The charm of the ruinous
For several years now, the Belgian artist Ives Maes has been travelling throughout the world visiting and photographing World's Fair sites dating from the 19th century until the present. And for the first time, he is having a large, solo exhibition around this project in the USA, in Kansas City. We talked to him a few days before the opening.
Ives Maes' work is primarily a ‘different' look at the utopias that humanity takes so much pleasure in developing. In this context he made a recyclable alternative for the problem of refugee camps. For the past five years he has focussed on what appears to be a completely different theme, that of the World's Fairs. But the differences have proven to be smaller than expected.
Why are you so interested in World's Fairs?
Ives Maes: "It all began in 2008 with an exhibition in Z33 in Hasselt. I wanted a new project for that space which is quite immense. When I took a look at the history of that building, I learned that its existence was in fact a result of the Expo 58 in Brussels. It is also called Vleugel 58 [Wing 58] ... The building never actually stood at Expo 58 itself, but at that time every Belgian province received a budget to build something in celebration of Expo 58. In Limburg, that was Bokrijk - which is truly very strange because that project was diametrically opposed to the progressive ideas which predominated at that time - and next to it the Mijnmuseum [Mine Museum], which later became the Provincial Museum for Modern Art and is now Z33. By searching through this history, I started to read more and more about Expo 58 and all of the other World's Fairs. Ultimately I understood that this could link up with what I had been doing years ago. Years before, during my schooling at the Academy in Ghent, I had made drawings about dysfunctional cities, about fascination with miniature forms, for different forms of a microcosm, for innovative structures in which past and present encountered one another ... It developed like that."
Your previous project was the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp', a rather ironic proposal for biodegradable, and therefore, responsible housing for political and other refugees. Is there a link between that and this ‘World's Fairs' series?
Maes: "Actually, I always had the idea that I had started a completely new project - that the past project is complete and that the new one will become something totally different. Until I gave a lecture last year in the Academy in Ghent and used my work from my student days as a starting point. Suddenly I realised that one, single leitmotiv runs through all of my work - a type of obsession with the ruinous and, more specifically, the landscape of the dysfunctional city. A simple example of this is one of my first works, a bridge that does not reach to the other side and spans something but that just stands unattached to anything. From then until now, from the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp' to the ‘World's Fairs', the fundamental concept is in fact the idea that something has the potential to be functional but, in reality, is not. My work often revolves around architecture that is made to fall into decay. The decrepitness is embodied by the object itself. You can also see that in all of those World's Fairs. They are built like cities to stand for six months. After that, they fade away. What I do with ‘World's Fairs' is take photographs of remains which in fact should already have vanished completely. That was also present in the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp'."
Do you think that those World's Fairs are interchangeable?
Maes: "In fact, the concept has always remained the same. But each World's Fair differs from the next in that they are always a reflection of a certain time segment. For example, that of colonialism or Modernism or the Cold War. Like I said, it is about temporary architecture, but sometimes buildings of the participating countries are taken down after the Fair and then rebuilt again at home. In Moscow, where it had been reconstructed, I photographed the building from the Soviet Union that had originally been erected at the World's Fair in Montreal in 1976. The well-known dance hall, Carré, in Willebroek is also situated in a building that first stood at Expo 58 in Brussels. In that sense, everything is a hybrid and interchangeable."
In the first works that you created for your ‘World's Fairs' series, some ‘heroes' from sci-fi culture popped up. These have disappeared since. Why is that?
Maes: "They appeared for the first time in Z33 in Hasselt at the first exhibition in this series. They were actually offshoots from the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp' series. I started taking photos at that time of the objects that I had made for one of my refugee camps but with live models. I wanted to insinuate a sort of refugee camp à la Benetton. Those were then also my first experiments with photography. At the Academy, I took sculpture, with photography as a subsidiary subject. But I never really knew how you could combine sculpture and photography. I saw them as two separate things, until those photos in the context of the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp', an idea that streamed onward to the ‘World's Fairs'. At first I also used models in this series to build up a contrast between the photographed remains and another element. Those models also had a particular function. For example, a model from a science fiction film from the same year would stand in a photo of a particular World's Fair. At the time, I found these compositions interesting, but I came to see their limitations. So I stopped making them in order to restrict myself to the power of the photography in and of itself."
For your exhibition in Kansas City, you play with the medium in another way. There are no more models in the images, but instead atypical frames around the photos, almost sculptures themselves. Crooked, bent frames, tilting frames ... Why?
Maes: "Why not? Today, photography is always so ‘flat'. But, in fact, photography has never been flat; this has only been the case in the last twenty or thirsty years. In the beginning, the development of photography was three-dimensional, with bromides, glass plates, frames and so on. An end has been made to all that with the advent of digital photography, which is practically dimensionless. For that matter, the history of the World's Fairs runs parallel to that of photography. The first World's Fair took place in 1851, the same year that the collodion process for photography was discovered. This process allowed a razor-sharp image taken with a very short exposure time to be transferred to a glass plate for the first time. These glass plates were real ‘objects'. For example, Lissitzki made an enormous, three-dimensional photo montage for the World's Fair in New York in 1939. He used photography as a true experiential space. So there were many very interesting photo experiments until the 1970s when digital photography came into existence and that spatial aspect disappeared. All of the attention went to what was happening inside the frame. I wanted to do something about that. And, in the end, I am also a sculptor and an installation artist. I do not consider myself purely a photographer; I think there is more. For that exhibition in Z33, I made enormous light boxes that had their own strong physical presence. This time I approached it differently. The ‘World's Fairs' series is in and of itself pure photography, with photos affixed to Plexiglass, but there are anomalies in the series every once in a while, with wooden frames that extend three-dimensionally. The building where the exhibition is being held, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, is very dominant. It is eighty metres long, thirty metres high and thirty metres wide, made almost completely of glass, without straight walls or floors. Therefore, I made some eight ‘flat' works but also just as many ‘faulty' works, with frames that are slipping away, leaning against a wall or standing crooked on the floor. In short: they play with the physical character of the space."
There is a strong element of ‘play' in your work.
Maes: "That's right. I often forget it myself. I have always been fascinated by the ‘playground', from the playground in the park to the amusement park. The atmosphere of Coney Island, for example, attracts me a great deal, that atmosphere of pleasure and decline. You also see that in those World's Fairs or in the ‘Recyclable Refugee Camp' - there, too, many objects looked like toys."
The photos accompanying this piece require some explanation.
Maes: "One is a photo of the tombstone of a pygmy. In 1897, during the World's Fair in Brussels, a great many pygmies died. They had been brought from the Congo to be exhibited here as living objects. Those were the glory days of colonialism. Seven of those pygmies were buried in graves at the church in Tervuren. I photographed three of those tombs and printed them out full-size. They can be seen at the exhibition in Kansas City."
"The other photo is from the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933. The theme was ‘A Century of Progress' and included a section called ‘Homes for Tomorrow'. At the time, some seventeen futuristic houses were erected there; houses whose materials and architecture were innovative at the time. Most of the houses have been demolished but a few of them were rebuilt on the shore of Lake Michigan. On the photo you can see the ‘Florida House', newly renovated. In the background you see the ‘House of the Future' which must have truly been beautiful at the time but has now fallen completely into decay."
‘The Future of Yesterday: Photographs of Architectural Remains at World's Fairs', from 29 June through 9 September in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Bloch Lobby, 45th and Oak Streets, Kansas City, Missouri. www.nelson-atikins.org.