W. Beshty: Trapped in the (Crystal) Palace

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Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, was a remarkable architectural manifestation of this paradox. The structure took the industrial dream of endless production and limitless expansion as defining principles, innovating a modular design that eschewed the monolithic stone construction and the revivalist pastiche popular in its time. Despite its immense scale (it was over 550 metres in length and covered 19 acres) and industrial construction, it had an overall feeling of ‘lightness’, the glass panes alternating between reflections of blue sky and surrounding greenery. Its sheer ethereality so perplexed contemporary critics that it was denied even its existence as architecture, and was referred to it instead as a ‘structure’, its author as an ‘engineer’.9 The Crystal Palace was not of the world of buildings and monuments. It was a machine, a container for vistas, a scrim upon which spectacle could be projected: a proposal which was alien to the public affirmation of cultural stability that architecture had come to represent. It was perpetually new, a structure whose modular construction allowed endless substitution. Or, more exactly, it was an embodiment of newness. It would leave no auratic ruin for tourists, burning up in an explosive fire that was all too fitting for a building seemingly concocted out of gas. As a site, it was a microcosmic image of the reach of the Western world, an egalitarian fantasy that invited visitors to engage in virtual transport, offering the compression of time and space — a safari of capitalism staged in an interior, presented as evidence before the nation and the people whose golden age it implicitly affirmed.

-Walead Beshty, “On American Ingenuity (and the Problem of the Readymade),” Afterall 17, Spring 2008.

It is no revelation that exhibitions have disembodying effects, it was, after all, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace – a transparent modular exhibition hall made of glass sheets and iron beams – that would define their most spectacular qualities, thrusting the term “exhibition into the cultural imagination. Yet, in trying to reconcile the spatial and optical conditions of Asher’s work, I experience firsthand what I had assumed was merely theoretical flourish, the alienating cleavage of the corporeal from the visual, a potent reminder that at least since Alberti’s treatise on perspective, architecture has had literal and metaphoric governance over vision.

-Walead Beshty, “Parallax views on Michael Asher at the Santa Monica Museum of Art,” Texte Zur Kunst, Issue 70, May 2008. via Leap Into the Voidcrystalpalace2

The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London’s Hyde Park, defined the conditions of exhibition in the modern sense. From the early 1500s onward the term “exhibition” had only specialised legal meaning, referring to a giving of evidence: literally to “hold out” before a higher power. But with the Great Exhibition, and in World’s Fairs that followed, the antiquarian meaning and implications of the term blossomed. The Crystal Palace was not of the world of buildings and monuments. It was a machine, a container for vistas, a scrim upon which spectacle could occur; a proposal that was alien to the public affirmation of cultural stability that architecture had come to represent. It was perpetually new, a structure whose modular construction allowed endless substitution. At every turn, its interchangeable serial components shone with a “fairy like brilliance,”[26] as if dropped from the heavens. Architecture and vision became a singularity rendered in iron, as though Alberti’s diagram of Renaissance perspective had been made concrete. If the Crystal Palace was the first building that fully capitalized on the theatrical spectacle of exhibition, the readymade was the first art object to be solely constituted by theatrical distance. Here the ritual act of viewing became the artwork’s material, the object itself a hollow shell, a decoy. Thierry de Duve put it succinctly when he wrote that, in the wake of the readymade, the only truth to which the art object could attest was the power of its own name, rendering palpable the “pact that would unite the spectators of the future around some object…that added nothing to the constructed environment and did not improve on it but, quite the contrary, pulled away from it, bearing no other function than that of pure signifier.”

-Walead Beshty, “Abstracting Photography,” Words Without Pictures, November 2008 (Book forthcoming).

Surprisingly, the tone of the addition evoked less the pomp and circumstance of institutional solidity than the user-friendly populist branding of the weekend’s big-box sponsor (a chromatic resonance I wonder whether anyone had noticed beforehand). Of course, museums and department stores have much in common. The modern manifestations of both were prefigured by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built on the occasion of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. That single event was the dual birth of both highbrow and lowbrow populist leisure, which were again brought into spatial and temporal proximity at BCAM’s unveiling. The hushed narrative of the opening was the revelation that the Broads, contrary to all expectations, would not be donating their collection to LACMA after all. The ambiguous state of our public institutions, permitting the loan of the institutional imprimatur of public good to a privately held collection, elicited much grumbling about a compromise between LACMA’s public and private missions.

-Walead Beshty, “ 2008 On the Ground: Los Angeles,” Artforum, December 2008.

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