The New in the Guise of the Old, the Old in the Guise of the New

December 3, 2012
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Two Examples from the Series "Counterparts" by Anna Artaker and Meike S. Gleim

“I said earlier that in the period of ‘sensibility’, temples were erected to friendship and tenderness; as taste subsequently turned to the classical style, a host of temples or temple-like buildings immediately sprang up in gardens, in parks, on hills. And these were dedicated not only to the Graces or to Apollo and the Muses; farm buildings, too, including barnes and stables, were built in the style of temples.“ (Jacob Falke, cited after W. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p. 151)”

The Pyramid Arena was inaugurated in 1991 in Memphis, Tennessee/USA as a sports arena and is currently remodeled into a shopping mall. The architectural citation of the Egyptian pyramids is not only a cynicism of history, transforming a once holy place into a temple of consumption in order to adorn itself with the glory of the old. (Though a closer reading of the function of both buildings might come to the conclusion, that they are more similar than one is ready to admit: Religion—and hence the sepultures of the Egyptian god-kings—is opium for the people, it is said, and the same can be claimed for consumption). Rather imitation is a common practice in the history of architectural design. The Romans already copied designs from ancient Greece; the Renaissance rediscovered ancient sources and renewed the arts with them. So what triggers the feeling of unease regarding the juxtaposition of these two pyramids?

That the utopian architecture of Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Project for the Gardener's House in Maupertuis, 1784, and the radome in Waihopai, New Zealand, part of the Echelon network, have the same shape is probably just a coincidence. Why does a spherical shape represent utopian architecture and why does a radar spy facility needs to be housed in a sphere? I don’t know, but would prefer a clear formal separation between the two buildings. Here again I have a feeling of unease.

The same architectural forms can be reused at random or be cited consciously. Juxtaposed one next to the other, the buildings sharing the same form engage in a dialogue, which tells us something essential and might explain our feelings of unease. It is a silent dialogue that we tend to ignore. What is it that this dialogue can tell us?

It tells us that three millenniums or centuries later, we can look back at a fabulous technical progress, while the gap between technological achievement and social innovation remains. The social development lags behind the technical one. Technological progress does not automatically ensure social progress.

A donkey in the downtown of Memphis, a minivan and barbwire barriers in Ledoux's idealized landscape: The past is short-circuited with the presence and vice versa. It brings both of them closer together than we might possibly wish. This way the past loses its mythical aspect and the presence its presumed civilizing advantage.

However, this sobering conclusion should not be the last word of this comment. The mimetic quality of human production contains a potential. It includes the possibility of an excess, a mimetic excess, that breaks through the limits of the given. We should not consider the mimetic as a means, but as an end in itself. It has a magical power to act as if it were real, and therefore proposes a different relationship between art and nature, art is part of nature and nature is historicized (Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, p. 255).


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Posted in: Anthropological Materialism, City, Phantasmagoria

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