The first auction catalogue that I studied in depth presented the collection of a 1960s New York artist, whose belongings were offered in a single sale by a venerated auction house. The heavy tome was filled with disparate objects, hinting at the artist’s affinities with modernism’s universalist conceptions: evidence of his late blooming interest in Buddhism and Chinese scholar’s rocks, the occasional canonical design chair, and assorted rare instruments and textiles, all commingling with Arts and Crafts furniture and indigenous masks from Borneo. The sale also included drawings, paintings, and sculpture by the artist’s peers, suggesting a lifetime of intimate trading, and providing a carefully staged context for the artist’s own work, which in turn cast value back on his objects—the individual auction lots offered for sale.
At the time, I was living in the downtown Manhattan loft of an older artist couple. The massive space was my first New York apartment after graduate school: a sublet paid for mostly by my LA-based boyfriend at the time, who recorded audio commentaries for DVD extras in the loft when he visited, then charged the movie studios a ‘location fee’ for doing so. I would come home to models hanging out in the building’s stairwell, waiting for some famous actor inside, and leftover trays of catering carefully wrapped in the fridge that we would live off of for days. The loft was a top-floor duplex that the owners renovated themselves, with catwalks, studio space, and a small library where I eventually dragged my mattress, curling up under an electric blanket and insulated by books, as I couldn’t afford to heat the whole space. It was there that I found the auction catalogue.
At first, the catalogue seemed a potential source of comfort and inspiration—suggesting possibilities of cohabitation with sympathetic objects, glimpses of what an artist’s domestic life might evidence after years of immersion in aesthetic affinities, devoted friendships, and one’s own work. But instead of stimulation, a sense of depression settled over me. The evidence of a life on display, replete with the cultural accumulations of an individual artist’s trajectory, was suddenly just that—a mere fleeting stretch on the longer continuum of objects and their movements. Things gathered but for a moment, before being disassembled and re-absorbed into different gatherings, with new owners and adjacencies.
The molecular division of cultural materials—paintings, sculptures, objects, documents, books, and maps—combining and separating from one collection to the next is barely visible from our limited temporal perspective, occupying, as we do, several quick scenes across a century. Individual owners are ephemeral, interim custodians. Meanwhile, the object moves on through vast expanses of history, subject to motivations of profit, speculation, theft, exploitation, the whims of fashion and taste, pedagogy, and pathologies of the encyclopedic and of completion, as well as profound and inexplicable attachment.
The auction catalogue I found—and the objects therein—carried the faint smell of death, expertly smoothed and perfumed over by the high cultural act of exchange: the custom of an auction (especially a revered and well-marketed one) passing on the deceased’s objects, at a profit, for well-heeled buyers and their representatives to recast their own rooms, houses, and collections with further acquisitions. Beneath that activity, invisible to the auction observer, is a coordinated exchange of money and an escalation in value, endowed in no small part by the context of the sale. It is a market, as lively and vicious as any open-air market or stock-trading floor, with money changing hands and value soaring and plummeting in seconds.
Years later, I found myself in several auction houses during the filming of my piece Provenance, which follows, in reverse chronology, the migration of furniture designed by Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier for the post-partition Indian city of Chandigarh—chairs, lamps, tables and settees—to Western auction houses and collectors’ homes in London, Paris, Antwerp, and New York. I shot in various auction preview exhibitions that featured design—staged and spot-lit areas of furniture and objects. At times, I would drift away from my film crew into different parts of the auction house: areas that previewed a sale of silver, jewels or, more often than not, art.
It was there that I recognised a certain haphazard aspect to the installation of the artworks—the lawlessness of multiple objects brought together by the singular motive of resale. For an artist such as myself, who works intensely with montage—bringing together shots, locations, and otherwise disparate images and ideas—the unbridled juxtapositions of the secondary market of art disturbed me, travelling the divide between object and beholder, witnessing a jarring jumble of things, of commodities, absent from meaningful correspondences.
But there was another feeling, one that crept up on me like a chill as I happened unexpectedly upon these oddly hung salons of paintings and sculpture, a kind of gloomy cold that descended further as I passed through each room. It was the slow realisation that I had in some other way ‘crossed over’, ferried into the Hades-like afterlife of objects—the in-between place art goes to before being reborn to its new owners, its next life. Viewers, collectors, and lovers of art may go to auction previews with the ease of their attachments—an event to pass the time or to search for new wares, investments, and affinities.
But for artists, witnessing this liminal space can be unsettling. The merchants of art descend upon the pickings, rather like Hitchcock’s birds circling above their prey. (There’s a reason why the director included an auction scene in North by Northwest, set in a hotel—Chicago’s Ambassador West—itself a space of transience.) And one observes in a kind of horror, as hundreds of artworks change hands in an evening, a sight that should perhaps not be experienced first-hand by artists, as it seemingly cuts against an order of things. Art was once resold only after the death of the artist, making the auction a kind of belated stage of arrival—not simultaneous to the artist’s life out there in the world still making work, but after. Art fairs share this raw presentation of wares, blithely dropping any pretense of the gallery space and its quasi-spiritual hush, eagerly creating instead a kind of nineteenth-century department store-cum-trade fair.
Freud might have situated this experience as an artist’s ‘primal scene’, a witnessing of what one should not, namely the back-of-house marketplace. It is a kind of rough trade, a carnal acquisitiveness exposed, away from the usual calm, minimalist spaces that tame art and cleverly withhold its market from view. The back rooms of galleries—the dealer’s office or the ‘show space’ where works are brought out to be viewed privately by clients—are uncanny spaces, stages for occasional visitors to imagine the market. Crossing the threshold into a gallery’s back room or office—often populated with works by gallery artists (or secondary market works)—the absence of clear context, or explicit delineation of formal exhibition space versus office space, creates a circumstance of voyeurism as one peers inside, into a place presenting both exclusivity and its potential transgression.
I had this in mind when I sited Fetish —a video following the London Freud Museum’s annual nocturnal cleaning of the psychoanalyst’s collection of over two thousand archaeological objects and artefacts, and the peeling back of the oriental rug covering his Biedermeier analytic couch—in the back room of Simon Preston Gallery in New York as part of my solo show there. Freud compared the practice of archaeology to psychoanalysis, suggesting the unearthing of buried artefacts of the past is akin to the uncovering of unconscious memories and childhood trauma. In the New York gallery back room, I removed the dealer’s desk, chair, and filing cabinet, projecting my video on the rear wall of the almost empty office, with a viewing bench opposite. The Freud Museum’s ritual ‘back-of-house’ activities met the contemporary art gallery’s ‘back-of-house’ space where deals are covertly made.
It seems to me the more time I spend in consideration of objects, that the desirable element is not so much the object itself—its physical properties and formal concerns—but the belief in its essence, its ineffable value. Artworks are acquired and celebrated as objects, yet revered in their special non-usefulness. The tradition of display—on a wall, in a vitrine, in a museum, in climate-controlled storage—suggests their value is due in part to their not being in direct service, not having the physical functionality of, say, furniture.
A video work, Quarry, made between Provenance and Fetish, traces the excavation of marble from the deepest underground marble quarry in the world to its almost inevitable use in the luxury model apartments of new Manhattan skyscrapers. Quarry’s slow, rhythmic tracking shots and sudden tableaux are pointedly underscored by dramatic orchestral sound, pacing a tension between the rough geological origins of the white marble and its sleekly polished deployment in the interiors of high-end properties.
During the research period for Quarry, I went from huge stone caverns a mile underground to visiting the sales office for the world’s tallest residential building—432 Park Avenue—just across from Central Park in Manhattan. Presenting to me the showroom’s model kitchen and bath, the marketing director paused dramatically before the bathroom’s stone counter to announce that the sink, a minimalist negative void cut into the marble solid, was made from ‘a single 1,500-pound block of Italian marble sourced from the same quarry in Cararra, Italy, from which Michelangelo took his marble for the David’.
To have this sink—this condo—is to possess something that the David possesses. Material—marble, the sink—imbues its owner with the belief that material, that medium, can be invested with the innate spirituality we assign to art. True or not, the sink is a spiritual event, performing the belief that there is something intrinsically valuable in material itself, something that moves from thing to thing.
An artwork’s provenance is pursed by art historians, auction house specialists, registrars, and collectors to establish fact, to investigate and prove a history of ownership. Provenance is, however, an idea. It is a belief system that bestows—through the privileging of proprietorship and its legal rights—further waves of of sociological meaning, of import, of value, through belonging. Having belonged to this person, having been her possession, having survived (or been damaged in) this historical moment, the accrual of ownership, time, and the ineffable association with the identity of prior owners or authors (or a scene, a milieu, an adjacency), creates value. Just like the furniture and objects—the belongings—of that well-known 1960s artist whose auction catalogue I happened upon years ago.
Not long after making Provenance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired the video installation for its contemporary collection and mounted a solo exhibition featuring the work on display in the museum. Rather than an exhibition publication with essays and installation images, I made an artist’s book called Catalogue, which features pages culled from various auction catalogues—Christie’s, Phillips, Bonhams, Sotheby’s, Artcurial—all featuring the Le Corbusier and Jeanneret Chandigarh furniture that is at the work’s centre, hundreds of auction catalogue pages, scanned and reproduced as objects inside my book’s pages. The final page is the auction catalogue spread for the sale of Provenance, which took place at Christie’s London on 19 October 2013.
This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Amie Siegel works variously with film, video, photography, performance, and installation. She is known for layered, meticulously constructed works that trace and perform the undercurrents of systems of value, cultural ownership, and image-making. Recent solo exhibitions include Winter at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2017); Strata at South London Gallery (2017); Ricochet at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (2016); Double Negative at Museum Villa Stuck, Munich (2016); and Provenance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2014). Siegel has participated in the 2018 Gwangju Biennial and 2018 Dhaka Art Summit, and has shown in group exhibitions at CAPC Bordeaux; Witte de With, Rotterdam; Vancouver Art Gallery; MuMA, Melbourne; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; MAXXI Museum, Rome; Hayward Gallery, London; CCA Wattis, San Francisco; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Her work is in public collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern; Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. She has been a fellow of the DAAD Berliner-Künstlerprogramm and the Guggenheim Foundation. Siegel lives in Brooklyn, New York.