In movement on a path through a landscape something is constantly slipping away and something is constantly gained
Recent readings on space and place and the dialectic relationship that exists between the individual and landscape, be it natural or manmade, have made me think of an artistic project I have been very familiar with for several years in a new and clearer way. This project is The Creativity of Evil, a multi-media installation my mother, Lihie Talmor, created in 1995. One of the aims of the project was to engage the viewer in ways, which exceeded the stereotypically distanced, purely visual relationship that usually exists between said viewer and the work of art viewed. This intention has of course inspired numerous projects decades.
What is interesting in this project in regard to recent readings is that the work attempted to engage the viewer in an experience reminiscent of walking through the city as a commentary on certain aspects of urban life. Caracas is a large, loud, often dangerous, and always attention-demanding city. In the catalog essay describing the work, as well as in subsequent interviews and publications, my mother frequently contrasted the pedestrian walking through the city, head down, constantly looking for obstacles and danger ahead and around while simultaneously avoiding undesirable eye-contact with others, to the pedestrian walking through the natural landscape, head held high, turning this away and that, looking at the wide open sky above and at the beauty on every side. Though this is an idealized view of walking through natural landscapes, which often have dangers and obstacles of their own as well as missions which must be accomplished within them, the point is clear: the intended opposition is between a hostile space which imposes, encroaches, invades, and must be defended against, and a welcoming, unencroaching one which attracts, drawing the pedestrian into itself through the pedestrian’s gaze and desire.
Adjusted to each of the spaces in which it was shown, the installation can be divided into three general sections. Upon entering the museum space, the viewer was immediately forced onto a certain path by small sculptural objects which lay about in a seemingly random arrangement which nonetheless completely controlled the ways in which one could traverse the space. Some were partially hidden behind partitions and had to be “found” (objects trouves), discovered in the way one accidentally discovers unintended beauty in the urban landscape, constructed for purely functional and utilitarian reasons. This is reminiscent of the third and final stage of manmade beaty (created unintentionally in the making of functional things) in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The second section of the show was a series of twelve photo-etchings of manholes. These were all enframed by a single grate-like metal construction suspended on the wall to which the viewer had been led by the path created by the objects. The manholes are a familiar view to any citizen of Caracas, and this part of the show often evoked the kind of laughter and insider’s joke might, a kind of “participatory complicity” (Feld 1998: 471). The covers of these various holes (for electricity, water, sewage, etc.) are often gone, stolen so that the metal can be melted for money. The uncovered holes are very dangerous, and are some the most obvious obstacles one must be on the lookout for when walking or driving through the city. They become receptacles for garbage. But what is wonderful about them, what my mother had noticed while walking and what she had photographed for etchings, was that even in performing this act of littering (a wrongful one) in these wrongly uncovered holes (symbols of urban “evil”), people often placed their garbage very carefully inside, bending down to arrange it in what ended up being almost aesthetic compositions. Hence the title of the show, “The Creativity of Evil”, which refers simultaneously to the accidental beauty found in objects intended for purely functional use, and to the pedestrian acts which remake them into beautiful objects.
The third section of the show was at the back of the museum space. It consisted of large, uneven, geometrically shaped pieces of metal, slightly suspended on springs, spread out over the floor. At first, viewers were always hesitant to walk on these pieces, but children usually led the way. When stepped on, the pieces let out angry, ugly, clanging sounds which would resonate throughout the space, so that letter viewers would enter and view the entire first two parts of the show to the loud, unignorable background noise, intended as a representation of the city sound from, a soundscape of Caracas.
Now that I’ve described the piece, I will touch upon its links to recent readings. The first reference, mentioned above, is to the gaze, landscape, and art these have been discussed in the West. Tilley mentions Cosgrove’s and Daniels’ analyses of landscape as “image which are created and read” (1994: 24), as well as Williams’ note “that the very idea of landscape implies separation and observation” (1994:24). Talmor, an urban dweller herself, seems to idealize natural landscape, to experience it as an image to be viewed and enjoyed from a distance, to partake, in a sense, in the very gaze she attempts to destroy in viewers’ experience of her work. However, when it comes to the urban landscape, her relation to it and her view of others’ relations to it share much more with that of writers such as Tilley himself, who describes landscape as “a setting in which locales occur and in dialectical relation to which meanings are created, reproduced and transformed” (1994: 25).
Bourdieu’s (1997) notion of habitus seems to consist in part of spaces imposed on individual by society which then shape bodily practices and movements through these spaces, thereby forming the individuals who move through space and life in a right (socially constrained) way. Michell (1988) sees such an imposition in the reconstruction of Egyptian villages on the basis of French architectural plans. In this case, it is the difference in relations to space between two societies which cause the extreme difference in architectural, and it is the unequal power relationship between the two which allows one to impose its view and spatial separations on the other. Tilley discusses the ways in which landscape will not be experienced in the same way by all members of a society, since its understanding and use will be exploited in systems of domination (Tilley 1994: 26), and Ralph speaks of the paradox of human landscape, which are so excessively humanized, conceived so carefully in terms of efficiency and utility, that they leave no space for the human (1994: 22).
In applying the ideas of these writers to Talmor’s work, we see that as regards the urban landscape, she beings with similar assumptions of specifically regulated movements through spaces designed for functional purposes and imposed by those with power onto those without. The “evil” in the title of her work does not refer merely to the stealing of manhole covers or the littering that fills the uncovered holes; when it does, it speak to the evil which elicits these acts as a response, not to the acts themselves. Rather, it refers to the urban dweller’s experience of space as something alien and alienating, constructed by forces outside of his or her control for purpose which are not his o hers, a space which creates in response a defensive attitude in the dweller. To survive will at times include stealing, which does not matter since what is stolen does not concern (to use a term mentioned by both Tilley and Bachelard) the dweller.
But following these assumptions is a view more akin to Tilley’s, mentioned above, which can be seen, in Talmor’s work, as the reintroduction of agency. The holes the pedestrian carefully bends down to fill, with garbage arranged into an attempt at beauty, are the result of an active interaction with the landscape, an intervention which seeks to redefine it, to transform its meaning; in a sense, to turn alien space into personalized, meaningful place.
Fallowing de Certeau’s reading of pedestrian speech acts, this creative, aestheticizing intervention can be seen as one of the more open possibilities actualized within and overall grammatical system. A new “spatial story” has been constructed by thus movement through space (in Tilley 1994: 28-29), a new narrative will now be read in its traversing. For de Certeau, this is a strategy. “Strategies navigate among the rules” (de Certeau 1984: 54); they are the only weapons of the weak. The paths have been altered, recut, by this human creativity; a personal mark, a memory, has been “placed” there. Functional space has been re-humanized, symbols of evil have been made good, and the hegemonically imposed forms have been re-inscribed in a “local”, individual way.