Postcards from the Brink
By Lisa Blackmore
In the production of national iconographies, diverse spaces are summarized into a shorthand of symbols, reproduced for posterity and circulated in the image-world to take the place of their much more complex referents. This process results in what we might call commonplaces – sites that a particular imagined community has in common, and which are subsequently exhibited in commonplace images, visual platitudes of the like found on postcards, T-shirts, or other paraphernalia from the tourist economy. By this reductive logic, the Eiffel Tower is Paris, the Capitol is Washington, and it would be inconceivable to imagine Sydney without conjuring up an image of the Opera House. As space becomes image, place becomes icon, and something appearing to be an identity emerges, as apparently solid as the buildings that are supposed to epitomize it.
With their project David’s Tower (from the outside), artists Ángela Bonadies and Juan José Olavarría engage with this same process in the context of Venezuela, where urban space is continually deployed within political projects that posit “definitive” expressions of the cityscape and, by extension, the nation. In David’s Tower, however, Bonadies and Olavarría take a different tactic to bombastic discourse. Instead, they play ironically at consecrating a down-at-heel skyscraper in central Caracas, by turning a squatter-filled vertical barrio into a contemporary icon. Tather than articulate a celebratory account of the skyscraper, their insistence on its iconicity interpellates the very interface of national identity and space because their works are suggestive of the relationship between social/national aspirations and spatial arrangements. As Bonadies’ poster ironically infers, while the optimistic discourse of economic success that motivated the Tower’s construction sought to embody and connote triumphant social ascent, the message she attributes to it today is quite another. The call to “work-out, go up, climb up” no longer refers to a metaphorical social ladder, but to the 45 flights of stairs that lead some 2000 squatters to their respective, improvised dwellings every day.
In this sense, the artists’ approximations to the building are informed by an awareness of the history of its construction. Built during a banking consortium’s boom in the 1990s but abandoned after its burnout, the tower’s grandiose scale is an additional ex abrupto in Caracas’ already complex cityscape. Indeed, while playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas famously described the city as an improvised camp, the idea takes on a literal form in David’s Tower as its inhabitants dismantle the building’s mirrored facade to make way for the improvised curtains, satellite dishes, and the red brick walls that they hastily erect to fill the void. It is these domestic details that ultimately infiltrate Olavarría’s painstaking studies of the building’s facade and which reveal the volatile fragility of “David’s Tower”. In turn, these cracks in the proposed corporate anonymity of the Tower’s facade also diagnose a more general malaise: the ardent desire for a “definitive” Caracas, a definitive nation, and the way this project is recurrently undermined by the social, political or economic contingencies that permeate Venezuelan reality. Just as both artists have suggested in previous works, the Venezuela evoked in their representations of David’s Tower is characterized by a long list of “proyectos engavetados” — truncated promises and project left on a shelf gathering dust. The residual image is a memory of what could have been. In this sense, as Olavarría paints the isolated vision of the Tower onto one of his customary flag-sized canvases, he engages with national history only to unstitch the very discourse he appears to contribute to. Just as in the artist’s representations of other crumbling icons from Venezuela’s collective imaginary, the ironic swipe Olavarría takes at this more recent projection of a buoyant and positive Venezuela says one thing: the Tower is nothing but a chimera.
However, perhaps the desire to provide a definitive answer and expression to space will ever be a temptation. In his essays Species of Spaces (1974), Georges Perec posits raw space as trauma, suggesting that space itself is the catalyst for the desire to code and produce it as identity and purpose, leading to the production of ‘An idealized scene. Space as reassurance’. In urban planning and architecture the grid –an “idealized” and “reassuring” space par excellence– is a recurrent trope, emerging in representations of Caracas and, interestingly, as a common motif in Venezuelan Art. In an anonymous, yet iconographic, painting of the capital city, entitled Nuestra Señora de Caracas (1766), the Virgin hovers above the city, providing an added frame of order literally over and above the grid that delineated the colonial city. However, in both artists’ pared-down reproductions of the Tower’s grid, its posited regulation of space is thwarted. The jagged lines of Bonadies’ black and white print and Olavarría’s meticulous record of the intrusions into the building’s homogenous facade frustrate its pretension to visual order. In short, the “reassuring” transformation of space into image is no longer possible: the Tower has exceeded its own premise.
Consequently, it is beyond its original premise that Bonadies’ representations of the Tower are situated. In the artist’s “postcards”, digitally produced photomontages of the Tower are “cloned” in iconic locations and sabotage the relationship between aspiration and image. By this token, iconography and identity are framed within the apocalyptic, while the hackneyed and repetitive visual code of the souvenir is deployed to ironic and absurd effect. What is more, even though the arrival at a “definitive” Caracas has long been a national project, curiously its success has repeatedly been expressed as the quest to turn the capital into an elsewhere. In the late nineteenth century, it was modeled on Parisian boulevards and grand public buildings, while during the 1940s and 50s Caracas was praised for its similarities to New York, Los Ángeles, and Miami. This crisis of identity is taken to the extreme by Bonadies, as the chameleonic Tower is inserted into multiple elsewheres and entrenched in a web of connotations, all of which are by definition “other”.
Ultimately, David’s Tower survives only in ironic, mocking, or absurd terms as both artists shift between sacred and profane registers. Olavarría’s miniature model of the Tower plays at consecrating it by appealing to the mass-production of icons that posits heritage as a keyring; while Bonadies takes the theme of social climbing to an absurd extreme as she pictures the Tower ascending to the heavens. The works resulting from this joint project are a caustic contribution to a Venezuelan iconography, a national identity that the artists construct from the disjointed glare of the dismantled mirrors of “David’s Tower”.
Caracas, November 2010