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Pitt’s Terry Smith, a leading art philosopher and global thinker, knows the life-altering benefits of the visual arts. But the events of one September morning shook his worldview. He emerged with new insights on architecture in the shifting realm of aftermath.

Beyond Aftermath


Cindy Gill


 
  Terry Smith (Ric Evans photo)
 

An 8-year-old Australian boy stares, enraptured, at a spectacle in Melbourne’s natural history museum. A stuffed horse stands inside a tall, spacious glass case. But not just any horse. The boy’s father has brought him to see Australia’s most famous race horse, Phar Lap, who died in the United States under mysterious circumstances—probably poisoned by gangsters—after winning a race and its big-money prize. The chestnut stallion stands, frozen in time, its ears raised, its eyes staring as if gazing over a fence or watching some commotion outside its stall. Artificial light shines on the horse’s rippling leg muscles and gleaming hoofs.

As the youngster stares into the glass, he notices something else, something strange. He sees the reflections of what look like cartoon characters mixing together in flowing wisps over the glass. Spectral figures. When he turns to find the source of the reflection, he sees colorful, ethereal drawings. They vaguely remind him of the cartoon strips he draws by hand when he’s bored at home in a small, rural town. His father rolls bowling greens to support the family, and his mother works in an office to help with expenses. The “art” in his house consists of a few dime-store paintings on imitation canvas that are commonplace on the walls of many Australian homes.

But these cartoons are different. He wants to see more. In his excitement, he abandons the encased horse and rushes up a long set of Victorian stairs to see other drawings on the next level, and then up again until he reaches a long gallery simply brimming with art.

“I thought they were the best cartoons I had ever seen in my life,” recalls Terry Smith, who today is Pitt’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory and a leading global thinker on art and culture. In fact, the spectral figures he saw reflected on Phar Lap’s glass were William Blake’s 19th-century illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy—phantasmagorical shapes and blended colors depicting angels and devils and all the souls in between. The museum’s upper floors contained galleries with roomfuls of paintings ranging from Renaissance masterworks to modern Australian landscapes.

“I just could not believe what I had seen, and my interest in art took off from there,” says Smith. Initially, he pursued drawing and painting, then realized he was as much interested in writing as in art. Before long, he was writing about art and then teaching others, too, as a graduate student and, later, professor at the University of Sydney, where he became the Power Professor of Contemporary Art and director of the Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture. He also studied at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

In the more than 50 years since that boyhood museum trip, the lanky art philosopher with fashionably graying hair continues to chase down both spectacle and ghostly specter in the visual arts. Five years ago, his worldview was again profoundly altered on one bright morning in September.

Smith arrived at Los Angeles (LA) International Airport after a long flight from Sydney. He had just accepted his Pitt appointment, which would begin after a stint at LA’s J. Paul Getty Center, an acclaimed site for the study of art history in relation to humanities and culture. Smith had received a coveted invitation made annually to a few intellectuals, artists, and writers with distinguished reputations in their fields. He would be spending a year as a funded Getty Scholar immersed in research, writing, and thinking about the visual arts.

The Australian knew the Getty Center well from his own interest in architecture. It was designed by celebrated architect Richard Meier and had opened in 1997 to global fanfare as an architectural wonder.

Only months before, Smith was writing about the Sydney Opera House’s architecture and thinking about the way certain structures become instantly recognizable visual symbols worldwide. Why did some buildings become destinations in themselves, drawing crowds by virtue of their “spectacle” qualities—architecture that, admirable or not, acquires symbolic status and becomes, in effect, a spectacle? Why did some buildings enter the world’s “image library,” while others didn’t? Did certain qualities in buildings make them stand out this way and stay prominent?

Smith was eager to test his own ideas about art and culture in the Getty Center’s reflective hilltop setting. He was ready to settle in.
What happened the next day unsettled everything.

It was early morning on the West Coast when Smith woke and began to prepare for the full day ahead. Then the phone rang, and a distressed Getty official said: Stay inside. Don’t come to the center. The country is under attack.

The events of that morning—September 11, 2001—set Smith on an intellectual odyssey that altered his perceptions about the world. Viewed through the lens of architecture and visual culture, his conclusions offer some options to a fractured world—one that now exists in what he calls aftermath.

Smith recently wrote: “If anyone required a demonstration of the far-reaching significance of the realm of visual culture—especially its entanglement with politics, economics, and the ecologies of everyday life—surely it was 9/11.”

Throughout modern history, there have been other attacks on buildings that are seats of power and governance. From Smith’s perspective, though, 9/11 revealed some stark departures, all revolving around the influence of visual culture on wider global events.

“The fact that the targets were structures like the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and—unsuccessfully—the White House is really important, because they are iconic architecture,” says Smith. “The terrorists targeted the icons of American economic, military, and political power. That’s very clear.”

Beyond that, though, the images of this destruction were relayed, over and over, in a repetitive worldwide blitz. The proliferation of these images globally was virtually unprecedented.

It’s evidence, for Smith, of a larger underlying phenomenon, something he calls iconomy—a play on the words icon (meaning image, symbol, or emblem), economy (in the original Greek sense of organizing one’s house), and the Greek eidos (meaning knowledge obtained through sight or vision).

Smith’s iconomy relates to humans’ use of images as symbolic exchange—something that has been true since ancient times. But now, there’s an increasing, pervasive mobility of images, what he calls a “trafficking in images,” that suggests a larger structure of symbolic exchange at work in the world: The competition between visual images—in advertising, news media, entertainment, religion, politics, and more—infuses the ways that different cultures and civilizations relate to each other at the deepest levels of psyche and society.

In a globalized world order, the iconomy has a growing pervasiveness and centrality that wasn’t the case in the past. Smith asserts that Osama bin Laden understood the role of architecture as primary visual symbol. “He used the word icons,” says Smith. “He knew that if you hit the icon, you will hurt the body. Every image is embedded in the body of that of which it is a symbol. Every symbol is embodied or embedded. These things really became clear, to Americans especially, on 9/11.”

Likewise, says Smith, the buildings under attack on 9/11 were well entrenched within the iconomy. They were key symbols of “spectacle architecture” in late-20th-century society. They were, in essence, icons that represented crucial values—but not everyone in the world agreed with those values.

“The implosion of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers had a huge effect on my thinking,” says Smith. “Architecture itself evaporated. The implosion demonstrated that even the most enduring images from our collective identity can disappear instantly.”

Up until that point, he had been thinking about the economy of images primarily in relation to commerce and commodity—destination architecture as advertising image—like, he says, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum design in Bilbao, Spain. It’s spectacle architecture that draws large crowds of international visitors and is a magnet for money. “What more could you want from an advertisement?” asks Smith.

In addition to the Bilbao site, the Sydney Opera House, and LA’s Getty Center, there are other examples of what he calls “spectacle” architecture—buildings that, for various and quite different reasons, attract worldwide attention as recognizable visual and symbolic images—among them Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin, Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. As destination architecture, they all take their place in the global iconomy.

Not all spectacle architecture is upbeat or even positive—but it’s typically built to attract attention on a global scale: It’s the biggest, or the tallest, or the most emotionally moving, or the most outrageous—the premier symbol of any structure of its kind, which may also be embedded with issues like grand ego, brash ambition, and maximum profit motives. Even so, people want to see the structure—it’s visual spectacle.

The skyscraper, for instance, became an enduring symbol of the modern era’s capitalistic drive and technological bravado. The WTC towers were a prime example; and others are still building even bigger, taller buildings—Taipei 101 and the Burj Dubai. On some level, the pure audacity of skyscraping buildings makes them a target for those who abhor the capitalistic impulse to top the last, best thing.

What Smith didn’t fully grasp until that September morning in his LA apartment is that there’s an underside to spectacle architecture. “There’s the ghostly side, the reverse side. Every building carries the specter of its own destruction,” he says. The very nature of spectacle architecture—drawing global attention to itself and its embedded values—makes it a target in a post-9/11 world.

He later wrote that “the bringing down of the WTC towers generated a counter-symbol, an anti-iconotype that paradoxically took the form of an image that showed in starkly graphic form the perishability of all world symbols.”

It’s this awareness, says Smith, of both spectacle and specter—opposites coexisting in one structure—that begins to illuminate the challenges of a post-9/11 world, a place of aftermath in which perceptions of time itself—past, present, and future—comingle in a global stew of competing beliefs, power plays, and an endless stream of shared images.

His reflections on the aftermath of 9/11 led him to believe that profound shifts have now occurred in our fundamental beliefs about what it means to live in the “modern” era—“changes so great that they signal the arrival not so much of a new era as of a different kind of experience of time.”

It’s the concept of contemporaneity—something he has been thinking about and discussing with colleagues for several years. He defines it as “disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing the same world, in the coexistence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the inequalities within and among them.” In short, Smith says, “there is no longer any overarching totality that accumulates and accounts for these proliferating differences.”

The meaning? Modern has become historical. The modern era has slipped into contemporaneity.

“If you are trying to learn the history of art,” he explains, “you are not just looking at works of art, but you are looking at how a work of art is a product of its time, society, culture, and so on. You are interested in its connections.”

It was the pursuit of those connections that, early on, transformed Smith into a world traveler and ultimately led to his role as a prominent global thinker. Beyond his frequent travel, he scans several newspapers daily; regularly reads philosophy (favoring German and French volumes); spontaneously quotes from Harper’s Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and other sources; and routinely engages in deep conversations with an assortment of intellectuals, artists, and philosophers. Renowned French deconstructionist philosopher, the late Jacques Derrida, was a treasured friend.

“The big-picture ideas come from a lot of places,” says Smith. “It doesn’t happen on a daily basis, but the really big organizational ideas, the ideas about iconomy and contemporaneity, come to me first thing in the morning, when I’m waking up, or walking in a park, or when I can’t sleep on a long flight.”

After Smith reflected on the events of 9/11, he felt his skills and global perspective placed him in a unique position to offer some useful insights on the implications of the attacks, particularly in relation to architecture and visual culture. He changed his Getty Scholar project plan almost immediately, and his work ultimately resulted in his newly published book, The Architecture of Aftermath (The University of Chicago Press), one of many publications he has written, edited, or coedited.

Smith, who was enticed to Pitt by the prestigious Mellon professorship, asserts that the conditions of aftermath may push architects to think differently—to create buildings that, perhaps, aren’t driven by sheer ambition, or profit, or full-blown spectacle. In this new era of contemporaneity, he suggests that architects are already thinking about the social responsibilities that have emerged from these changed conditions. “Is it now,” he asks, “a time to retreat to what it is that architecture can uniquely do, to return to roots—in the housing of peoples, in the construction of community?” Trends like environmentally embedded buildings, more green spaces, and more communal spaces are already on the horizon, with examples such as the Knockabout Walkabout House, a prefabricated do-it-yourself house designed by architect Peter Myers for Australian Aborigines to assemble in remote locations. All of the elements fit in the back of a truck. Contemporary architecture, says Smith, may regroup around themes like recovery and reinvention, while attractor architecture may give way to the quieter, more reflective, and longer-term requirements of community. Some of the great modern forms, like the skyscraper, must be rethought.

Ultimately, architecture will need to reach beyond aftermath, to a place of renewed beginnings, a place where the heart of a young boy races as he sees the world anew.

 


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