Oligarch Shopping Spree

Amie Siegel at Simon Preston on Le Corbusier is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: Amie Siegel's new video shows us how utopian treasures become fancy goods.

(Courtesy Amie Siegel and Simon Preston, New York)

A moment from Amie Siegel’s brilliant new video called "Provenance", up for another few days only at Simon Preston Gallery in New York. Siegel traces the fate of the furniture designed in the early 1950s by Le Corbusier, with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, for his government complex in Chandigarh, then the new capital of the Indian state of Punjab.

Siegel begins at the story’s end, as it were, by showing us restored tables and chairs in the homes of Western millionaires – in a London townhouse, a New York apartment and, on the high seas, in a yacht that comes complete with elevator and electric doors. Then Siegel shows us similar pieces set in the fancy shops and auction houses where the super-rich, or their decorators, sourced their finds. (We watch as one Chandigarh table gets hammered down for almost $100,000.) We next see the furnishings in wholesalers’ warehouses and restorers’ workshops, then in containers on ships heading to Europe from India – shades of Allan Sekula’s great “Fish Story” – and finally we see them where they started life in Chandigarh itself. At home, they mostly sit neglected in odd office corners or stacked pell-mell and rotting in storage; only a few still get some respect in more ceremonial spaces.

Siegel lets us watch the process whereby objects conceived in a brief moment of utopian hope, for use by a government of and for the Punjabi people, get turned into deluxe goods for an international oligarchy.

Funny thing is, as design the furniture itself is not all that great; it can’t compete with Le Corbusier’s chrome pieces from the 1920s. In fact, some of its pieces have a stuffy, club-chair quality that rather suits the “exclusive” designer decors where it is now ending up. The only reason a Chandigarh piece counts as a treasure is because it has ties to a famous man and has a certifiable source in a celebrated project of his – a project that happens to have a spirit completely opposed to the ethos of the one-percenters who have looted its treasures. (No one spending a fortune on a Chandigarh piece can be blind to the fact that such a treasure ought to return to its home in India – even if Indian bureaucrats once sold it as junk and are only now waking up to its virtues.)

There’s one final wrinkle in Siegel’s treatment of her story that makes it even more compelling: There’s no way not to notice that the video she’s presenting at Simon Preston has something in common, as a deluxe high-cultural object, with the Chandigarh furniture that’s been shipped to that yacht. Her sleek work of filmic art, with all its classically modernist devices – dolly shots, focus pulls, aerial views – is in fact a product of the same aesthetic culture that produced Chandigarh. And, in the 21st-century, it can barely resist serving some of the same functions, and masters, that Chandigarh’s furnishings have come to serve.

Siegel, and her piece, seem aware of how hard it has become for art to get out from under those particular thumbs.

For a full visual survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.