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Joel Robinson essay

Catalogue essay

Shelagh Keeley, the Barcelona Pavilion and the Flesh of Photography

by Joel Robinson

Photography has always been a part of Shelagh Keeley’s work, though it may not be the medium for which she is best known. On hearing her name, large drawings on walls (like temporary installations that are destroyed after being seen) will more readily come to mind. These may occasionally incorporate collaged photographic material, but the drawing generally remains paramount. Her larger wall-drawings often have some resonance with the place where they were made, and are reminders of our fundamentally embodied relationship with space. Here, drawing on walls is also about drawing out the realities of emplacement and embodiment. It acknowledges something primordial (and perhaps ephemeral) about the act of mark-making. Drawing in the “expanded field” is obviously about much more than mere draughtsmanship, not least because it foregrounds the support and locational apparatus, which could be a wall in a gallery, a school, or some other institutional environment. Keeley’s works are often foils for the cold walls of those institutions, almost like assaults on their supposed neutrality and indifference where beings and imagination are concerned.

There are some walls, however, which already have such a presence or energy that Keeley would appear to stay her hand, and would rather watch and observe. It is here that photography comes into play, and that she resorts to the camera over the media she is more closely associated with. This is what she seems to be doing, in part at least, in the project called Workers’ Pavilion (2009), where her intervention is much more minimal than anything previous. The first stage of this involved working with the local community around Cao Yang Park in Shanghai, and applying gold paint to the crumbling areas and cracks in the “body” of a decaying concrete tea pavilion dating from the Maoist period. As opposed to whitewashing the building, in order to cover up its flaws and signs of neglect, this work had the effect of ornamenting its “scars”, amplifying its emotional and historical qualities, as in the Japanese ceramic tradition of Kintsukuroi (repairing with gold). The second phase of Keeley’s project in Shanghai, which resulted in China Series, saw her taking photographs of the pavilion and the locals who use it. This underscored the importance of photography and architecture in her thinking about art, and may have since served as the impetus for going back over her photographic archive.

What Keeley found in her archive was a series of colour photographs, which she had made as long ago as 1986, at the site of another pavilion that had similarly registered hope for a greater egalitarianism. In contrast to the vernacular Worker’s Pavilion in Cao Yang Park, though, this was a “masterpiece” of architectural modernism. The German Pavilion had been built for the Exposició Internacional de Barcelona in 1929, by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, together with Lilly Reich. They designed it as a lightweight, low-lying one-storey structure raised on a podium, with a cantilevered roof hovering over an asymmetric open plan of planar walls allowing interior and exterior courts and pools to interpenetrate. Only the best materials were used, including reflective grey and green glazing, green marble and yellow onyx in the walls and partitions, travertine in the paving, and chrome-plated steel in the columns. A single sculptural addition, Georg Kolbe’s allegorical female called Dawn, rested on a plinth inside the smaller water basin. Its figure complemented and contrasted with the avant-garde exercise in geometry and bold reduction of form, even while it pointed to the classical foundations of a practice that was otherwise revolutionary.

Despite being one of the most incongruous structures in the grounds of Montjuïc, the German Pavilion’s location could not have been more central. It was sited between the spectacular Font Màgica and the Palau Victòria Eugènia, at the base of the grand esplanade of the Neo-Baroque Palau Nacional (all of which were newly built for the exposition). Commissioned by the Weimar Republic, a decade after world leaders decided that they had caused enough carnage for the time being, the German Pavilion was intended to mark a commitment to modern industry in the service of housing, democracy and peace. (Mies van der Rohe had only two years earlier overseen the building of the twentieth century’s most progressive model housing settlement in Stuttgart.) The German Pavilion shared nothing of the flag-waving bombast so characteristic of national pavilions at the world’s fairs, and had little if anything to do yet with the cultural imperialist rhetoric of the ‘international style’. What is more, the German Pavilion exhibited only itself, being empty of the wares and propaganda typically displayed in such pavilions. Here stood an argument for aesthetic autonomy, something approaching a “pure” architecture.

This autonomy was certainly reinforced in the famous set of photographs taken of the German Pavilion, the so-called Berliner Bild-Bericht series. (Keeley and other artists who have subsequently photographed the reconstructed version of this pavilion are very likely to have known about this series, and been guided by it, albeit in different ways). These sixteen black-and-white silver-gelatin prints were not just any architectural photographs. Produced by Wilhelm Niemann and Sasha Stone for the Berliner Bild-Bericht agency, they had been choreographed by Mies van der Rohe himself, so as to direct vision in very specific ways, show the building as he wanted it to be seen, and crop or airbrush out any signs of its mundane temporal context. Equally important, these images were published and disseminated extensively in architectural journals, books and advertisements. Thus, when the original Pavilion was dismantled in January 1930, as is the fate of most world’s-fair architecture, it hardly mattered that the building no longer had a physical presence. The reality of such architecture (not to mention its ability to sell itself) now positively consisted more in the photographic negative.1

Keeley’s series of colour photographs was made just prior to the opening of the new Pavilion, now commonly referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion. What was it that caught her attention, and led her to opt for photography over any other form of engagement here? For half a century, the Barcelona pavilion had only been known through the Berliner Bild-Bericht images. The pavilion (papilionem, or butterfly, as the Latin root reveals) is by nature an ephemeral structure, a kind of “machine” that serves a function and is then obsolete, and all the more so when it is part of the fleeting spectacle of a universal exposition.2 Yet this one had achieved a kind of permanence through the work of mechanical reproduction. It had obtained its “aura” and legendary status precisely through the photographic image. Even so, over time these images ironically came to point to an absence. Decades later it was increasingly deemed unacceptable that such a pivotal and iconic building – and one whose global reach had done so much to shape modern architecture around the world – did not actually exist. Hence, using those images and other documentation, the City of Barcelona took its opportunity, and commissioned its reconstruction on the very spot it had once occupied.3

To be sure, it would not have been the first time that architectural photography served as a catalyst in the reconstruction of a building. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the heritage industry. What is remarkable here is that, at a certain point in time, a series of photographs so well known for helping to legitimize the modern movement were now deemed insufficient, and required that a simulacrum be built to make them real. It is as if, in a curious reversal, the building’s reconstruction was now “documenting” those photographs. The new structure now existed to take up a pose for the camera once again, in a kind of repetition that makes the replica more real. Doing an Internet “search” for the Barcelona Pavilion, for instance, will generate innumerable colour photographs of the replica, and several black-and-white ones aiming for the more “authentic” look. What is so fascinating here is that such images parallel the lack of authenticity or substance in the reconstructed Pavilion itself. They are testimony instead to its quality as an empty shell, or what the critic Sylvia Lavin calls a “vestigial adaptation” of the original, “no longer proleptic, having lost any connection to an advanced cultural or historical project”.4

All that has been said above helps to explain, if only in a very general way, why so many artists working in photography (including Keeley) have been so taken by the reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion.5 Of course, each will have their own motivations, and achieve different ends with the camera. Hiroshi Sugimoto (German Pavilion, 1998) and Thomas Ruff (Barcelona Pavilion d.b.p 02, 2004) produced signature blurred photographs, which say more about their own proclivities. Gunther Förg (Barcelona Pavilion, 1988) and Kay Fingerle (German Pavilion, 2000) upset expectations with their use of the portrait format, and homed in on incidentals, corners or transitions; but whereas Förg blew up his images to achieve distortion, Fingerle worked on a smaller scale, using unfamiliar viewpoints, and putting colours into high contrast. Luisa Lambri’s smallish prints, such as Untitled (Barcelona Pavilion #04) (2000-01) looked more like straightforward high-art photography, while others have been more playful: Jeff Wall staged a scenario on the interior of the Pavilion in Morning Cleaning of 1999, while Luís Santiago Baptista (Modern Masterpieces #4) and Hannah Collins (Mies Barcelona V, 2002-03) introduced collage. 6

What then of Keeley’s series of eight photographs of the Barcelona Pavilion? It has already been observed that she produced these in August of 1986, before the reconstruction opened to the public and before any of the above-mentioned artists found inspiration there.7 It has also been noted that her work approaches photography (and film) differently, not at all with a view to producing fine art, but as a consequence of coming up against walls, surfaces and environments that are already very suggestive. In regard to the photographs of the Pavilion, as well as film-essays like Japan Notebook (1985) and Las Vegas Notebook (1986) produced around the same time, Keeley has written: “I draw with the camera / an extension of the body”.8 For a structure so mediated as the Barcelona Pavilion, the mediation of a prosthetic device like the camera seems fitting. Her photographs were taken with a hand-held Olympus camera, and are free of any professional accoutrements or post-production. Instead, she welcomes spontaneity and accident, including the “grain of the film”, which for her brings to mind the “grain of drawing”. Blown up for the purposes of this exhibition (their first public exhibition ever), each photograph measures 131 x 102 centimetres. Crucially, though, these are not offering spectacle, and are not idealized in any way.

While it may not have been intentional, Keeley’s eight colour photographs offer something of a riposte to the slick fastidiousness of the sixteen black-and-white Berliner Bild-Bericht images, not least because they are personal, intuitive, diaristic, everyday, haptic and sketchy.7 In her first image, we see the belvedere of the baroque Palau Victòria Eugènia rising up above the flat roof and podium staircase of the Pavilion, revealing just how disjunctive each must have looked in 1929, at a time much less familiar with stylistic pluralism. The second image of an interior corner is more schematic or abstract, as if guided by the counter-compositional diagonals of Theo van Doesburg’s Neo-Plasticism. The fifth and seventh images are shot in the same area, but up close to the glazed partitioning and travertine flooring; they look accidental, snubbing decorum and drawing attention to photography’s inherent imperfection and distortion. The third and fourth show the travertine court with the large pool from different angles, while the sixth and eighth images take us to the basin at the other end, where the masterly handling of expensive materials is revealed, and we can really begin to see how inside and outside areas become coextensive by virtue of the architects’ use of the “glass curtain”. In these, she has purposefully directed the camera away from the furnishings and Kolbe’s Dawn, as if she finds these to be distractions.

Architectural photography is never just a document, of course, but is full of distortions and always dictated by pictorial conventions that have been handed down over time, mostly through the genre of architectural drawing.10 Such drawing conventions are surely visible in the Berliner Bild-Bericht images. But whereas these images reveal the camera to be unequivocally impersonal, disembodied and machine-like, Keeley’s photographic “drawings” bring us up against our biology, and the porous relationship between space and the body. Having the character of snapshots, as admittedly they are, many of them foreground that imperfection and graininess that the artist is after, but also allow us to see the shaky perspectives taken up by the body as it equilibrates in relation to space. This might not sound all that exceptional; yet, this is not just any space, but a built “manifesto” for the reformulation of our idea of space in the age of relativity. If modern architecture from Eugène Viollet-le-Duc through Le Corbusier revived the age-old idea of the building as a kind of “body”, it still sometimes neglected the bodies that actually use and inhabit that architectural body. What Keeley does, in seeking to incorporate the body into architectural space and time, is to recover the “flesh” of photography.11

1. As architectural historian Beatriz Colomina put it: “The image is the project”. See Colomina, “The Smell of Mies”, in Muntadas – On Translation: PAPER / BP MVDR, Barcelona: Fundacio Mies van der Rohe, 2009, p. 27. Colomina has argued elsewhere for the centrality of the photograph in promoting architectural modernism, and that architecture of the modern period was produced as media as much as architecture with a specific function. See Colomina, “Collaborations: The Private Lives of Modern Architecture”, in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58.3 (September 1999), pp. 462-71.

2. For Colomina, in “Beyond Pavilions: Architecture as a Machine to See”, in The Pavilion: Pleasure and Polemics in Architecture, Frankfurt: Deutsches Architekturmuseum, 2010, pp. 64-78, the pavilion is a very particular kind of machine. She explains that, with the hindsight provided by Dan Graham’s reflective glass pavilions, we can now see that Mies van der Rohe’s largely glass pavilion was effectively a “vision machine” (p. 69). It was “an exhibit about exhibition. All it exhibited was a new way of looking” (p. 69).

3. The architects commissioned to rebuild the Barcelona Pavilion were Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Cristian Cirici and Fernando Ramos. What opened in 1986 was not a strict replica, as several modifications needed to be made to allow this structure to be installed on a more permanent basis.

4. Sylvia Lavin, “Vanishing Point: The Contemporary Pavilion”, in Artforum International 51.2 (October 2012), p. 213. Lavin is comparing the serious experimentation and teleological direction of the original Barcelona Pavilion to today’s pavilions, which she sees as an “enfeebled” architecture and “party decor”. One wonders though if her critique ought not to be extended to the reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion itself. Architect Rem Koolhaas was probably not the only one who suspected that the reconstruction had killed the “aura” of the original as remembered in the Berliner Bild-Bericht photographs. Curator Andrea Phillips, in “Pavilion Politics”, in the journal Log (Curating Architecture) 20 (Fall 2010), pp. 104-115, has also outspokenly condemned the contemporary fashion for pavilions, arguing that they mostly present the illusion of public space and a “scenography of democratic participation enabled through cultural institutionalization” (p. 114). She concludes her essay: “It is clear with these pavilions that the viewer remains the viewer and the author remains the author, and the curator arranges the architecture as a microcosmic example of business as usual” (p. 115).

5. Artists are not the only ones to have been excited by this reconstruction. Although there was ample literature on the Barcelona Pavilion prior to 1986, a case in point being Juan Pablo Bonta’s An Anatomy of Architectural Interpretation: A Semiotic Review of the Criticism of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1975), scholarship on this building burgeoned thereafter, two notable books being Josep Quetglas’ Fear of Glass: Mies Van Der Rohe’s Pavilion in Barcelona (Basel: Birkhäuser-Publishers for Architecture, 2001) and George Dodds’ Building Desire: On the Barcelona Pavilion (London: Routledge, 2005).

6. Although not exclusively focused on the Barcelona Pavilion, the exhibition Mies in Berlin at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (June – September 2001) went some way to demonstrating the extent to which this architect was conscious of the camera and used his buildings as media. On the work of Ruff and Fingerle in this exhibition, see Claire Zimmerman, “Mies in Photos”, in MoMA 4.5 June (2001), pp. 2-5.

7. A question that arises here is why Keeley has only decided to exhibit her photographs of the Barcelona Pavilion now, after twenty-eight years. What has changed in those years, or what has changed for her? There is an interesting correspondence here. Whereas the German Pavilion (as it was formerly known) was “lost” for half a century only to be recovered with the assistance of photography, Keeley’s photographs of this building seem to have laid dormant in her archive for a quarter of a century, only to be printed and exhibited at a time when critical debates about the relationship between architecture and photography have come to a head. Witness, for instance, the exhibition that is currently taking place at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age (September 2014 – January 2015), the first ever exhibition of its kind to take a more global approach to the subject, and critically question the boundary between architectural photography as a form of art and as a form of documentary.

8. Shelagh Keeley, “Notes on the Barcelona Photographs” (unpublished, 2014). All quotations are from this text unless otherwise specified.

9.One adjective that is perhaps left out here is “documentary” – documentary in the sense of documenting Keeley’s own practice, which emerged out of (but also against) the Conceptualism of the early 1970s. Obviously, one way we can approach her photographs is as documents, as images that raise the question of whether we are to see them as the end result or as intended works of art, or more as residues of a process or thinking that would lay greater claim to being called the work.

10. James S. Ackerman, “On the Origins of Architectural Photography”, in Origins, Imitation, Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 95-124.

11. The reference here is to the monumental investigation of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Joel Robinson, December 2014
©Joel Robinson. All Rights Reserved.


Joel Robinson is a lecturer for the New College of Humanities and The Open University in the East of England, and a Research Affiliate in the Department of Art History at The Open University. He has an interest in architectural culture of the modern and contemporary periods, and has just completed editing an issue of The Open Arts Journal called Pavilions.