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Catalogue Essay by Kathy Battista
Catalogue Essay by Grady T. Turner

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Research & Development

The Man Behind the Curtain

By Grady T. Turner

Peter Garfield has things under control. [1] Don't be distracted by the chaos. [2]

In the mid-1990s, Garfield garnered a good deal of attention with a project that involved the destruction of houses. [3] Photographs documented a process by which small homes were detached from their foundations, lifted by helicopters and dropped from great heights. The houses began to disintegrate as they fell, and were crushed upon impact.

A catalogue showed Garfield at work with his crew of young assistants, some wearing hard hats as they poured over schematic drawings and plans. There was evidently a lot of work involved in the logistics of purchasing the houses, preparing them for their removal, and executing the drop. So much work, commented a reviewer for The New York Times, that one might reasonably wonder if the results were worth the effort. The photographs were good, the reviewer conceded, but overall, wasn't this a monumental waste of money and effort? [4]

If hoisting the houses into the sky seemed a unwarranted task, the reviewer could rest easy. As it turned out, no actual houses were harmed in the making of Garfield's photographs. Special effects, such as using scale models for the houses, made a convincing simulacrum of the devastation described in the catalogue. Garfield had not intended to mislead viewers, but in his play with fact and fiction, an unintentional deception was an understandable result.

Behind the rather sensational images of houses falling from the sky was a recurring leitmotif [5] in Garfield's art: the notion of collegial team work. The group that purportedly organized the drops was a cross section of an idealized American work force. Attractive men and women of various races worked side by side, under Garfield's direction, dedicated to realizing the artist's vision. Garfield borrowed an image of the artist as project manager, familiar to art of the Earthworks generation, and updated it to an era of multicultural idylls more familiar to Benettons advertisements than any actual workplace.

The photographs of workers contributed to the illusion that the houses were actually being raised and dropped. Conversely, those purported acts of destruction provided a rationale for the workers to pose. The task gave them something to do, or rather, to appear to be doing. That simulacrum of creative work, as it turns out, was a larger subject for Garfield than the simulacrum of devastation.

In his recent work, Garfield drops the evidence of a unifying task, such as organizing the dropping of a house, and he has excused himself as supervisor.[6] Outfitted with uniform lab coats, his earnest workers independently consult over clip boards, gather around computers, indicate texts worthy of note.  The artifice is redolent of academic clasicism.  Walking a clean campus of prefab structures, they take the time to wave at colleagues clustered in impromptu conferences. Even ducking out for a smoke, it seems unlikely they are discussing anything other than the more efficient accomplishment of their duties.

What these duties might be, or how these workers accomplish them, is unknown. What matters more is that they look perfect in pursuit of them. We should all be so fortunate as to work with colleagues so intently sharing a sense of purpose, whatever that purpose may be. Style is far ahead of substance in this utopian workplace, so perfect they might be derived from Socialist propaganda--or, more closely, the stock photos and corporate reports that are the equivalent propaganda of capitalism. [7]

It is GarfieldÌs practice that he follows an idea to its logical outcome, then unravels the outcome and works his way back. In a recent video [8], the camera enters his fictitious environments and moves through them in a continuous shot. We first see them as they appear in the photographs, as picture perfect work spaces.

But as the camera moves, illusions are revealed. The sprawling campus of prefab buildings are models on a table top. The deep space of the loft work area is created by a mural. A worker punches a hole in the mural and escapes into a snowstorm, the swirling snowflakes leading her over mountains.  She has, without suggesting a desire to do so, escaped the confines of the workplace, trading its sterility for  harsh, sublime nature.  But a cave leads her, inevitably, back into the work area, where the cycle picks up again. This Moebius strip undermines the utopia, uncovering its deceits. The workers, it turns out, are trapped in an uncertain, vaguely Orwellian reality.

It is in this workplace that Garfield, now absent, maintains a sense of control.[9] The workers serve some unknown authority, perhaps the artist by proxy, to uncertain ends. When the artist was present, the workers were motivated by a unity of vision, albeit an offbeat vision intent on making art from the destruction of suburban homes. Now, their tasks are disjointed, unconnected to any foreseeable outcome.

Wasted efforts and power trips were implicit when Garfield appeared to be destroying houses, as the New York Times reviewer noted. These themes are now front and center. The lie is given to the version of reality put forward by annual reports, with their dedicated laborers displaced by the unfortunate workers trapped in GarfieldÌs corporate dystopia. Their collaborations were merely poses in service to authority. [10]

Grady T. Turner

Grady T. Turner is an art critic and curator based in New York.[11]


PG: I like that as an opening line. But does it make me sound too controlling? Or maybe, "Peter Garfield is in control?"
GT: Either works for me, but that change would alter the meaning somewhat.
PG: Okay, let's leave it as is, for now.
GT: Okay.  Perhaps it will work for you in the context of the whole essay as you read it.

PG: I'm not totally clear where you're going with that.
GT: IÌm thinking about your images of destruction, and--as I will say at the end of the essay--the dissolution of your utopia in the new work.
PG: So ÏchaosÓ doesnÌt apply to the underlying structure, which is actually pretty tight?
GT: Right.

PG: Do we really need to go into that? I'm a little tired of always being the "flying house guy."
GT: I want to refer to this series briefly as a way of reminding people that you ARE the "falling house guy."  Read on and let me know what you think. I can trim it if need be.

GT: Should I mention Ken Johnson by name, or tell the story about how the Village Voice picked up on this misreading of your photos?
PG: I must say, he's not the only one who seemed rankled by the catalogue.  But, hell, I've gotten alot of mileage out of that review.  Why stop now?

PG: "Simulacrum."  "Leitmotif."  Great, youÌre using the vocabulary list I gave you.  Did you remember to use Moebius strip somewhere?
GT: Paragraph nine.  Sentence four.

PG: Right. I guess I found picturing myself as the supervisor too limiting.  I like it better now that I'm out of the picture.  But of course I'm still pulling the strings.

PG: Yes. I get a lot of inspiration from those banal photos of lab workers holding up test tubes, or welding in dramatic lighting, and so on. ItÌs like contemporary business has absorbed Social Realism and spat it back out as commercials for capital.
GT: Interesting.  I've mentioned Orwell later in the essay. ThereÌs an element of his use of double speak in what you are saying, when things are pretty much the opposite of how they are presented.
PG: Like the oil company ads that would have you believe their main concerns are environmental protection.

PG: I would consider this a work in progress, but go ahead and describe it anyway.  I like that you're including it.

PG: Right. So IÌm still the control freak.

PG: Looks good. It's a goot start.  I've made some notes.  Can we meet on this?  How about Saturday at 2:30?
GT: Let me check my calendar and get back to you.

PG: Please do, by the end of the day if you could.  I'm eager to finalize this.

GT: Do you think some readers will assume you invented me as an alter ego?