Displaying Divisions: semiotics in the public realm #2


Guy Debord, Society of Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.


Following a plan conceived by artist Marcel Duchamp and writer and poet André Breton, Kiesler created a surrealist exhibition at the Gallery Maeght in Paris called Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in 1947. He designed a fantastic surrealist environment called Salle des Superstitions (Hall of Superstitions), a cavelike space that he called “magic architecture.” Integrated into the presentation were works of art by Joan Miró, David Hare, Max Ernst, and Duchamp, as well as two sculptures by Kiesler himself.



The plan for the course presentation on November 22, was to consider a real world test-case, and to take into account immediate possibilities that could be both imaginable and produceable within a short time frame.   The challenge therefore was to understand how a project in evolution, an early “work in progress” could possibly be readied for a museum-like display. What would be possible to bring into the display environment when the intent of a project might to an extent be clear enough, but the outcomes- or deliverables, are few and far between.

First off, I brought together a brief  dealing with the topic of souvenirs, “Displaying Divisions: Semiotics in the Public Realm.” The idea was to look at the large topic of Reconciliation Architecture from a miniaturised perspective. I am increasingly convinced that souvenirs, of  the mass produced kind, are precisely the kinds of objects that mimic the fate of their larger scaled counterparts. Like Stalin’s massive statues, the market of Stalin souvenirs  fluctuated according to Stalin’s political trajectory, relating directly to   the rise and fall of his cult status, being especially susceptible to the passage of time. The subject of Souvenirs is extremely vast, permitting a  broad choice of examples worth examining. Where to start?  The souvenirs of natural and human-made landmarks, Mount Vesuvius,  Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon,  the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State building,  the World Trade Center (before the twin towers’ destruction),  political figures  like  Lenin,  Che Guevara,  Mao Tse Tung, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Eva Peron, John Paul II…


With this in mind I thought the subject of souvenirs, and perhaps a combination of political, cultural, historical and obsolete souvenir objects could become the basis of the first “actual” exhibition on RA, brought together to challenge the perceived notions of icons, iconography, semiotics, signs, and a slew of other image based memorial or memetic representations that have become common currency in global public realm.

Following the Keynote presentation, with the course participants, we pulled together a number of pertinent observations, building firstly on what we knew already was out there. Hence interrogations on the meaning of souvenirs, extrapolating from previous discussions we held on the shifting significance of objects, architecture, even cities…


There were questions about critical oversight, as we know that one person’s significant icon is another’s  insignificant icon. There could be many ways to “re-signify” and icon, to give it an altered meaning, to “de-signify” its current usages, to stage a symbol’s “detournement,” or highjacking its principle message. Then there would be the assembling of the souvenirs, into a sort of “cabinet of curiosities,” though even this kind of operation could be carried out by alternative means, curated across internet searches, appeals for crowdsourcing souvenirs, inviting artists to make their own contributions. Essential to this project on souvenirs was the possibility to understand how object signs and their attributed symbolic content could evolve, devolve, recycle, dissolve or evaporate into the ether of public conscious.





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