Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Aesthetics of Garbage & Venetian Mirrors

A tract taken from an early chapter in Michel Tournier’s “Gemini”, in which the main character, the owner of a refuse disposal company who revels in the amphibious contradictions of his lifestyle, being variously an elegant and precise gentleman of impeccable manners, and a gutter-licker who believes that “there is no such thing as a good, or bad smell”, elaborating the oceans of connoisseurship and delight that come from the discerning analysis and appreciation of the body’s and the city’s most unspoken of and rejected parts, from the rubbish tip to the young vagrant’s anus. It is never a matter of good and bad, but a matter of degrees, potencies, combinations and allusive affect, effectively extracting any moral or hygienic layer that may have been involved in judgement, and replacing them with a pure compound of sensory aesthetics.
Similarly contrary is his position with regards to consumer society, whose rapid turnover of goods, and infinite chain of manufactured copies destined for the trash heap, he finds ludicrously beautiful, since as he says below, he sees in every remove away from the mythical-illusory aura of an original object, a correlative increase in the vigour of artistry, sees a clear and honest reflection of the world’s state, of the complexity of human production and its edifice of mirrors perfectly encapsulated in its own detritus. The Ouroboros of capitalist progress, of innumerable productions, reproductions and recombinations, that hurtles round in circles feeding on itself in a protean helix, sheds its skin as it replicates itself, and it is the compounded layers of these skins that he spends the book digging through, managing the gases these remains produce, and describing the delicate differences manifested in each city within its dumps, as well as the marks history’s ruptures leave in these pits of sediment, mountains of dead dogs shot after they were left by Parisians escaping the advance of Hitler’s army and all.
Sitting here in 2010, our world has become strangely similar to his rubbish tips, where time gives way to space and all objects and sequential events collapse into a compressed simultaneity as we hopscotch ever faster across and around our own history, picking up whatever we wish from wherever within the accumulating tip that swells underneath us, copies having proliferated to the point where there is, brilliantly, no such thing as an original, and all evaluation rests (like Tournier’s character with his clear qualitative system and mythology of rubbish, sex, and society that accumulates the most unexpected objects, and boys) on the act of engagement with whatever is appropriated by that person, or that group, and how actively they manage to weave it into a new chain of significance.

The Aesthetic of The Dandy Garbage Man from Michel Tournier's "Gemini"

“The idea is more than the thing and the idea of the idea more than the idea. Wherefore the imitation is more than the thing imitated, because it is the thing plus the effort of imitation, which incorporates the possibility of reproducing itself, and so of adding quantity to quality.

That is why in the matter of furniture and works of art, I always prefer the imitations to the originals, imitation being the original encapsulated, possessed, integrated and even multiplied –in short, considered and spiritualized. The fact that imitations are of no interest to the general run of collectors and enthusiasts, and may also have a very much lower commercial value than the originals, is only an additional advantage in my eyes. For that very reason society will have no further use for it, and it is destined for the rubbish heap and so fated to fall into my hands.

Since it does not contain a single genuine object –except perhaps for my collection of sword sticks- my home in Paris is entirely made up of the second-rate. I have always dreamed of elevating it to the third-rate, but if there are such things as imitations of imitations they are so rare, and doomed to perish so quickly from the fourfold contempt of the idiot mob, that I could furnish my house with them throughout only by going to immense trouble. Nevertheless, I have found, in a modern furniture shop called Le Bois Joli in the Rue de Turenne, a cane chaise longue copied from a West-Indian model which itself was obviously inspired by the Recamier-style sofas of the Empire period. Also I have on my desk a glass Buddha whose twin brother in old crystal I once saw in an antique shop: the dealer assured me it was modelled on the life-sized statue of the Buddha of Sholapur. But these are exceptions. To multiply them and give myself a setting raised to an ever higher degree –for there is nothing to stop one going from the third-rate to the fourth-, fifth-, and so on –would take a time and patience I can only spare for another purpose. The truth is that I am not really interested in things or in decoration or collecting. They are all too static, contemplative and disinterested for my eager, restless temperament.

After all, what is rubbish but the great storehouse of things multiplied to infinity by mass production? The fancy for collecting originals is altogether reactionary and out of date. It is in opposition to the process of production and consumption which is gaining momentum in our society –and whose end is the rubbish dump.
In the old days everything was an original, made by craftsmen to last forever. Its destruction only came about by accident. When it was worn out the first time it became second hand goods (this was the case even with wet clothes). It became an heirloom and worth repairing endlessly.
Nowadays things are said to be worn out, useless, and are thrown away more and more quickly. And it is among the rubbish that the collector often comes to look for it. He rescues it, he takes it home and restores it, and finally gives it a place of honour in his house where its qualities can be displayed. And the rescued object, rehabilitated and glorified, rewards its benefactor a hundred time over. It imbues his house with an atmosphere of subtle peace, discriminating luxury and good sense.

I can understand this kind of activity and its charms well enough, but I take a different view. Far from trying to arrest the process of production-consumption-disposal, I pin all my hopes on it since it ends at my feet. The refuse dump is not an abyss in which the object is swallowed up but the repository where it finds a home after successfully passing through a thousand ordeals. Consumption is a selective process aimed at isolating the really new and indestructible aspect of production. The liquid in the bottle, the toothpaste in the tube, the pulp in the orange, the flesh of the chicken are all eliminated by the filter of consumption. What is left is the empty bottle, the squeezed tube, the orange peel, the chicken bones, the hard, durable parts of the product, the elements of the inheritance which our civilization will bequeath to the archaeologists of the future. It is my job to see to it that they are preserved indefinitely in a dry and sterile medium by means of controlled dumping. Not without getting my own excitement, before their inhumation, from the infinite repetition of these mass-produced objects –the copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies and so on.”

^crowds entering San Marco on raised platforms during aqua alta
This extract below caught my eye since together with Inigo Minns and Marco Ginex, I had recently been writing up an aborted proposal for a design unit, whose main thrust had been about taking the tourists, and the hotels of Venice and attempting to reconfigure their relationship with the city, so that they became tools through which the city would once again begin to alter and evolve. Our starting point had been the recognition of Venice as a “city of images”, whose very fabric and existence was predicated on its constant consumption by people of innumerable cultures over many centuries, and that this had been in the past an immensely productive tension, and could once again be. Tournier here comments on the specular nature of Venice, and how tourism is an inseparable part of Venice’s singularity, and enhances it, rather than neutralising it.

From Unit Proposal "The City As Souvenir""Venice is generally seen by architects as being frozen in a state of irremediable decay, hovering on the edge of an elegant death while flaunting itself to the world for tourist dollars. But since time immemorial it has been Venice’s famous attractiveness, its seductive allure and conscious manipulation of its own projected image, that has not only kept it alive, but assured its cultural vibrancy and flair. Once the first stop on the Grand tour during which travellers arrived to engage in cultural discourse, and in acts of creativity which affected the town and the way it was seen; the vast majority of contemporary visitors now engage in ‘holiday trips’, short visits dominated by vision during which tourists passively experience the city as a collection of images, through the consumption of sights, as sightseers.
Operating on the fault-lines between projection and reality, and visitor expectations and economic fact, hotels are the architectural type which best analogises the rich set of potentially productive conflicts being played out on the city of Venice. Thriving on the allure of the city’s picture-postcard ideal, they are already a massive urban phenomenon which tries as best it can to efface itself in order to better maintain the illusion of an ‘authentic’ urbanity for sightseers, a fabricated image which their ubiquitous presence belies. Celebrating these underlying ambiguities, the unit will harness the powers of tourism and its hotels as interpretive and generative tools, bringing cultural exchange, discourse and creativity back into the heart of Venice’s image, tourism industry, and architecture. We will design hotels that are transformative urban entities which reconfigure the manner in which the city sees itself, tectonic tools that will combine the leisure of sightseeing with the action of sightmaking, transforming the material body of the city itself in the process."

Venetian Mirrors from Michel Tournier's "Gemini"

“I watch herds of visitors crowding after a guide, who holds aloft a flag, an open umbrella, and enormous artificial flower, or a feather duster as a rallying point. This crowd has a certain originality. It is not a bit like the one that winds through the lanes of Mont St Michel every summer –which is the only comparison I possess- nor, I suppose, like the ones at the pyramids of Giza, at Niagara Falls, or the temples of Angkor Wat. To define the character of the Venetian tourist. Point number one: Venice is not profaned by this crowd. The thing is that the high spots for tourism are, unfortunately, very often places originally dedicated to solitude, to prayer or meditation. They stand at the junction of a spectacular or desert landscape and a vertical spiritual line. Hence the frivolous, cosmopolitan crowds nullify the very thing that has brought them there. There is nothing like that here. Venice is fulfilling her eternal role in welcoming the gay, colourful –and what is more, rich!- flood of foreigners on holiday. The tide of tourists ebbs and flows in a twelve-hourly cycle, too fast for the liking of the hotel and restaurant owners, who complain when they see the morning’s visitors go away in the evening with no profit to the trade, since they manage to bring their own packed lunches with them. But this crowd does not mar a city dedicated through the ages to carnivals, voyages and commerce. It is an integral part of the immemorial spectacle, and the two little red marble lions outside the basilica bear witness to it, their backs worn away by fifty generations of children, come from the four corners of the world to ride on them. In its funny way, it is like a childish version of St Peter’s foot, worn away by the kisses of a thousand years of pilgrims.

When the tourists have had enough of wandering about the narrow streets, the churches and museums, they sit down at a cafĂ© terrace and look –at other tourists. One of the tourist’s principal occupations in Venice is to watch himself in a thousand international avatars, the game consisting in guessing the nationality of the passer-by. This proves that Venice is not merely a spectacular, but also a specular city. She is so because she is mirrored in her waters and her houses are built on nothing but their own reflections. She Is so, too, because of her fundamentally theatrical nature, by virtue of which Venice and Venice’s image are always presented simultaneously, inseparably. Truly, there is enough there to discourage any painter. How can one paint Venice when it is a painting already? There was Canaletto of course, but he was not the foremost of Italian painters, far from it! On the other hand, there can be no other place in the world on which so much photographic film has been used up. Because the tourist is not creative, he is a born consumer. The images are given him here at every step and he copies them left and right. Moreover, the subject of his snapshots is always himself, in front of the bridge of sighs, on the steps of San Stefano, in a gondola. The tourists’ “souvenirs” of Venice are so many self-portraits."