Home for the holidays: interior and spectacle at the Met

At the Met last week I saw into a weird room. It was an installation by Katrin Sigurdardottir (through March 6), an Icelandic artist who works in NYC:

“Entitled Boiseries, the installations are full-scale interpretations of eighteenth-century French rooms preserved at the Metropolitan Museum, one from the Hôtel de Crillon (1777–1780) on the Place de la Concorde, Paris, and the other from the Hôtel de Cabris (ca. 1774) at Grasse in Provence.”

The Crillon hotel was in a building initially commissioned by Louis XV in 1758, occupied by a Duke, host to the signing of the first treaties between France and the new USA in 1778, then turned into a hotel a decade later. It now claims to be one of the oldest luxury hotels in the world, reportedly sold this week by CT-based Starwood Capital Group to the Saudi royal family. In short, consistently a darling haunt of an eclectic assortment of ruling classes. Here’s its reconstruction at the Met:

photo: Glenn Guller on flickr

For Sigurdardottir’s first piece, you look through one-way mirrors into an unsettling rendering of the Crillon room in too-bright white. Inside, an endless recursion of mirror images unfolds from which you, the viewer, are excluded:

from Met website

So you’re looking into this interior through one-way mirrors:

also from the Met website

I took to heart the description on the wall that this piece was meant to “provoke self-conscious reflection of the museum experience.” It was remarkable how it invites almost a self-conscious spectator-voyeurism: you in the darkened theatre, as it were, peering in to the lit-up room. Which does not exactly look lived in. And the one-way mirror trick takes you out of the picture but, because you expect to see yourself reflected in the inner mirrors, you’re taken out of view jarringly and made conscious of this! There you are, and the outside of the room, exposed to you, is bare, unfinished particle board.

Set as a spectator-object (adequate to the society of the spectacle) this not-so-interior interior unsettles the public/private distinction, which in fact seems to be unsettled in our culture at large. In our interiors, on the one hand, the ruling class beams itself in through tv and internet, through which the home life of the ruling class is displayed for everyone on Cribz and the cooking shows. (And what do you see in these homes? Blue-tooth and flatscreens everywhere! Watching, on TV, how many TV’s this guy has in his car!) We should call our contemporary ‘bourgeois’ interiors something like entertainment rooms, or, as satellites of the society of the spectacle, spectacular rooms – and I say ‘our’ because the bourgeois interior has become pseudo-democratized by consumerism, pseudo-possessed by large numbers, often debt-financed and of course subject to seizure by your bank.

Note: I’ve been reading Guy Debord here to address the suburban interior, from the thesis in Society of the Spectacle where he critiques urbanism for creating isolating pseudo-communities, right down to “the family cell, where the generalized use of receivers of the spectacle’s message ensures that his [the individual’s] isolation is filled with the dominant images – images that indeed attain their full force only by virtue of this isolation.” Debord has us thinking about the isolation of a “private” sphere itself – for us, here, the living room – as a technology of control.

But regardless of televisions, I wonder if Met-goers from the ruling class think of ourselves as the unsung inheritors of this room, or of the ways in which we secretly aspire to inherit its bourgie-ness every time we upgrade to the ‘higher-ranked’ consumer item.

Most shockingly, though, this exhibit is a bourgeois dream that appears fluorescently ghostlike, pure white, almost too new, uncanny. Here the ‘advanced technological and fabrication techniques’ Sigurdardottir uses subvert their very outmoded subject matter by making it uncannily new – no neoclassical beauty or happy ancient/modern synthesis here.

The NYTimes review for the piece remarks that the French period rooms Sigurdardottir is engaging are usually overlooked by visitors to the Met. What Sigurdardottir does, then, is a deft dredging up of this forgotten exhibit from the shadows to get us squirming about ‘old French stuff’ – experiencing it in very different ways than if we stayed in, or, better, gawked at, the Crillon Hotel itself in Paris. Of course most viewers won’t explicitly squirm about class relations and this “bourgeois” stuff the way I have (and I have no grounds for thinking this would be Sigurdardottir’s intent), but I think Sigurdardottir does have us squirming about whether museum-going and aesthetics are simply a matter of enjoyment and entertainment, or a bit more laden than that? And squirming about ourselves as inhabiters, coveters, and spectators of rooms.

Rooms–which we students on winter break need to get out of!

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