Steel and polyester
16 x 8 x 26m
Installation Southsea Common, Portsmouth
Commissioned by Chapter, Cardiff in collaboration with aspex, Portsmouth, firstsite, Colchester and Safle, 2010
An Unreachable Country. A Long Way To Go, charts the production of the sculpture, Luna Park, in rural Serbia. The construction team of engineers, welders, assemblers and model makers are all ex-employees of the Zastava car factory that was the main employer of Kragujevac, making Yugo cars, before it closed. The political and social backdrop – alongside the process for making the sculpture in Serbia – reflects many of the references that oscillate through the Morison’s practice: in working away from perceived centres, nurturing an active engagement with the resources and inhabitants of the locale to inform and produce the work. The title of the film – taken from the seminal Chris Marker work La Jetée (1962) - reflects another area of interest for the artists: the difficult tenor of the times. The thirty-minute film cuts across factory activity, through the ritualistic preparation of a spit-roasted pig, to the lively conversations of the Serbian team. Often it lingers on the workers extended periods of inactivity within the exquisite, rural backdrop of the village – a metaphorical reflection on the social and environmental impact of the current global climate.
Hannah Firth, Curator, Chapter, Cardiff, 2010
A Strong Dark Presence
I stand for language. I speak for truth.
I shout for history. I am a cesspool
For all the shit to run down in.
Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?
Mike Watt, The Minutemen
Early on 1 October 2010, the work under consideration in this writing burned in a spectacular fire on Southsea Common, Portsmouth. As it was consumed by flames, Ivan Morison was in Vancouver, British Columbia, where it was still evening, speaking about a work he and Heather had made there in charred timber. In the talk, he spoke of the tranformative effect the Morisons hope to achieve through their work: “The modern city needs to be reordered and reconfigured. Only through individual violent and subversive acts and larger societal shifts alongside cataclysmic events will its residents find true happiness.” That weekend, also, I was finishing edits on this essay. We thought it best to preserve various ironies or coincidences by leaving the writing as it was at the time of the work’s destruction, inserting notes as necessary where events overtook the facts presented or underscored the themes discussed.
Heather & Ivan Morison are generally in motion. Their practice is a form of travel that leads them to spots not covered in Rough Guides; where no package tour would ever be organised. Their travels across the earth are not atypical of the contemporary artist today, ever moving from site to site: asked to arrive, take in the scenery, prepare a response to local context, and move on. But the work they produce through these travels is far afield from that sort of site-specificity. Their work instead carries sites along with it, displacing a scene found in one location to another, drawing connections between radically different situations. They currently live in Brighton, but recently, they’ve been in Serbia, working on the project that occasions this piece of writing. Working in collaboration with twenty former employees of a Yugo car factory in Kragujevac, the Morisons have built a full-scale sculpture of a massive dinosaur, titled Luna Park.
This year and next, the massive form - a steel frame covered in a hard polyester shell - manifests itself in sites across Britain: first on Southsea Common, then in Colchester’s Lower Castle Park, then on a derelict site in Cardiff Bay. Black and looming, it will draw your attention first to itself, then to its setting, and finally, should you be curious, to the story of its creation. Your attention will thus be drawn to a series of failures, stories of decline and dissolution.
The real destruction of Luna Park, oddly, reminded me that the Morisons have approached their works in a spirit of optimism. This is most obviously visible in the incredible energy they bring to their ambitious undertakings, and in the coming together of various people — hired help, skilled labour, armies of volunteers — required to realise the projects. The works, too, evoke catastrophe as an opportunity to come together, to build anew. There is more than a hint in the Morisons of Walter Benjamin’s troubling ’Destructive Character’, the ‘cheerful’ figure “whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognise that everything can go wrong.”(1)
This text is being written in Seattle, where the Morisons were recently in residence, working on a project called Frost King. I must imagine the site where this new work was made, the places to which it refers, and the places it will visit. Through remapping, the sites will become analogs to places closer to hand.
Ducks and Decorated Sheds
The sculpture Luna Park represents an Ultrasauros, a dinosaur with a tangled history, and a questionable claim to existence that was discovered in Colorado by paleontologist Jim Jensen. Initially thought to be the largest dinosaur to have walked the earth, the Ultrasauros is now considered a chimera, a muddle of specimens of multiple, previously identified genera.
The Morisons’ Ultrasauros is, in response, less a figure from a museum diorama than it is a roadside attraction in the style of the American ‘traffic stopper: designed to make motorists take notice, and pull over to eat, fill their tanks, or buy trinkets. Luna Park lights up at night, illuminating seats beneath the beast’s belly; a small gesture suggesting shelter, a place to gather.
The lights were ultimately blamed for the beast’s destruction. Arson was initially suspected, but the determination of the local police was that rain had leaked into the structure and caused an electrical fault. Evidence remains inconclusive. Either version has its resonances. If an electrical fire, the gesture toward gathering-place led to the destruction of that place. And whatever the cause, it’s easy to see a connection between the strucuture and its fate. The Morisons are quoted below discussing Luna Park as “a strong dark presence”, an attractor of negativity. You could see it as a magnet drawing its doom inevitably towards itself.
In their film An Unreachable Country. A Long Way to Go, the Morisons show the Serbian workers in the countryside, building Luna Park’s steel frame and polyester shell. These scenes mix work and play. We see the thistle-strewn meadow around the workshop, the frame components cut and assembled, men with brushes daubing resin onto the skin, working the shell into shape. Day turns to night as the workers slaughter a pig and roast it over a fire, drinking beer and sitting in the dirt. This engaging muddle of life and work is far away from the modern style — an office worker updating his Facebook status from his cubicle, say. These scenes will be familiar to anyone who has worked with the Morisons — a barn-raising spirit presides, with many hands at work, skilled and otherwise, to realise a project.
Interspersed between the documentary scenes is a fictional dialogue, heard over a black screen. Taken from their 2009 novel Falling Into Place, the dialogue sets the sculpture in a deserted landscape, in a world scarred by an unspecified apocalyptic event. A woman pulls off the road, attracted by the figure of the Ultrasauros, and is offered tea by a man running a café inside the beast. A commonplace transaction takes place in the monster’s shade, in the uncanny atmosphere created by the beast and the sense that these people may be among the last survivors of a catastrophe.
These subtly post-apocalyptic scenes connect the operations of the Serbian workshop to a long history of handwork. In the workshop, an expensive plasma-cutter is used on the steel, which is then assembled using only simple machines and muscle. Missing is any sense of Fordist production: the scenes mix modern equipment with unmechanised workshop labour. We’re clearly in the present, but also after something: specifically, the closure of the plant that employed these men. This present, with the disappearence of the macroeconomic structures that gave these men paying work, can then rhyme with the Morison’s post-catastrophic themes. This specific present implies a more general future.
This form, the roadside ’traffic stopper’ is of the type dubbed a ’duck’ by the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown, and Steven Izenour in their book Learning from Las Vegas(2). The name is derived from a duck-shaped drive-in illustrated in God’s Own Junkyard(3), Peter Blake’s influential critique of the degraded American landscape. Such figures persist on American roadsides - driving from Los Angeles to the desert resort communities of Palm Springs, travellers on the Redlands Freeway encounter a massive T Rex and Brontosaurus in Cabazon, like a gateway to the hot, dry paradise beyond. They loom behind a diner, perfectly named the Wheel Inn, and a dusty gift shop of no distinction. The dinos can be entered and occupied, but the gate in the Bronto’s massive tail was locked when I visited, probably its typical state. Though custom-built, they are hardly unique - similar creatures are scattered throughout the networks of the American highway system. But there’s no mold, no factory ran these off in bulk. They’re appreciated by the kind of people who like folk art, the obsessive rock grottos found in small-town back yards, corn mazes, and stunning sites like the Watts Towers. They testify to immense labour devoted to the construction of novelties, a kind of optimism of purpose which mingles pathos and deep commitment to wonder.
Learning from Las Vegas contrasts two typical modern architectural forms: the duck and the decorated shed. Their sympathies lie with the latter - a structure built in the ordinary manner, with applied ornament signalling any necessary distinction of the structure, rather than giving over the entire form to symbolic purposes. Illustrating the architectural distinction with reference to vernacular structures, they set next to their picture of the Long Island Duckling another picture from Blake, of a typical roadside dominated by a huge sign reading ‘Esso’.
A few pages later, they supply a proposal for a monument in the mode of the decorated shed: a bland, square building surmounted by a huge sign reading ’This is a monument’. In architecture, they have lost the arguement: Frank Gehry’s ducks are in much greater demand. But on the roadside, it’s all gigantic Esso signs, while the ducks’ shotcrete skins crack and degrade. In Cabazon, a sparkling new Burger King was built on an adjacent lot, its generic sign as high as the T Rex’s head, drawing custom from the roadway and ensuring the further decline of the Wheel Inn. These repetitive fast food and gas station signs, logos on tall posts, calling out from every cloverleaf on every interstate, honestly represent the offerings of each exit, which is to say, exactly the same thing everywhere.
The Morisons’ work Luna Park is modeled on ducks, sculptures as signs. It refers to all these forgotten corners, these nowheres-in-between-somewheres off of highway exits, but it connects without flattening. It calls for a direct response to the local situation, not a confirmation of the interchangeability of every place. The places it connects remain strange and specific, and so do we.
The title for the Morisons’ piece derives from a particular Luna Park, a rundown amusement park just outside of Novosibursk, Siberia, that they visited in 2005: “It’s where people wait, spit, swat mosquitoes and slowly die from hard work, drink, and sadness”, the Morisons wrote in a recent email. “It’s so distant to us now in our memories that it’s as if it only ever were a fiction.”
As poets from Coleridge to Ferlinghetti have shown, little can match the pathos of a pleasure ground in ruins. Henry Home, writing in 1762(4), compared the various effects of gothic and classical ruins, the former representing “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not discouraging thought”, while the latter showed “the triumph of barbarity over taste: a gloomy and discouraging thought”. What then would the decline of a theme park represent? These structures were never built for eternity. The triumph of taste over barbarity? It seems rather that a pleasure ground in decay reminds us of our lost childhood, and as childhood’s habits and ways of mind are extended through adulthood in this era, to the point of our second childhood in senescence, there’s something of the transience of life itself visible in a place like this, a profane and childish memento mori.
Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West(5) paraphrases Home's thoughts in a footnote to a page containing a passage that seems relevant here: "...it is not the Classical statue, but the Classical torso that we really love. It has had a destiny: something suggestive of the past as past envelops it, and our imagination delights to fill the empty space of missing limbs with the pulse and swing of invisible lines".
The images sent to me from Portsmouth, of twisted metal surrounded by shreds of the polyester shell, evoke both the destiny and the spur to imagination discussed by Spengler. You see a ruin, and strain to connect its abstract form to a representation. Further, you see the structure of the beast, invisible when the sculpture was completed, and its strange parallels to the skeletal frameworks supporting the tracks of a roller coaster. In its ruin, the connection between its referents – roadside attraction, skeletal fossil and amusement park - is made absolutely clear. Spengler’s ruin is a spur to imagination, a connection to Benjamin’s ‘Destructive Character’, who “sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere …. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. … What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it”. This is the active agent to Spengler's passive viewer, a link between destructive and imaginative impulses.
The Siberian park’s namesake was built on Coney Island, Brooklyn, in the spring of 1903. Its designer, Fred Thompson, set amusements like A Trip to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, across twenty-two acres of sand. It was a sensation, and by 1905 there were similar attractions right across America: Thompson’s biographer lists “four Dreamlands, five Luna Parks, two Manhattan Beaches, four White Cities, seventeen Electric Parks, five Sans Souci parks, four Wonderlands, and one Fairyland”. (One of the Luna Parks closed long ago in Seattle, though its name still graces a nearby cafe.) Thompson, a brilliant publicist, fun guy, heavy drinker, and lousy fiscal manager, lasted eleven summers at Coney before losing the park, which went into slow decline before being wiped out in a series of fires in the 1940s. But the name has kept its currency: Wikipedia lists Luna Parks on every inhabited continent, from Beirut to Baku, Cairo to Cameroon. A new Luna Park opened at Coney, not far from the original, this summer.
Here’s to Failure
What kind of monument, then, is Luna Park? It seems a monument to failure, to inevitable decline, but its very presence, and the obvious effort given to its creation, present an equally inevitable optimism, a looking forward. This is too strong a form to contain mere melancholy, the weak sensation of nostalgia and loss. It is a new creation, not a neglected or abandoned vestige. As they work on this project, the Morisons have come to see it as “this strong dark presence, something that has the capacity to soak up all the shit, the bad feelings, the negativeness, the insecurities and prejudices from the cities it visits, to absorb them and to move on taking them with it. A void to project all negativeness towards”. But it also attracts you, offers you somewhere to sit, creates a place within an empty site, and protects you from the brooding threat its form itself suggests.
The twisted fragments suggest something other than protection. They do suggest possibilities. The balance between an object and a proposal (or invitation, event, action), so frequently held in tension in the Morisons’ work, is here tilted strongly toward the latter by the fire. Community attempts to organise a rebuilding of Luna Park have been proposed, but beyond its specific fate, we’re left with the indelible marks of activity, of an arduous making and an abrupt unmaking. Spengler’s odd phrase, “It has had a destiny”, suggests itself as a conclusion. Past and future collide here in some form of a perfect tense.
Objects rarely have destinies, they just are. The verb to make or to do is replaced by to be. They are things to be preserved or left to decay — until something goes wrong. The destruction of Luna Park retrospectively confirms a future for the work, though that future was the work’s ruin. What persists here is not the finished object, or its skeletal ruin, but the energies that animated it in its creation, in its time on Southsea Common, and in its persistence in memory. More significantly, the possibility of the work is what remains. That cheerful spirit which animated its being, seeing everywhere a way, is what moves forward.
Eric Fredericksen, director of Western Bridge, Seattle.
1. One-Way Street and Other Writings, Walter Benjamin, Verso Classics, 1997
2. Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism Of Architectural Form, R Venturi, S Izenour and D Scott Brown, MIT Press, 1977 (Revised Edition)
3. God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, Peter Blake, Henry Holt & Co, 1979
4. Visions of Ruin: architectural fantasies and designs for garden follies, Sir John Soane’s Museum (Exh. Cat), London, 1999
5. The Decline of the West: An Abridged Edition, Oswald Spengler. Oxford University Press 1991
6. The Kid Of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements, Oxford University Press, 2001