Pictures From Nowhere
Text for Caroline McCarthy
for the exhibition Grand Detour, Parker’s Box, New York
Pictures from Nowhere
For the contemporary Western subject, elsewhere is a familiar place. Every part of the world has been made recognisable through images in books, on television and so on. However, our familiarity with other parts of the world will always be limited; it is those things which are in some way remarkable that have attention drawn to them: typical local scenes and spectacular sights, for example. Perhaps the quintessential form of this capturing of elsewhere is the tourist guide. The tourist guide not only shows the tourist what to look at but how to look at it: what are important or interesting features and why. The tourist’s experience is foreclosed by a prior process of selection. There is a series of archetypal sights for the tourist implicated in this process of selection: the sun-baked beach; the exotic local market; the dramatic mountains; the glittering temple; the bustle of an urban street; and so on. But the tourist does not simply go to visit the sights prescribed in the tourist guide; once there, the tourist takes a picture of the sight (or buys a postcard) and in so doing reproduces the picture in the guidebook. Thus, the tourist lives in an economy of pictures, which is founded upon the discrimination between what is worth picturing and what is not.
Grand Detour: Vedute and Other Curious Observations Off the Grand Route, takes its title and methods from the origins of tourism in the Grand Tour of 18th century Europe. Vedute, literally translated as ‘view,’ is an art historical term, coined in the 18th century, used to describe pictures which provide an expansive, topographical view of a place. These pictures would be collected by young aristocrats on the Grand Tour, serving as both records of places visited and status symbols on the walls of their homes. These drawings, paintings and prints were the forerunners of the modern postcard; for the first time, the landscape was depicted for its own sake rather than as the backdrop to human action. Thus the Grand Tour marked not only the beginning of tourism but of the conventions of depicting what the tourist has come to see. Grand Detour begins from the conventions of vedute and its descendants: scenes constructed for the tourist.
The figure of the tourist can be contrasted with the figure of the flâneur. Whereas the tourist is visibly alien and purposeful, the flâneur is at home in the crowd as he wanders at random. The flâneur, historically, was always a man because a woman alone in the nineteenth century metropolis would be prey to male attention and thus stripped of the anonymity necessary to be a flâneur. The flâneur is not without purpose but without destination: he is a voyeur of the spectacular excesses and consumption of the urban bourgeoisie, whose pleasure is increased by the randomness of his encounters. The economy of the flâneur is one of glances. If the exact content and location of the flâneur’s glance is not predetermined, then there is still a discrimination as to what is worthy of attention and what is not.
For Grand Detour, Caroline McCarthy has taken on part of the role of the tourist and part of the role of the flâneur. However, these two partial roles have been recast by what she is looking at. As a visitor to New York, she has been neither looking at the spectacular sights on offer for the tourist nor mixing with the crowds in Manhattan, which has surely replaced Paris as the place of spectacular display and consumption. Instead she has been wandering the streets in Brooklyn around Parker’s Box. And what she has been looking for, is the overlooked. Instead of those spectacular sights prescribed and legitimated by the activities of tourists and flâneurs, she has been looking at waste, weeds, debris, crumbling concrete and discarded packaging. These are things found on the street which do not have a permanent place there: things out of place or with no place. Rather than the display of commodities to be consumed, she sees the remnants left after consumption. These are sights that promise nothing but their own transience: moments of the uncomposed and unconsidered in the process of their disappearance.
These scenes of the overlooked have been depicted with the care and precision characteristic of vedute. Expansive views of exotic landscapes and cityscapes have been replaced by the scrutiny of tiny, local, topographical incidents. Overlooked things have been turned into sights by being turned into pictures. Each drawing, painting and print has been composed so as to present a picture of the small and neglected according to the conventions of the tourist’s picture of the large and important. Each picture is taken from a vantage point so low that the features of the very small mimic the features of the large. From this perspective, the contours of miniature landscapes imitate familiar features of conventional landscape compositions: piles of crumbling dirt imitate mountain ranges; cardboard boxes imitate castles or monumental modernist buildings; weeds imitate trees; and so on. To enhance this uncanny repetition of scale, the pictures are drained of tell-tale colour, which would make these objects too easily recognisable as themselves. The pictures are mostly pencil drawings and watercolours in sepia tones. Photography, with its democratic rendering of detail, would leave these discarded things as they were; it is only through the labour of drawing, through selection and emphasis, that they can undergo the transformation that makes them become visible.
In the gallery the pictures, collectively, become a sight. They are displayed salon style from floor to ceiling: some scenes are repeated; some are more prominent than others; some are more detailed. They become, collectively, a picture of what lies outside the gallery. They map the surrounding streets and are displayed as a kind of pictorial map, with each scene relating spatial, roughly, to the other scenes. Collectively, the pictures draw attention to the proximity of this other stuff all around. The logic behind the Grand Tour was that a particular kind of desirable culture was thought to exist elsewhere and it needed to be retrieved or captured in some way. The pictures in Grand Detour substitute something perceived as worthless for that which was perceived as valuable. In so doing, the conventions and habits in representing tourist scenes come to attention.
These pictures could, in one sense, be anywhere and indeed similar scenes are everywhere. However, these are sights which are unattainable. In a practical sense, these scenes have passed; the things shown in the gallery are no longer there or will have changed. In a more radical sense, they are unattainable because the supporting structure to make them sights does not exist. The tourist’s experience always depends upon such things as guidebooks, postcards, gift shops and cafes. These pictures exist devoid of the usual, surrounding paraphernalia which positions the tourist’s experience. In this sense the display in the gallery is a kind of memorial to an impossibility.
In News From Nowhere, William Morris presented an England transformed in the future. The narrator, so obviously out of place in utopia, wanders around, accompanied and helped by kindly locals. He can be neither tourist nor flâneur, for there are no spectacular sights and no conspicuous consumption. Instead, he is left to marvel at absences: there are no longer ugly buildings, ugly things or ugly cities. There is no waste. For Caroline McCarthy, who does not live in utopia, waste cannot be ended; however, waste can be transformed, and in doing so, there is both a kind of utopian longing and a kind of redemption.