Amie Siegel: Provenance
A mesmerising film reflecting on the legacy and value of modern design.
Tate St Ives
20th October 2018 – 6th May 2019
THE NATURE OF collections and the histories of art, is a current theme at Tate St Ives. Last autumn, a collaboration of two British artists, Nashahibi/Skaer, brought together a range of works to reflect on the changing significance of objects and images in different times and places. This spring the gallery is showing the first major retrospective of Anna Boghiguian, exploring topics such as global trade, mass migration, colonialism and conflict. It is within this context that Tate St Ives screened ‘Provenance’ (2013), a film by American artist Amie Siegel that follows the movement of modernist furniture from India to Europe.
In the 1950s, Le Corbusier was given the remit to make a city in the foothills of the Himalayas, Chandigarh. It was to be the new capital of the Indian Punjab: Nehru’s ‘dream city’. Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret designed the capital from scratch including boulevards, lakes, gardens, grand civic buildings – and furniture. Seven decades later most of the buildings are still in use, although dilapidated. The simple, handcrafted timber furniture however, is showing its age and much of it has been discarded or relegated.
Amie Siegel’s film documents the journey of this furniture from Chandigarh to Europe, through various pit stops (shipping container, restoration workshop, photography studio and auction room) into the homes of international collectors. Through the migration of these chairs, tables and sideboards, Siegel subtly documents their gradual transfiguration from ordinary functional furniture to carefully-handled objects imbued with import and value.
SIEGEL TURNS TIME on its head: the film starts at the journey’s end and then slowly slides back in time to the start point of the story. We first ‘meet’ some chairs carefully placed in the rarefied environments of collectors’ homes. In this eclectic setting the chairs stand like chieftains. They rise to the occasion, hold their space and seem to command attention. The visual cues all point to the fact that these quietly grounded objects are valuable and coveted. This is reinforced by scenes from the auction houses and the photographer’s studio. The chairs are handled carefully and there seems to be a tension around them – a sense of expectation and anxiety.
This aura around the furniture dissipates as we move back in time. One of the most surprising scenes is at a workshop where we see a Corbusier sofa being repaired. With the first part of the film reinforcing the concept that these one-off designs are precious, the violence of the renovation as the back of the sofa is ripped open and the upholstery eviscerated is almost horrifying.
The film slips effortlessly back in time to Chandigarh, where the furniture originates. The cityscape is a gift to any film-maker, and Siegel really makes the most of it. The scale and setting of Corbusier’s administrative buildings is breathtaking. Added to the reinforced concrete are the stains and neglect of seventy years, plus the nonchalance of their inhabitants – whether they are agile baboons or preoccupied humans.
The filming is sensual and poetic, and the viewer is left in peace to meditate on the elusive nature of value
We watch people going about their business, seemingly unmoved by Corbusier’s vision; the furniture clearly just a backdrop to their lives. There are many different designs of chair – from science lab stools, to cinema seats – and all of them are functional. We see the chairs as merely another part of the internal surroundings – sat on by students, or weary administrators who have added the practical comfort of a cushion. The camera draws our attention to the furniture, but it is clear than no-one else in the shot notices it. There are some haunting tracking shots of the roof of one of the buildings, where a pile of abandoned Corbusier desks and chairs seem like a tangle of geometric limbs, an inspiration for a cubist painter.
This forty-minute documentary is mesmerising. The filming is sensual and poetic, and there is no commentary, purely a bearing witness through strong imagery and the occasional background noise. The viewer is left in peace to absorb the journey and meditate on the elusive nature of value. Siegel gives one last twist to the tale by putting one of the editions of her film up for auction at Christie’s, thereby allowing her film to join the same system of trade it portrays. She films the auction of course!