Out of the Landscape and into Quarantine
Out of the Landscape and into Quarantine
Last Tuesday, the sliver of exhibition space that is the Storefront for Art & Architecture in New York was unable to hold the crowd that showed up for the opening of a collaborative project, "Landscapes of Quarantine" (on view through April 17). Even with the addition of a pair of temporary, pod-like Tyvek structures (titled "Suck & Blow") that extended the space onto the sidewalk, it was elbow-to-artwork — the antithesis of containment at the heart of the principle of quarantine.
Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley, the husband-and-wife curatorial team, conceived of the studio project while staying at a former quarantine station in Sydney, Australia, that is now a luxury hotel. An eclectic mix of artists, writers, video game designers, theatrical set designers — as well as the architects one might expect to find in a discussion of managed space — met regularly over eight weeks to explore the myriad implications of a cultural self-preservation tactic as old as leprosy. Twilley explained that her and Manaugh's "role was to present ideas, facilitate a conversation, provide the framework for critique and discussion, and then encourage the [collaborators'] projects to completion," providing them with background material and insights from experts in the field.
The resulting works on display at the Storefront are correspondingly diverse. They include a 40-page short story ("quarantine" deriving from the Italian word for "forty," i.e. forty days) by Scott Geiger, each page printed as a memo pad for collection and collation directly off the wall; a series of bold posters on proper quarantine etiquette and "flu symptom" bingo cards by Amanda and Jordan Spielman; Mimi Lien's meticulous true-life miniature environments, encased in metal shells and only viewable through tiny peep-holes; and Front Studio's vision for a segregated "parallel city" that appears to adapt the orange fabric of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates for the purposes of hygienic infrastructure.
"Quarantine is remarkably hard to pin down," Twilley said of the subject. "We interviewed several experts, from academics to practitioners, and each of them had a different definition of the term. In general, quarantine is a temporary spatial condition, but there's a lot of slippage: is the border between Israel and Palestine, or the U.S./Mexico border fence, an act of quarantine? Or the Berlin Wall, or the Great Wall of China? Is there ideological quarantine, and what architectural form does it take? These are all extraordinarily interesting questions, of increasing geopolitical importance, that we wanted to consider."
Most of the work on view is resistant to casual perusal but rewards close attention. With some exceptions, this is due to the conceptual (often inscrutable) graphic shorthand typical of architects, and in most cases is due to the fact that the pieces rely heavily on text, either in their substance or their elaboration, to yield their meaning. For example, Thomas Pollman in "Precious Isolation: A Pair of Invasive Species," brilliantly compares the resources expended to protect the President of the United States in his travels with those used to isolate and preserve endangered, illegally-imported orchids. His display is dense with fascinating data (such as the call-signs for presidential aircraft dating back to Truman) arranged in charts and graphs that impress with their visual impact without being immediately clear. The reliance on text extends to the exhibit's most pictorial work, a film-photograph pair that is the physical result of Richard Mosse's international search for quarantine spaces. Its enigmatic wall text suggests a back-story that almost eclipses the images.
But this wordiness may in fact be the show's strength, demonstrating the depth of thought that the participants have given to the subject. If nothing else, it is a fitting quality for an exploration of quarantine, when those who endure that condition, like the characters of Boccaccio's Decameron, most often complain of boredom and resort ultimately to lengthy, diversionary narratives to pass the time.