It was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who took the interplay of scale and portrayal as his subject when he presented a fictitious seventeenth-century source in an ultrashort story. It would mention that the Art of Cartography in the Empire had reached such a level of perfection that the map of a single province occupied the entirety of a city, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a province. Even with these Unconscionable Maps, the pursuit of perfection had not yet been satisfied. And so the Cartographers Guilds produced ‘a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.’ However, subsequent generations had come to regard the map as useless and the remains left behind in the country were now inhabited by Animals and Beggars. (J.L. Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, 1946)
What is the value of a perfect 1:1 representation if it makes the original invisible? is what Borges seems to be telling his reader. In an essay a few years later (‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’, 1952) he touches on the theme again. If the map is as large as the territory itself, that map will need to include a map of the map. An image of an image, recurring in an image. It’s also known as the Droste effect: a picture recursively appearing within itself. As a result, the map becomes a fiction, and anyone looking at the map is actually part of this constructed fantasy world.
It’s one of the intriguing effects of the 1:1 model that Het Nieuwe Instituut under the direction of Guus Beumer has been utilising since its early years to reconstruct interiors, for instance when it exhibited a number of sets from photographer Erwin Olaf’s studio in 2013. The public at the time could not avoid the sense of alienation this evoked. We are accustomed to reading interiors as the expression of the inhabitant, but here we entered an illusion. As with Borges, where only the animals and beggars granted a right to exist to the fragments of a map that had virtually disappeared, the visitor now assumed the role of a temporary protagonist in the installation: a character who did not determine the interior, but conversely was defined by Erwin Olaf’s sets.
The most recent application of the 1:1 model is now linked to the installation Art on Display 1949–69. Here it is the visualisation of an investigation into the scenography designed by some internationally renowned architects in the mid-twentieth century for exhibitions of both contemporary and classical visual art. Curators Penelope Curtis and Dirk van den Heuvel asked the question: how did the designs of architects Lina Bo Bardi, Franco Albini and Franca Helg, Alison and Peter Smithson, Carlo Scarpa and Aldo van Eyck condition the way the public looked at art in those environments? What role did the unique exhibition space play in the architects’ designs? And how did they treat the cultural artefact? In 2019, Art on Display 1949–69 opened at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, based on a design by Rita Albergaria. The exhibition told the story of the original exhibition interiors by moving the camera backwards, as it were. Instead of concentrating on the individual artworks, which are normally the centre of public attention, the visitor was now confronted with zoomed-out ‘shots’. 1:1 replicas of fragments of the original spatial designs showed how architects at that time endeavoured to change the perspective on exhibiting visual art.
With the relocation of Art on Display 1949–69 to Rotterdam, the original way of presentation has yet again undergone a radical transformation. Jo Taillieu Architecten used the 1:1 format to reinterpret and represent the original exhibition environments. The curators and architects made a careful study of the original locations, the floor plans, the spatial organisation, the placement of the artworks and the materialisation of the former exhibition’s architecture. Not to reproduce them unquestioningly, but to subject them – in Jo Taillieu’s words – to ‘a transcription’. ‘By simply recreating the interiors, we wouldn’t be doing them justice. When you rebuild these designs at a different location, in a totally different context, a translation is needed to preserve the intentions of the original work.’
Taillieu chose to take fragments from the original interiors, and transcribe them in such a way that they condense the most important aspects of the design. For example, the architects use mirrors to evoke the glass panels Lina Bo Bardi employed in São Paulo to give the observer the opportunity to walk around the displayed works and also to see the reverse side of famous paintings. While giving depth, the mirrors also provide the reflection that was present because the exhibition hall at that time was surrounded by several glass façades. Through such translations, of both main aspects and details, the new incarnation of Art on Display 1949–69 confronts the visitor even more emphatically with the essentials of the former presentations.
A determining element of the design lies in the choice to use board material for each part of the installation, in various different guises: from ‘the most ungainly fibreboard’ in the translation of the pavilion designed by Aldo van Eyck for the Sonsbeek exhibition in 1966, to a poplar plywood suggesting the subtle sensitivity of a plaster wall in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Onto that material basis, Taillieu projects his ‘reading of the work of these special architects’. By opting for board, the design also reminds the spectator of the artificiality of this interior: a representation, not a copy.
Subtlety and a strong historical awareness characterise the transformation that Art of Display 1949–69 has undergone. Unlike in Lisbon, where the various installations flowed smoothly into each other, Jo Taillieu and his team have given each installation its own place. ‘At most, they were allowed to touch each other slightly. We’re not aiming for a new reading of the work because one would influence the other too much. That was very important to us, and quite a challenge in spatial terms. For each of the architects, it was up to us to investigate how they broke the conventions of exhibiting visual arts. And because they dared to question the manner of displaying, we felt justified in doing so again with their visions.’
The graphic design has used the same approach for each fragment. Goda Budvytytė opted, among other things, for room texts on a changing coloured area, which are then attached to a metallic material. As with the spatial design, the expression of the construction and the choice of materials is fully exploited to simultaneously create an atmosphere of continuity and surprise. For instance, the mild reflection of the metallic material absorbs the colour of the immediate surroundings, creating a direct relationship between spatial and graphic design.
The approach is both analytical and sensory, and it reflects the thinking and equally the pleasure of making. As a result, the viewer is addressed on multiple levels simultaneously. Anyone looking at the artworks does so through the mediation initially added by the architects. But the Droste effect doesn’t stop there. Through the new design, the observer also sees how the architects did it back then. And as soon as we realize that, it becomes clear that we’re looking at the reinterpretation by a contemporary architect. As in previous installations with the 1:1 model, the viewer’s perspective changes as soon as they realize they’ve become a fellow player. Art on Display 1949–69 is designed to reveal its intriguing construction through the participation of the public.
Text by Gert Staal.