studios and warehouses that recreated their sleek presence, all the way back to their source and original use–functional, disposable office furnishings for the post-colonial capital at Chandigarh in India. Lot 248, a later 6-minute video, records the Christie’s auction of Provenance, and Proof (Christie’s 19 October, 2013) freezes the page from the auction catalog in Lucite–making a thing of the film’s presence within the same speculative market as the objects followed in Provenance. This gesture, seemingly related mostly to the film’s implicit critique of the market, also tells us about Provenance‘s treatment of things as actors.
Designed by canonized modernists Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Chandigarh, the result of the 1947 division of Punjab province between Indian and Pakistan, was supposed to be a new kind of capital–a city in which to realize the utopian dream of modernist architecture. In the west, architecture-philes learn of Chandigarh as a curious modernist ruin–a space where buildings once made of glistening promise have aged ungracefully with stained concrete as modernism itself fades into irrelevance in the globalized world (or enters the luxury trade as objects not designed as machines for living, but as prizes to be won).
The Chandigarh we see at the end of the film, however, is not a ruin (well, not entirely). Though many of the spaces are empty or overrun with monkeys, many offices are still functioning, and the precious objects selling for tens of thousands of dollars on the other end of the world are both put to use in everyday situations or cast aside in various states of disrepair. On both extremes (and everywhere in between) the camera stays with the objects. The people (money and monkeys) are merely incidental. Are these buyers at auction houses in the west suckers? Or are these government employees, students, and teachers in Chandigarh naive? Or, perhaps, do these chairs, tables, stools, and shelves have their own story to tell, outside of our wildly different ideas of value?
In all parts of the film, the camera lingers on the objects with long, beautiful tracking shots, tight framing, and low angles that turn the furniture into protagonists. All sound is ambient, and at times the furniture and spaces seem to have their own sonic as well as visual presence. The film’s sumptuousness and formal style in many ways recreates the very same fetishization of the objects critiqued in its narrative, something that troubled Frieze magazine reviewer Jason Farago as well as Ken Johnson of the New York Times. Both reviewers found the work lacking in terms of real criticism, saying the film was too visually appealing and lacking historical context to be effective critique. Perhaps critique is just too simple a term for what Provenance says about the relationship between global capital, art, and commodities, though. The desire for disruption or political action underlying their reviews neglects to understand how things operate in both Provenance and its companion pieces.
In Lot 248, Siegel’s film goes up for auction in a scene very similar to those in the longer film, bidders vie for ownership, and much like in the auctions for the modernist furniture pieces, the winner was not even present in the room, casting bids through a buyer on the phone. Neither buyer nor money is present, just the thing. Interestingly, the lots before and after her piece is sold (for £42,000) represent two opposite ends of the artwork-as-commodity in the market: before her piece a Jasper Johns Target with Four Faces, or more likely one of Elaine Sturtevant’s appropriations of his work (curiously this lot is missing from Christie’s documentation of the sale), sells for £150,000, and the following lot (whose final price we never see) is a print from VALIE EXPORT’s performance Touch Cinema (1968). The former piece, with clear status as object, has a clear and established monetary value, whereas the latter piece attempts to extract value from EXPORT’s ground-breaking feminist performance work that existed entirely outside the market.
The market colonizes even the radically anti-establishment gesture in public space, and it does so by producing that gesture in the form of a print–a thing. The projection of Provenance and Lot 248 at the Met even turns the screen (and by extension the films) into a sculptural presence in the gallery, one that draws the viewer in and entices her to take in its beautiful view of objects traveling the world through speculation and desire. Though they are revealed to be hollow, these things (in all their various physical stages and monetary values) can still command a presence.