Amie Siegel’s three-part installation on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Provenance,” traces the rehabilitation of ruined Le Corbusier furniture from Chandigarh, India, as upscale appetences for chic global lifestyles. It is an artist’s subtle wink and nod confirming that value truly lies in the eye of the beholder.
“Provenance” follows the backwards trajectory of the furniture’s sale at esteemed auction houses, their cargo route direct from refurbishing workshops, and their origin as desultory castoffs in a once grand but now a decaying city designed by one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, Le Corbusier. Also included in the exhibition is “Lot 248,” a short film about the sale of Siegel’s “Provenance” film proof in London last fall by Christie’s auction house.
This reversal of history, or in auction parlance, “provenance,” follows the tried and true logic of an authentication document. It begins with the artwork’s current owner and lists each previous owner. Siegel has employed this method before in her 2008 feature film DDR/DDR, tracking an East German molded-plastic chair from its abode in the former socialist Plattenbau, or prefab apartment block, to a flea market, then a hipster shop where it was sold and sent on a cargo ship, ultimately landing in a trendy store in Manhattan’s high-end Tribeca neighborhood.
“Provenance” begins with a gorgeous parallel tracking shot of beguiling furniture coolly waiting for the owners of chic homes to inhabit them. This scenario plays out in West London, a Parisian apartment, a house in Belgium, a Manhattan loft, various houses in the Hamptons, and even a luxurious yacht replete with an ornate elevator. The impersonal nature of the shots is careful and considered; if you didn’t know better you’d think you were watching a high-concept infomercial for Architectural Digest or Restoration Hardware.
You witness the furniture being touted at American and European auction houses to the highest bidder. A pair of club chairs from the Chandigarh High Court fetch $16,000 from a phone buyer, and Artcurial in Paris hammers a Chandigarh manhole cover at £15,000 ($25,000). What the buyers most likely didn’t know at the time is that many of these pieces were condemned as unfit for use by the local Indian administration, and as a result sold at auction to junk dealers or bought from clueless state officials who had no idea about their worth on the international market.
The camera penetrates the world of furniture restorers, ferociously ripping the decrepit upholstery off the wooden frames while dust motes scatter between shafts of workshop light. The frames are then retrofitted in linen, leather, and horsehair as repurposed luxury items. You see cargo shipping containers viewed from helicopter tracking shots and find yourself in the Indian ports where the furniture was loaded onto ships.
Le Corbusier and Chandigarh
The architect Le Corbusier dreamed of new urban models for Paris, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero, and Algiers, but none of them was ever built. When India was partitioned in 1947, the Swiss architect was commissioned by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to build Chandigarh, the new capital 180 miles north of Delhi. His team, which included his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, designed The Capitol Complex, the Secretariat of government offices, the Parliament building, and the High Court, not to mention the sculptures that adorned the plaza, the door handles, and even the office furniture. It’s a Swiss vision of perfection delivered to India wholesale but with unfortunate and desultory results. The concrete became stained and started to crumble, while monkeys roam freely, swinging between the complex’s vast arches. Stacks of couches, mostly designed by Jeaneret, are discarded in ungainly piles in a dank, abandoned corridor. Government employees prefer to sit on cheap new plastic chairs in their cubicles and pile stacks of bureaucratic files atop the remaining Jeanneret furniture.
Siegel was not content to only show the rise and fall and resurrection of the furniture, but she delved into the whole process of assigning value by bookending “Lot 248,” a short film about the 2013 auction of “Provenance,” with “Proof (Christie’s 19 October, 2013),” a Lucite embedded printer’s proof of the Christie’s auction catalogue page for “Provenance.”
What Siegel’s body of work probes is similar to the world exposed in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 2013 film The Best Offer, where an art auctioneer is beguiled by a neurotic heiress. That film revealed the tricks and illusions behind the acquisitive impulse. As savvy artists like Marcel Duchamp knew, with the framing and presentation it’s possible to sell the contents of a pissoir.