On the Corner: Peta Carlin
Introductory Note: Peta Carlin’s book On Surface and Place: Between Architecture, Textiles and Photography will appear from Routledge in 2018. To celebrate this event, I reprint here the catalogue essay I wrote for her 2001 art exhibition in Melbourne, Corners.
Alan Rudolph’s film Welcome to L.A. (1977) has a running joke about an artist (Lauren Hutton) who photographs only the corners of buildings. In one scene we glimpse them arranged unfussily on a wall – always from the same, dead-on angle, reducing every specific place to the same general pattern: a brute, flat, vertical edge and the starkly plunging receding planes that it creates. A street corner – like the kind where Paul Auster’s alter ego hero in the film Smoke (1995) plonks his camera down at regular intervals – can be a space of magic, of wonder, the eternal documentary of life revealed in its chance movements and intersections. The corner of a building, in Rudolph’s imaginary artist’s hands, annuls, in a stroke, all these wondrous possibilities.
What’s the wicked logic behind Welcome to L.A.’s joke? It’s that to shoot corners so obsessively is, in a sense, to capture nothing, over and over. A corner is not a “thing” in itself, it’s only the hinge, the pivot between other surfaces. A point blank, not an object of intrinsic interest or beauty. So, to gather representations of such corners could only be a conceptual, Warholian gag, hip to its own irony or blind to it: a washed-out serving of sameness, mechanically fixating where there is nothing especially interesting to see. Another chapter in the history of serial art, all those installations and books that line up different people, objects or places within the same, rigid, indifferent, often deliberately ugly pictorial parameter. The artist’s parade of friends up against the same blank wall; the parade of his daily underwear laid out on the mundane bed; the inevitable trace of her shadow cast on every bare pavement ...
Some contemporary philosophers of aesthetics might put it differently and more positively. A corner is the interval without which nothing makes sense or finds its inherent diversity and dynamism; or it’s the fold that generates volume, texture, a space for living in ... The corner of a building might be experienced like a pause in music, like black frames in a film, like the blank spacing between objects in an installation, like the white margins on a page, like the caesura in a verse text (I remember a documentary in which the director Jean-Marie Straub harangued his actors: “I can’t hear the caesura!”). But then again, such delicate, subtle articulations of form will so often go overlooked, unheard or unnoticed in the ordinary, daily experience of art. What really matters is how we can be nudged into appreciating them as something – rather than nothing.
Peta Carlin’s Corners series uses sameness and repetition as generating principles, but it is simultaneously alive to the sensual encounter of photography and architecture. Form and facade meet in this ingenious project that aims to return a playful sense of texture and imagination to examples of what Carlin identifies as late modernist buildings. Cultural historian Peter Wollen has remarked in his book Raiding the Icebox that: “The first wave of historic modernism developed an aesthetic of the engineer, obsessed by machine forms and directed against the lure of the ornamental and the superfluous”. (1) In a purely engineered world, a corner can only ever be a corner – a functional specification, the break that redirects a clean line.
Clement Greenberg, the theorist and champion of this supposedly pure modernist project in painting, posed an antinomy between that which is pictorial (and thus good) and that which is decorative (thus bad) – a couplet that, as Wollen reminds us, maps itself onto the broader value-distinction in the 20th century culture of design and architecture between the functional and the ornamental. It is as if, in a somewhat nightmarish extension of the Greenbergian vision, the rarefied abstractions of colour field painting could be extended and transposed into the shapes and planes of the built environment – an utterly smooth, continuous, pictorial world, unsullied by the impure pleasures of the decorative-ornamental impulse. And where the former is a “mass” vision envisaged and engineered for the masses, the latter is as individual and idiosyncratic (and thus as uncontainable) as the diversity of humankind.
This where Carlin the artist steps in – to interrupt that smooth transition from flat plane to imposing volume. Her project strikes a related circuit that reverses the direction but fits the same economy: from real buildings to their usually realistic representation in documentary photographs, which are the everyday coinage of publication and discussion in the architectural world. She takes the realist photograph and knocks a kink in its centre, a kink which happens to be exactly … at the corner.
And why not? The filmmaker Peter Greenaway has talked about the frustrating but ultimately inspiring non-fit of architectural space and photographic space. “Architectural space on film is stubborn. To film architecture is to become aware of multiple curiosities of vision and downright retinal deceptions. [...] You have to accept the disappointment of the refusal of carefully stage-managed entasis [the swelling or curve of a column] to work for the camera lens”. (2) The optics of the eye, the lived experience of space-in-motion, and the conventions of camera lenses all create different effects – and even different worlds. Modern philosophy has been fanatically devoted to this intuition: that we live simultaneously in different conceptions of space and diverse planes of time. Art gives us an intuitive, sensorial experience of this fantastic complexity, and verifies its daily, infinite truth.
Carlin’s image-assemblages return us to the underdeveloped and undervalued possibilities of serial art. The use of repetition – the same kind of thing, over and over, from the same general perspective – detaches common objects from their reality and crams them into a sequence of the artist’s devising. Yet this does not have to be a merely deadening or droll process, a joyless doubling of the mundane. Rather than flattening these buildings and marshalling these pivotal corners to an assembly-line logic, Carlin seizes the potential for creating new shapes, textures, visions and environments from these abstracted and marooned pieces of our quotidian landscape.
Carlin’s game turns the architectural trace into a complex, droll species of ornament. By physically orchestrating a simulacrum that is excessively mimetic – a three-dimensional accordion effect to mirror the sharp turn of a building – she uproots that object from its original place and objective, and offers in its absence a new and virtual building that belongs not only to photographic art, but also the free-play realm of our equally virtual imaginings.
1. Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 13-14.
Peter Greenaway, “Just Place, Preferably Architectural Place”, in John Boorman & Walter Donohue (eds), Projections
4½ (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 79.
© Adrian Martin January 2001