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Mark Kingwell essay

Catalogue essay

Drawing Mies in Barcelona: Shelagh Keeley’s Photographs

by Mark Kingwell

In the fall of 2014, the Guardian‘s self-appointed ‘contrarian’ art critic Jonathan Jones delivered a broadside that achieved its intended effect, at least partly: it got people talking about Jonathan Jones. (I, for one, had never before heard his name, but I suppose that’s my fault for not following daily arts criticism from England.) Jones’s argument was bold. Art photography, he said, “does not sing on a gallery wall.” Proliferating electronic images are wonderful, luminous and often moving. But, in his view, “it just looks stupid when a photograph is framed or backlit and displayed vertically in an exhibition. … A Photograph is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.”1

You might call this the art critic’s version of the advice delivered by Dean Wormer to the Delta frat boy Flounder in Animal House (1978): “Flat, soulless and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Jones concluded: “Today’s glib culture endlessly flatters photography’s arty pretensions.”

Predictably, and necessarily, the article spawned a barrage of counter-opinion, and even some counter-argument. Among the best of these was from another Guardian writer, Sean O’Hagan. After noting that the photography exhibitions Jones chose to mention were “eccentric,” and making the obvious objection that a show of paintings—or any other medium—can be just as uninspired as any show of photographs, O’Hagan set down the main point: “Several things are wrong about Jonathan’s reasoning, not least that he still thinks painting is in some sort of competition with photography. How quaint. He also seems to think that all photography is derivative of painting. This is plainly not so.”2

Further, and finally, Jones suggested that all photographs look better on backlit screens than on paper, when this is clearly false, and made no distinction between types of photography. And it’s not a matter of technology: great artists can make great art using anything from Polaroids (Evans, Warhol) to digital phone-based cameras. “It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.” He finished with a plea for Jones to join him at a truly good photography show, with works by Awoiska van der Molen, where he might appreciate the “stillness and mystery” of the works, “so strong that everything on the walls around them seemed muted.”

O’Hagan is on the side of the art angels. of course, not to mention of merely sane people everywhere; but the sad thing about the riposte was that it felt goaded, as if it had fallen into the original critic’s poised trap. “If anything is anachronistic, it’s the ‘photography is not art’ debate.” he wrote at one point, and that really is the only rational response to an ‘argument’ like Jones’s. Getting drawn into the very assumptions that one should be rejecting outright—why are we comparing two mediums in the first place?—is the risk anyone takes when they respond to such things. I like to think myself among the sane and rational, and so maybe I should have ignored this little tussle myself, but it happened that I read the exchange while thinking about these superlative photographic works by Shelagh Keeley.

It is a valid commonplace of art that there is no subject unworthy of the artist’s attention. Sometimes, as when the content is disturbing or violent, we may have to reiterate the argument before proceeding to appreciate the work. Less common but just as troubling in its own way is the inverse case, where the subject matter is already a supreme work of art itself. Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, built as the German contribution to the 1929 International Exposition in Spain, is a modernist masterpiece, one of the finest single buildings on the planet. Mies responded to commissioner Georg von Schnitzler’s call for the building to give “voice to the spirit of a new era” in post-Great War Weimar Germany by designing a building that is angular but flowing. Its open-plan concept, relative interior bareness—just the purpose-built furniture known as the “Barcelona chair” and the Georg Kolbe sculpture Alba (“Dawn”)—was intended by Mies to provide “an ideal zone of tranquillity” for visitors.

The water features, open miniature vistas, and floating roof create a series of elegantly massed elements, such that the Pavilion feels at once solid and about to levitate from the earth. Mies was extravagant with materials, using pure antique marble, travertine, golden onyx, and tinted as well as translucent glass to divide and order the building’s spaces. Because the Pavilion itself was the entirety of the German presence at the Exposition, and served in part as a transition to other parts of the grounds, the Pavilion is in effect a large-scale Modernist sculpture, executed in architectural forms. Designed by Mies in less than a year, it was always intended to be temporary: in 1930 it was demolished as planned.

Happily, in 1983 a group of Spanish architects, using archival photographs, plans, and contemporary accounts, reconstructed the building. The reconstruction was completed in 1986, and the Pavilion has since served as the site for art installations and interventions by, among others, architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who added interior walls made of spiral acrylic, photographer Jordi Bernadó, who altered the various glass doors, effectively re-sculpting the interior space. Perhaps the most notable intervention was by Ai Weiwei, who refilled the building’s two water pools with coffee and milk.

Shelagh Keeley visited the Pavilion in August of 1986, while living in Barcelona. The newly reconstructed building had not yet been opened to the public, and Keeley was able, with the help of fellow artist Antoni Muntadas, to view it “empty and austere,” as she has put it. The plastic bag visible floating in one of the water features is the sole foreign object, a poignant little grace note. She has said that her inspiration was “the genius of Mies and the notion of the pavilion.” The immediate connotation of pavilion is of a tent, or temporary structure, but its deeper etymology stretches back through Middle English and Old French (pavillon) to the Latin word for butterfly (papilio)—a metaphorical joining suitable to tents, but also to Mies’s floating forms. Keeley’s interest in architecture was already obvious. In 1985 she spent two months in Kyoto, Japan, studying the Zen gardens and temples, and making a two-hour Super 8 “essay film.” In 1986 she did the same in Las Vegas, observing the decadence and decay of the American Dream’s edgy playground. The engagement with the Barcelona Pavilion, a reconstruction of an architectural monument that was intentionally temporary, makes a sort of middle term in this exploration of the different kind of temples humans use to worship their deities.

The resulting work, like the more obvious artistic interventions, is a kind of collaboration—but without adding anything to the physical space. The images show the building as it would have appeared in 1929. The challenge here is to reveal, in the subtle textures of slides produced with an ordinary Olympus camera, something about what makes the building so spare and moving, so toughly perfect. And to do this she had to use, contra the Jonathan Joneses of the world, the now-ubiquitous medium of photography. But there is, as always, the matter of who is wielding the camera. The works we see in this series are the result of scanning the original slides, which were developed in 1986 but never before shown, and then blowing them up to scale. “I love the grainy quality of slide film,” Keeley told me. “No digital re-touching was done, or altering of the images with Photoshop. They are what they were.”

Keeley has said that she views photography as really a kind of drawing: not the imitation of painting that so irks Jones, but rather a recognition that the medium of photography is just as much a matter of texture as it is of composition. This feature of her work can only be appreciated in the gallery-hung versions of these images, something that offers further evidence of the nullity of the anti-photography position. I can attest to this directly, since I first saw Keeley’s Barcelona Pavilion images as backlit jpeg files which she had sent me, of course, via email. They were stunning, to be sure, revealing already to my eye the masterly sense of immediate familiarity in her relationship to the building. Their composition, capturing shadows and light at the same time as stone and water, was assured and revelatory. One immediately sensed, here, a version of Heidegger’s notion of truth as disclosure, a combined revealing and concealing, the “clearing” of an open space that he calls, after the Greeks, aletheia.

This was just the beginning of the manifold gifts of Keeley’s work, however. When one views them at the full intended scale, rendered on high-quality rag paper whose toothy surface is saturated with deeply injected pigment, the photographs take on a larger, more profound life. Another Heidegger resonance then, at least for me: his enthralled discussion of Van Gogh’s celebrated 1885 oil painting, A Pair of Shoes. Here, Heidegger notes, in the heavily used and mud-caked work shoes of a peasant woman, we see revealed a world of her concern. She herself is absent—but fully, even painfully, present in her absence. The shoes are sweat-soaked, the leather gnarled like (we must imagine) the feet that struggle into their hardened shape each morning. They are also well-kept, however, because they must last. Heidegger saw the painting in Amsterdam in 1930, and this is part of his famous description, from his essay The Origin of the Work of Art (1935): “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.”3

Later scholars, especially art historian Meyer Schapiro in The Still Life as a Personal Object (1968), demonstrated that the shoes had actually been purchased by Van Gogh himself at a Paris flea market, ostensibly for his own use, only to find that they did not fit. Facing the viewer as they do, Schapiro suggests, the shoes in fact execute yet another Van Gogh self-portrait.4 But whatever their exact provenance, the shoes embody the materiality of Van Gogh’s oils, themselves drawn from earthly materials, and make the essential connection between earth and the world of meaning that gives them place and identity. This is, we might say, the inversion of the glossy oils of official portraiture and still life which, as John Berger provocatively remarked once upon a time, exactly matches the glittering money of the haute-bourgeois and landed-gentry classes who were able to purchase them.

The same connection, maybe unexpectedly, is achieved via Keeley’s use of everyday technical materials—high-quality rag paper, yes, but paper all the same; fine art inkjet printing, yes, but a process not all that different, technically, from the one available in most home offices. And yet, this can only be appreciated by standing in front of the printed works themselves. In their almost abstract arrangements of colour, light, and form we feel, as well as see, the sense of place that is so important to her work generally. The graininess of enlarged film is executed just as the rough surface of a drawing would be, with carbon or pastel on toothy paper. The images capture the fleeting moments of liminal relations with space and place: the sense, achieved by a particular architectural ‘container’ that one is somewhere in particular, grounded in one’s physical embodiment and aware of being so. The images are phenomenological bracket-devices, isolating and concentrating our sense of the burden and blessing of consciousness.

This almost overwhelming sense of place—the properly scaled images are eye-filling, making the viewer feel a vertiginous inner squeak that she might tip into the framed scene—is one of the aesthetic connections drawing her to this subject in the first place. Mies, justly renowned for the monumental skyscraper design evident in the Seagram Building in Manhattan and TD Centre in Toronto, is actually an architect of the intimate. (Hence his interest in furniture, one he shares with other masters of the interior detail such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Le Corbusier, the Eameses, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Khan, Ron Thom, and Frank Gehry.) But there is another essential affinity here, between Keeley’s larger aesthetic practice and the Mies masterwork. I mean the very idea of a wall.

Walls are thresholds. They divide and join at once, creating insides and outsides, simultaneously part of both and neither. They create spaces and volumes that mark off the sites of life. Sometimes they bear loads, but they need not, and though the structural difference is all too real, the perceptual one is not. Above all, at least in domestic settings or other places where we spend a lot of our time, they are blank canvases asking to be decorated, covered, or papered. Mies lets his rich palette of veneers and glasses do the decorating in the Pavilion: the soothing minimalist aesthetic he favoured. Keeley cares about and draws on walls in another way altogether: she is a collage artist of playfully maximalist persuasion.

Since 1979 she has been making site-specific wall installations, executed in galleries in many parts of the world, that combine drawings and photography with a strong but elusive sense of interconnection. The viewer moves in and through the space created by the wall within the gallery, encountering the individual parts of the work, then stepping back and being struck by the whole. The works are also, of course, engaged in an aesthetic and physical exchange—not always comfortable—with the particular gallery spaces in which they are created. “You can’t fight with architecture,” she said of this process in a recent interview. “It’s a dialogue with the space of the walls — the architecture of the space that I work in — and I respond to that. … It’s not a framed drawing hanging on a wall. It’s not a painting. It’s directly on a wall, so it’s a whole different discourse and a relationship for the viewer with their body in relation to the architecture.”5

One thinks again, and not fondly, of Jonathan Jones and his aversion to the framed and flat image. His target was not drawing but photography; nevertheless, here the whole wall, the gallery itself plus the drawings and images affixed thereon, is the work. Keeley sees the installation itself as an extension of working with pigment and paper. “Drawing is a very physical act,” she said in the same interview. “It’s not just your hand and your wrist. It’s your whole body—particularly with this method of working. It’s the body, the head; your body is physically making the drawing. You can’t do a huge wall drawing without involving the arc of your whole body. … I reclaim space through the gesture of drawing.”

The Barcelona Pavilion images might seem to lie some distance from the physicality of the drawing gesture but we can still feel the hand of the artist here, the sense of their composition. There is also, in the two bodies of work, a linked reflection on the environmental psychologist James Gibson’s idea of affordances: those elements of a physical space that answer to our embodiment and its many projects, large and small. A plane surface elevated above the floor is an affordance—a table. It allows us to place objects close to hand while we are upright, to sit and eat, to sit and write, and so on. The floor itself is an affordance, a most basic one, answering the needs of the organism, in this case a human one, to stand upon a surface that is (to use Gibson’s language) nearly horizontal, nearly flat, sufficiently extended relative to human size, and of rigid surface. This floor affords support. “It is stand-on-able, permitting an upright posture for quadrupeds and bipeds,” Gibson writes. “It is therefore walk-on-able and run-over-able. It is not sink-into-able like a surface of water or a swamp.”6 Walls afford division and conjunction, entertainment to the eye, and the deployment of equipment at rest, hung or shelved upon their vertical surfaces.

If the Barcelona Pavilion is a kind of essay in the negative capability of affordances, offering a sort of phenomenological bracketing of everyday spaces, the gallery-wall drawings are its necessary inverse, the wall itself brought into sharp focus. And though the Barcelona images are more conventionally hung upon the gallery wall, they are no less powerful for being framed. On the contrary, and maybe paradoxically, they are set free to work their haptic magic upon the viewer. They take back space on the wall by glowing with an undiluted luminosity, the “stillness and mystery” that Sean O’Hagan found in Awoiska van der Molen’s work, making the world around them seem mute. “I think that’s what art does, right?” O’Hagan asked rhetorically in the final line of his article.

Rhetorical questions require no answer but let us offer one anyway, just for emphasis: Yes, that is right. And Keeley’s Barcelona Pavilion photographs offer more beautiful proof.

1. Jonathan Jones, “Flat, soulless and stupid: why photographs don’t work in art galleries,” The Guardian (13 November);

2. Sean O’Hagan, “Photography is art and always will be,” The Guardian (11 December 2014);

3. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” [Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, 1935-7; 1950; 1960], in Albert Hofstadter, ed. and trans., Poetry, Language, Thought (NY: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 15-86.

4. For a discussion of this difference between Heidegger and Schapiro, plus a related intervention by Jacques Derrida, see Scott Horton, “Philosophers Rumble Over Van Gogh’s Shoes,” Harper‘s Blog (5 October 2009);

5. Becky Rynor, “An Interview with Shelagh Keeley,” National Gallery of Canada Magazine (5 September 2014);

6. James J. Gibson, “The Theory of Affordances,” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (orig. 1979; rev. Lawrence Erlbaum & Assoc., 1986), ch. 8.

Mark Kingwell, December 2014
©Mark Kingwell. All Rights Reserved.

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Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of many books and articles on culture, politics, architecture, and art. His most recent publication is the essay collection Unruly Voices (2012); a new collection of his essays will appear in the fall of 2015.


Shelagh Keeley: Barcelona Pavilion

Shelagh Keeley, Barcelona Pavilion I, 1986/2012
Shelagh Keeley, Barcelona Pavilion I, 1986/2012


Canadian artist Shelagh Keeley to premiere Barcelona Pavilion photographs in new solo exhibition at Circuit Gallery

Toronto, ON, December 29, 2014Circuit Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of photographs by senior Canadian artist Shelagh Keeley. These images were taken in 1986 in the newly reconstructed Mies van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona, Spain, just before it was reopened to the public.

Keeley is well known for her highly visceral and embodied drawing practice. She has always used photography, incorporating it into her site-specific installation work and drawings through collage, however Keeley’s own photographs are rarely the focus of attention in an exhibition.

Barcelona Pavilion, presented here for the first time, reveals an approach to photography that is consistent with this artist’s broader practice. Here is a subjective and embodied kind of ‘drawing with light’ and poetic engagement with space that is refreshingly irreverent, inconsistent with both our expectation of photography and for pictures of such an iconic work of modernist architecture.

Albeit attracted to the iconic aspects of the celebrated building—the materials (marble, glass, and metal), the key spaces, and light—they seem like asides, as her focus is more ambient and on the mundane. She uses photography in a subjective way, where her “less is more” minimal and abstracting compositions are less about describing these sober and rational spaces, than they are about a poetics of space, and about being in them.

Shelagh Keeley: Barcelona Pavilion is the fourth exhibition for Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA, a new presentation partnership where the commercial gallery is sharing exhibition space with Prefix ICA in the destination landmark arts building at 401 Richmond Street West in Toronto.

The exhibition is curated by Claire Sykes, with catalogue essays by Joel Robinson and Mark Kingwell.

Shelagh Keeley (born Oakville, Ontario) lives now in Toronto after spending 23 years in New York City and Paris. She received her Honours BFA in Art History / Anthropology from York University, Toronto.

Keeley has an extensive international exhibition history over the last 30 years and has travelled across the globe. Keeley’s recent production includes a commission by the Power Plant, Toronto, to create two new installations for the venue’s large clerestory walls (2014/2015), and by MoMA, Library and Archives, NYC, for a new research project / performance with choreographer Lin Snelling (2014/2015).

In 2013 she created a major on-site commissioned wall drawing installation at Stadtisches Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, Germany, for the exhibition In Order to Join (2013). This exhibition will travel to the Goethe-Institut / Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (former Prince of Wales Museum), Mumbai, India (2015), and will include the Barcelona Pavilion photographs.

Keeley’s larger record includes exhibitions at: Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, India (2013); Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto (2013); Nuit Blanche, Paris (2012); McMaster Museum of Art / Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa (2010); Vancouver Art Gallery (2010); Caoyang Village Public Art Project, Shanghai (2009); National Gallery of Canada (2008, travelling exhibition), RAM Foundation, Rotterdam (2008); Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto (2007); Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi (2004); Printed Matter, NYC (1998), Indianapolis Museum of Art (1995); John Gibson Gallery, NYC (1994); Exit Art, NYC (1993); MOMA P.S.1 Museum, NY (1992); and DIA Art Foundation, NYC (1989).

Her work is in the collection of major international public institutions including: the Museum of Modern Art, NYC; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain Paris; the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver; the Musées de la Ville de Paris, Paris; the Getty Museum, Santa Monica; the Harvard Art Museum, Boston; the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh; the Yale University Art Gallery, CT; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA.

Shelagh Keeley: Barcelona Pavilion runs January 8 through the 31st at Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA, with an opening reception on Thursday, January 8, from 6 – 9 PM. The artist is in attendance.

Shelagh Keeley

Barcelona Pavilion

January 8 – 31, 2015

Reception: Thursday, January 8, 6-9 p.m.

Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA
401 Richmond Street West, Suite 124
Toronto, ON, M6R 2G5
[ Google Map ]

Gallery Hours:
Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Shelagh Keeley Barcelona Pavilion
Shelagh Keeley, Barcelona Pavilion III, 1986/2012
Shelagh Keeley Barcelona Pavilion
Shelagh Keeley, Barcelona Pavilion II, 1986/2012
Shelagh Keeley Barcelona Pavilion
Shelagh Keeley, Barcelona Pavilion VIII, 1986/2012

Visit Circuit Gallery for more information and to see more images:

Circuit Gallery specializes in contemporary photography. Established in 2008 by Susana Reisman and Claire Sykes, the Toronto based commercial gallery represents both emerging and established Canadian and international artists.


Phone: 647-477-2487


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.