– Autumn/Winter 2011

Circuits and Subterfuge: Emily Wardill and the Body Imaginary

Melissa Gronlund

Game Keepers Without Game, 2009, video projection with 5.1 sound, 72min, production still. Photograph: Polly Braden. Courtesy the artist

Game Keepers Without Game, 2009, video projection with 5.1 sound, 72min, production still. Photograph: Polly Braden. Courtesy the artist

At a symposium honouring Venturi Scott Brown & Associate’s contribution to architecture, Robert Venturi delivered his lecture in the form of a slide show, of things ‘we love’.1 After a short introduction, the bulk of the presentation was simply things (or, more precisely, images and names of things) loved by him and his partner Denise Scott Brown, which the audience laughed at and with appreciatively, both in solidarity with what was being celebrated (sauerkraut! Las Vegas!) and for the switch into a non-analytic mode of expression in the midst of exalted proceedings.2 This emphasis on things (or on images of things) and the straightforward listing of them is not a new idea, but for Venturi and Scott Brown, two of the founders of Postmodernism in architecture, to do this carried different valences — positive ones — versus earlier attempts in the genre, such as Georges Perec’s satire of consumerism, The Things: A Story of the 1960s. The novel, published in France in 1965, ends with its protagonists, an upwardly mobile Parisian couple, fleeing to Tunisia to escape all their possessions, and still being unhappy.

Perec’s novel starts almost cinematically, as a roving eye casts its glance on the items in the couple’s home: The eye, at first, would pass along the grey fitted carpet of a long corridor, narrow and high-ceilinged. The walls would be cupboards of bright wood, on which brass fittings would gleam. Three engravings, the first representing Thunderbird, the winner at the Epsom Derby, the other the paddle-steamer the Ville-de-Monterau, the third, a Stephenson locomotive…3

This ability of objects to communicate

  1. Robert Venturi, ‘A Disorderly Ode to an Architecture for Now’, at ‘In Your Face’, organised by Metropolis at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, 29 September 2001. An expanded version of the talk and images is available at http://www.metropolismag.com/html/vsba/robert_venturi.html (last accessed on
    14 July 2011). 

  2. Rem Koolhaas, in his response to Venturi’s presentation, asked if architecture, having now allowed these ‘things’ to be valid constituents of architecture’s scope (i.e. via Postmodernism), could now put them ‘back’ (i.e. into the popular culture from which they came). At which point an audience member accused him of anti-Americanism. 
  3. Georges Perec, Les Choses: Une Histoire des Années Soixantes, Paris: Julliard, 1997, p.9. Translation the author’s. 

  4. See Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama’ (1972),
    in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home Is Where the Heart Is, London: British Film Institute, 1987,
    and Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode
    of Excess, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. The term ‘melodrama’ and its reception (of the term as much as the genre) is highly fraught within film studies, with both feminist critiques of Elsaesser’s essay (notably by Laura Mulvey and Barbara Creed) and a critique of the characterisation of the category and its uniqueness (notably by Steven Neale). Many of the essays contributing to this debate are reproduced in Gledhill’s Home Is Where the Heart Is, op. cit. See also John Mercer and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility, London: Wallflower Press, 2004, p.20ff. 

  5. See Charles Bernstein, ‘My/My/My’, in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (ed.), Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011, pp.93—104. 

  6. Wardill’s latest film, Fulll Firearms, concerns a woman who has amassed a large fortune from the arms trade. To assuage her guilt for the victims she thereby helped kill, she builds an enormous house for their orphans. However, even before it is completed, the house is taken over by squatters, whom she believes to be the ghosts of the people she has killed, come back to haunt her. She ultimately abandons the construction of the house, leaving it as a partial ruin, while her architect has a nervous breakdown. 

  7. P. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, op. cit., p.201.

  8. P. Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993, p.226. Quoted from Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Writings of Sigmund Freud, vol.2, London: Hogarth Press, 1953—74, p.152.

  9. P. Brooks, Body Work, op. cit., pp.21—25.

  10. Henry James, preface to The American, second edition. Available at http://www.henryjames.org.uk/ prefaces/text14.htm (last accessed on 15 August 2011). Brooks identifies James in The Melodramatic Imagination as one of his melodramatists, a revisionist reading of the arch-realist writer.