The Spear in the Stone at Simon Preston Gallery brings together two works by Amie Siegel: Fetish (2016) and Double Negative (2015). Siegel, who made the film The Architects for the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennial in 2014, has taken architecture as the subject of some of her works such as Provenance (2013) and Quarry (2015). Similar to these earlier works, architecture in The Spear in the Stone becomes the entry point to an aesthetic inquiry about the animism of objects and the means by which they attain value.
One enters the gallery facing a photograph of the French coast. The photograph resembles an intaglio print and sets the tone for the exhibition, which oscillates between different mediums of film and photography. This variety highlights various aspects of what one might call our contemporary fetishes and how they become apparent in the institutional acts of documentation, preservation, and even cleaning.
The first part of Double Negative is an installation consisting of two silent black and white 16 mm films that depict the Villa Savoye and its black replica, the building for the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, Australia, designed by the firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall. In the gallery space, the projector occupies the center of the room and the two films are projected diagonally across from each other. The two films, initially made on 16 mm stock, are printed on 16 mm stock as negative images. This transfer from positive to negative leads to an abstraction of information and as details become less prominent, the two buildings resemble each other more. As the film itself is exposed to the air, dust, and humidity in the gallery, it presumably becomes scratched and loses more definition every time it loops. The negative print reverses the colors of the buildings. The reversal is further reflected in the environments of the two buildings. The opening scenes of both films display swans, one black (native to Australia) and one white, which are mirrored but at the same time reversed in color. Through these reflections and reversals, and through the loss of definition in the medium, the two buildings become equivalent, no longer one original and the other a copy, but negatives of each other.
In The Miracle of Analogy: or the History of Photography, Kaja Silverman writes that the photographic medium did not necessarily develop out of a desire for reproduction and dissemination of sameness, but out of analogy and a desire to make traces and connections by means of images. When located in analog photography, the two buildings open up a conversation that slightly distorts the dominant story of Villa Savoye becoming a sign of Western modernism and being replicated for an institution dedicated to study of “other” cultures. Instead, by treating the two buildings as equivalents, the installation speaks of a fascination with architecture that raises the question: Why this fascination in the first place and why exactly is this architecture seductive?
The second part of Double Negative is a color HD video that takes the viewers from the shores of France to the interiors of Villa Savoye and then from the beaches of Australia to inside the Institute, where archival material is being duplicated into digital copies. Here, the film focuses on the material that makes up the archives of the institution and also on the machines and devices that are meticulously recording and duplicating these items into a digital format. As we see a culture disappearing and being preserved by ethnography, we also see former technologies and mediums disappearing and now being preserved by newer ones. The two kinds obsolescence, cultural and technological, follow one another. Which one is more valuable, the actual object and its story in a given culture, or the ethnographic practice that tries to document and make sense of these? Fetish, in its ethnographic definition, is a “material thing with intense spiritual power.” The “material thing” is as much a stone as it is the video of an ethnographic field trip that is being digitally duplicated and the “spiritual power” relates as much to a disappearing culture as to the foundations of ethnography as a discipline with its documents, archives, and methods. The meticulous duplication—the attempt to protect and preserve every bit and piece of information that is in the collection—directly contrasts the method by which information is lost in the first part of Double Negative. The hygienic environment of the institute also contrasts with the gallery where the 16 mm film is exposed to air.
The next space in the gallery contains Fetish, another HD video formatted as CinemaScope, showing the yearly cleaning of Freud’s collection of archeological artifacts at the London Freud Museum. Freud, one of the top theorists of fetish in the modern world, was an avid collector of small archaeological statues, which were displayed on his desk and shelves in his office. In Fetish, lights go on, the camera shoots the different parts of the Freud’s office and focuses on the cleaning activity. The CinemaScope format allows tracking shots throughout the video, showing the objects on Freud’s desk and shelves. While the tangibility of the objects is captured in the acts of cleaning and the sounds of brushes touching the objects, the visual environment of the CinemaScope hinder the touch. A contemporary version of fetish emerges between the objects and their images.
The title The Spear in the Stone comes from an ethnographic video recording found at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Parts of original recordings can be seen in Double Negative as they are being digitally transferred. With these two works, the exhibition raises the questions: What is our spear in the stone; what are our myths and fetishes; what instills animism in our objects? And furthermore, what is the role of architecture? In this exhibition, architecture is where the seduction begins as an entry point to the object world. A material and spatial practice that is at the same time a sign of cultural predilections and preferences, architecture can also be imagined as the beginning of stories that animate our world of objects.