Searle Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture at
The Art Institute of Chicago.
Texte zur Kunst recently featured an essay by Andrea Fraser denouncing the art world’s apparent complicity in the growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor. Its title, “L’1%, c’est moi,” presumably refers to that small number of wealthy men and women who constitute the world’s leading art collectors; and, at the same time, it references the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Additionally, “L’1%, c’est moi” is a pointed variation on a statement supposedly made by the seventeenth-century French king, Louis XIV: “L’êtat, c’est moi” (The state, it is me). No doubt Fraser intended to provoke comparison between our contemporary social and economic situation and that of a notorious historical regime, the latter characterized by absolutism and privileged luxury. But “L’êtat, c’est moi” is also a dazzlingly dissembling slogan, a form of metadiscourse that fashions truth from tautology. It is, above all, a theory or strategy of representation reliant upon the production of effects of presence. In other words, simulation. To my mind, Elizabeth Corkery’s installation for this exhibition works with, through, and against these interpenetrating and transtemporal concerns. Rather shockingly in this climate of “austerity” discourse, she has erected a miniaturized facsimile of Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors, one of the West’s most infamous monuments to absolute power, visual enchantment, and unrestrained opulence. Reaching back beyond Benjamin’s passages and Foucault’s panopticon, she recovers and engages a more distant—and yet disquietingly modern—architectural modality of power, visuality, and experience.
When the Hall of Mirrors was unveiled at Versailles in 1682 there had never existed a space so spectacularly specular, so unrelentingly scopic. Now, as then, the room’s pictorial and ornamental excess immobilizes and disorients its viewers. Amongst prickly clouds of glistening chandeliers are gilded sculptures, polychromatic marble and colossal painted scenes. Encasing all these are hundreds of gridded mirror panels that simultaneously contract the space and infinitely expand it as pure surface. In fact, the Hall of Mirrors has always been more sign than space, more image than architecture. In a poem of 1710 describing the palace of Versailles, the Hall itself is made to speak the following words: “My ceiling and its contour seem to have little holding them up for the high walls of mirrors and transparent panes appear as the only support for this large expanse and yet these sections are all the better for letting me see the scenery within my view.” We might, then, consider the room as an ancestor of the lustrous, enlivened, and spectral commodities born of modernity. For today’s tourist-consumer of Versailles that is certainly what it has become, a state of affairs only reinforced by the Hall’s recent performance as a contemporary art gallery for works by two executive members of the “1%” of living artists: Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.
Corkery perfectly understands all this. With her New York Hall of Mirrors, she invites us to traverse a stunning anachronism; to enter a gaudy reproduction and teeter on the edge of vertiginous mise en abyme. While Koons and Murakami inserted their works within the material and historical tissue of the Hall of Mirrors, Corkery extracts the image of the space itself, objectifying and nestling this double—like a Russian doll—inside another gallery on another continent. This strategy of uprooting, displacement and virtual consumption playfully mimics the activities of affluent American collectors and institutions since the late nineteenth century. Think of all those uncanny “period” rooms on Fifth Ave—so many discrete yet cohabitating sound stages in a Hollywood studio.