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Amie Siegel: ‘Imitation of Life’, TBG&S, Dublin, Art Monthly, Issue 395, April 2016

April 12, 2016

Two recent film works by Amie Siegel use the discipline and canon of architecture as points of departure. Describing this methodological approach as a ‘foil’ for wider conversations, the artist constructs montages of interconnected layers. The meticulously composed films Quarry, 2015, and The Architects, 2014, are exhibited together for the first time in ‘Imitation of Life’ – Siegel’s first solo exhibition in Ireland.

Given Siegel’s interest in creating multi-element artworks, it seems fitting that guest curator Megs Morley has facilitated a robust series of discursive public events and offsite screenings to extend the exhibition experience.

Quarry, 2015, tracks the compelling journey made by white marble from its source in a Vermont quarry to its luxury destination in Manhattan real estate. The uncanny metamorphosis of this raw material and fluctuating economies of production ultimately underpin its alienation. Just as the classical marble sculptures of ancient Greek adorned temples and the homes of wealthy patrons, so the modern-day ideological value of the material remains intrinsically linked with affluence and power. In the opening scene, a cavernous, underground realm is explored by a roving camera, traversing the frame as it floats on floodwater. Sedimentary layers visible on the limestone walls recall cave paintings, while rafters supporting the roof also call to mind primitive forms of dwelling. In the dimness, chiaroscuro is achieved through artificial spotlighting which casts kaleidoscopic reflections on water and stone, creating fantastical, almost biblical scenes. Elsewhere, exquisitely composed grottoes shimmer iridescently like abandoned shrines.

Momentary frames of solid colour create brief interludes between scenes. The abrasive rumble of heavy machinery ushers a large digger as it removes colossal pre-cut marble blocks from the rock face. Processed into smooth slabs, packaged marble is later dispatched to far-flung destinations. Retreating from this subterranean realm, the camera depicts high-rise views from Manhattan’s luxury towers – defining features of the modern urban skyline – where marble surfaces feature extensively throughout apartment interiors. Suitably adorned with ornate flower arrangements, it transpires that these sterile apartments are full-scale model showrooms presenting aspirational visions of future spaces yet to be built. Unnervingly, the panoramic views from windows are simulations achieved through drone footage, however these heavenly vistas grow increasingly sun-bleached, as if they might disappear completely. Showroom scenes are interspersed with construction site footage, where the low whirr of machinery merges with city noise. Looped electrical wires hang like nooses, while multiple scaffolding poles and layers of orange construction netting demarcate the boundaries of future homes.

Orchestral music accompanies the film, building dramatic Hollywood moments that border on comedy. Deeply seductive close-ups of the snowy, rippling marble are accompanied by extravagant instrumental crescendos, conjuring Disneyesque awe and wonder. An indulgent pan along a lush marble countertop is ambushed by the glistening menace of a lone tap. The music is a rendition of Gustav Holst’s The Planets by Bernard Hermann – the renowned American conductor who composed film scores for Hitchcock. References to the history of cinema can also be found in the exhibition’s title; as well as being visually opulent and conveying an almost pathological obsession with surfaces, Universal Pictures’ 1959 remake of Imitation of Life provided a scathing critique of the race and class issues and social facades of early 20th-century White America.

In the adjoining space, The Architects, 2014, opens with a bright blue sky found in 2D renderings of New York – the urban setting for numerous architectural firms portrayed in the film. Originally commissioned for the US Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, the film employs long tracking shots to create a seamless journey through different work spaces, as similarities becomes startlingly apparent. Conversely, smaller design studios appear less streamlined and homogenous. Typical office soundscapes comprise throat-clearing, mouse-clicking and the low murmur of inaudible conversations. Portraying the types of labour taking place in these firms, trendy young urbanites are seen constructing cardboard maquettes, photographing 3D models and inserting tiny figures into miniature scenes with tweezers. Omnipresent screens and windows function as portals to the outside world, channelling the ‘very architectures of looking and seeing’, which help to situate the spaces in relation to street level, invariably creating tension between interior and exterior realms.

Given the camera’s continuous glide, the viewer cannot linger over particular scenarios. Like Quarry, numerous in-film references to architecture’s visual culture forge layers of meaning. Ubiquitous 2D renderings and 3D maquettes generate miniature ‘scenes-within-scenes’: fantasy spaces that continually reference the larger economy of seduction within speculative development. Though the films render no implicit judgement, wide-ranging discussions are propounded; not least the dominant cultures and homogenising forces of globalisation and their burgeoning impact across all spheres of life.

 

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in the west of Ireland.

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