Non-Places of Travel in Visual Art
In this essay, I will explore the anthropological notion of “non-places”, with reference to the related essay by Marc Auge Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. I will apply this notion specifically to the theme of travel, and how this is engaged in the selected works of art by contemporary visual artists.
As a vessel for this exploration I will use one story from Italo Calvino’s collection of surreal short stories Invisible Cities :
CONTINUOUS CITIES – 2
“ If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off.
The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the other, with the same little garnish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs, we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares. The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, signs that had not changed at all.
This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already know the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and seller of hardware; I had ended the days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels.
Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.
“ You can resume your flight whenever you like, “ they said to me, “ but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by the sole Trude, which does not begin, nor end. Only the name of the airport changes.” (Italo Calvino “Invisible Cities”)
About Continuous Cities:
This collection of short stories is written in the form of a dialogue between Marco Polo, one of the iconic figures of travel, and Kublai Khan, the famous emperor. Each time Marco Polo returns from his travels, Kublai Khan invites him to describe the cities he has visited. Marco Polo is delighted with this task and describes the various cities he has passed through, all of them unique as well as similar to each other.
The story I have chosen to employ for this essay is Marco Polo’s story of the city of Trude titled Continuous Cities-2.
Italo Calvino’s story depicts a world of continuous uniformity. Despite the sense of movement in the story, and the prominence of travel, which might usually suggest a process of discovery, wonder and insights in new places or ways of life, we are left with an overall mood of stagnation, rather than such a productive and fulfilling activity. The sense of familiarity in the city of Trude is negative and far from comforting; it is almost oppressive. Instead of the excitement of new sensations through change, we are left with a numbness of repetition.
This disillusionment of travel, leading to a very bleak view of the world we inhabit, a world devoid of variety and inspiration, may seem extreme or exaggerated, but it is nevertheless an idea so powerfully presented that it is difficult to ignore. To say the least, there is an undeniable sense of recognition, in the haunting sentence “The world is covered by a sole Trude, which does not begin, nor end. Only the name of the airport changes”.
This core idea of Continuous Cities 2 is described by Calvino as his own observation of a common contemporary lifestyle characterised by continuous speed and movement, so much so that “cities are turning into one single city; a single endless city where the differences which once characterized each of them are disappearing. This idea…came to me from the way that many of us now live: we continually move from one airport to another, to enjoy a life that is almost identical no matter what city you find yourself in.”
Calvino is, of course suggesting, that the easy capacity of movement makes for a neglect of activity and identity within the grounding of a single, once individual place, precisely because this is more difficult than travelling between such places. He exemplifies this with an observation of Paris, the city he once lived in.
“You could say that at the rush hour when the city streets are blocked by traffic, I can get to Italy more quickly than, say, to the Champs Elysees. I could almost commute; we are now close to a time when it will be possible to live in Europe as though it were one single city.
At the same time, we are close to the time when no city will be able to be used as a city; you waste more time on short trips than on long journeys.”
The following conclusion Calvino makes, on the current nature of travelling internationally, addressing the common cliché` that the world is getting smaller through modern technology and ease of movement, conveys an increasing sense of limbo in the defining notions of ‘place’.
“That’s it: international journeys as much as short journeys in the city are no longer an exploration of a series of different places; they are simply movements from one point to another between which there is an empty interval, a discontinuity, a parenthesis above the clouds if it as air trip, and a parenthesis beneath the earth it is a city journey.”
This sense of limbo, suggests a homogeneity of cities; cities reduced to mere templates of cities, which leave little room for individual recognition. This is the indeterminate state, which is addressed and defined by Mark Auge.
‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which can not be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.’
Marc Auge in his book Non-Places – Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity argues that supermodernity creates non-places. The main characteristic of supermodernity is excess, so non-places are results or perhaps some kind of side effects of the excess of time, excess of space and excess of ego. Hence supermodernity is created through the logic of excess.
Excess of time, Auge argues, is a result of the extension of life expectancy which has brought social changes so that the coexistence of three generations changed into the possible coexistence of four generations.
Similarly, the excess of space is correlative with the shrinking of the planet and its change of scale, caused by technological advances set off by rapid means of transport and communication such as flying, satellite communication and the internet – the means that offer fast and sometimes even instant access to information or events.
Excess of ego is the result of both of the other two excesses. It is particularly enhanced by the contemporary liberal political language of individual freedoms as well as by advertising apparatus.
Furthermore, Marc Auge defines non-places as having no identity, no history and no urban relationships. Non-places are temporary spaces for passage, communication and consumption; the motorways seen from car interiors, motorway restaurants/service/petrol stations, large supermarkets, duty-free shops and the passenger transit lounges of world airports.
Non-places are contrary to places. They represent the decline of the public man and the rise of the self-obsessed man. Non-places are such due to their solitary arrangement, shielded by pin and credit-card numbers, as well as passwords that create safety as well as solitude and alienation.
As non-places are created by an excess of time, space and ego, the distinctive examples of non-places can be found in relation to travel as a human activity. Expansion of the travel industry is mainly attributed to the development of new technologies. For example, the air traffic industry is based on the progress of aircraft technology, the car-hire trade is based on the advancement of the car industry, while fly-and-drive travel business is based on both previously mentioned scientific developments, and so forth. These new industrial developments created the foundation on which, in the anthropology of supermodernity, the excess of time, as well as excess of space and ego is shaped by new possibilities of fast (er) travelling, possibilities of visiting larger territories and indulging in the whole process.
I aim to explore the significance of such non-places in contemporary art, by addressing some of their artistic portrayals against selected examples that Auge identifies, in order to present a related view of a modern urban landscape and a sense of existence within such a landscape.
“ If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off.”
The airport is a distinctive non-place of travel. It is just a provisional space on the worldwide network of air travel. There is no history in the airport’s commercial identity at all. The memory in the airport lounges go back merely to the previous 24 hours of flight arrivals and departures, sometimes even less, depending on the frequencies of the flight and the availability of free airport runway slots. The car parks, access infrastructure and subways, which often surround large world airports, are all non-places too.
Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation World Airpor’ is an artist’s recreation of the caricature that public spaces at airports have become. In this humoristic and ironic depiction of large airports, including all the accessories one expects: aeroplanes, television monitors, airport lounge chairs, car park and so forth, all made in everyday craft materials such as foil, wood, cellophane, paper-mache, baking foils or sellotape… Thomas Hirschon gives us his statement on the suspension of national boundaries in a world connected by air flights and fast exchange of information.
Despite its humour, Hirschhorn’s work is sad, mourning the loss of identities through technological advance and globalisation as one of the results. This artwork is an allegorical reminder of the loss of identity in places like this and some kind of memorial and triumph of travel as a commodity, rather than a unique personal journey.
Another artist which work is connected with the world airport is Julian Opie, whose work Imagine that You Are Moving was installed at Heathrow Airport.
This work is represented by four large light boxes of stylised British landscape displayed in airport’s transit passengers lounges – the large hall where international passengers wait for their connecting flights to different countries or perhaps continents.
As transit passengers don’t actually ever enter Britain, but just use the airport as a convenience and the airport lounge to wait for their connecting flights, the title of the work addresses the viewer to make their waiting time easier, perhaps inviting the viewer to take this opportunity to see the British landscape which otherwise will not be seen, making it significant as public work as it aims to fill a void in a non-place, without claiming to be a realistic replacement of an actual place, as its stylised pictorial quality demonstrates.
Video work Threshold to the Kingdom by Mark Wallinger is again inspired by the airport, but this time it is the London City airport doors that automatically open and close and allow arriving travellers to gradually and weightlessly walk toward the camera and out of view followed by gaze of a suspicious airport official, sitting in the left corner of the lounge… The sound that accompanies the video is Giorgio Allegri’s Miserere mei [Latin: have mercy (!)]. The sound draws the viewer’s attention to the allegory of arrival to Heaven, God’s Kingdom – in this case, the United Kingdom (thus the title).
‘’ Every air traveller knows that behind the airport’s doors are the beady eyes of the state’s border controls and – a small step away, at least for the imagination – the apparatus that devises and manages the UK’s immigration and asylum laws. The desperate people who don’t make it across the threshold into the Promised Land (by air or any other means) are screened from view, literally and metaphorically. In most cases, one suspects, their sin is simply to have been unlucky.”’
Mark Wallinger’s video of people walking through ‘International Arrivals’ door on the airport remind us also of strange and bizarre sensation one experiences at places like this – lost among numbers of other unknown and probably lost people, looking for the right door to enter while keeping your travel documents safe, as these documents are the only proof of one’s identity, rather than the place itself.
All three works raise the issue of travel both as a leisurely and a non-leisurely activity, as some people travel for leisure reasons, others for non-leisure and some even for disparate purposes. The latter further emphasises the airport as a non-place, an indication of possible displacement. Although it essentially brings together a variety of travellers and their purposes, Threshold to the Kingdom leaves us with a sense of the airport as a vast no-man’s land as well as implying that it is nevertheless a place which is a privilege to reach.
“ Following the same signs we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares.”
The Motorway is another typical non-place of travel; anonymous and temporary. Along the motorway, places become the readings of non-places and abstract direction signs. Large photographs of motorways by Andreas Gursky, for example, Ruhrtal , deal with motorway as non-place of supermodernity. In these photographs, Gursky depicts the lost identity of the German idyllic landscape. These monumental photographs show the huge fly-over of a large motorway. On one of them, it shows a fly-over that diagonally wings over a tiny man that walks on calm and tranquil green field underneath of it. Behind a giant post of the fly-over, hides a leaf-less and seemingly small tree, with only its outstretched branches visible, like two arms gesturing surrender. The size of the man and the field compared with the sheer size of the fly-over is unsettling. It is addressing the issue of the size of the individual in comparison with the gigantic products of technological development, symbolising a sense of alienation.
These photographs give no story at all – they just document unnamed fields, unnamed man and, unnamed (and unbearable) motorway. However, this sense of the unknown and the desolate holds its own atmosphere, with an almost poetic quality. Gursky is an example of contemporary artists who make use of the non-place, and adapt it to their own artistic vision.
Another artist that deals with anonymous non-places is Hans Op de Beeck. In his installation Location 1, he depicts the night time on the vacant crossroads in a desolate landscape. The installation is illuminated with a dark blue light and wisps of mist to give the impression of night time. There is no sign of human life although the illuminated traffic lights carry out their duty like well-trained soldiers: green, orange, red, green, orange, red … and keep controlling the traffic that is not there.
This motionless and silent crossroads, signifying a sort of eternal nowhere is probably the suburb of some ghost town where, in spite that it is vacant, the world carries on without anyone. The haunting mood of Calvino’s Trude is echoed here. This could be any place, any town, city or village; it may just be a crossroads on road between them, as there are no people to characterise it, giving the work an eerie limbo-like quality.
Thinking of motorways, one cannot avoid the images of Wim Wenders’s film Paris – Texas with impressive scenes of two tiny people in their tiny old car underneath of enormous and nameless double fly-over of some American spaghetti junction. This unusual road movie tells a story about an insomniac man lost in his own personal circumstances. To add to the story itself, Wender is using a lot of images of empty American motorways and junctions with many road signs that only signifies places that Travis (the main character) will not visit. The alienation of non-places is emphasised here by his lack of settlement.
Wim Wenders did numerous photographs of American motorways such as his collection of Haiku Photos.
In this collection of photographs, Wim Wenders also depicts bare motorways (highways) with road signs and names of the places one passes by and never visits. Those places are only experienced by motorists as bare names written on the metal road signs along the motorway, seen through the car windscreen or through their rear view mirrors.
The motorists who pass by these motorways never visit those places. Those places remain totally anonymous and will remain in their memory as points on the map, the actual places reduced to their written names only.
Julian Opie’s installation of paintings titled Roadscapes depicts unidentifiable and unknown empty landscapes along the unknown motorways and roads as well as around undistinguished towns and cities.
The only element that connects these painting is the road itself – each painting depicts a portion of the road along which the viewer is (apparently) travelling. Some of these paintings show trains and cars, some only trees, fields and mountains, but none of those could be recognised or identified. All of those are non-places too. Opie’s stylisation of the landscape, his uncomplicated outlines and block colours, are reminiscent of a children’s picture book (indeed, the features of cars, trees etc. provide subjects for the game “I spy”, a game famously played in transit, to pass the time and avoid cries of “Are we there yet?”) evokes the sense of travel as a detachment from a grounded reality.
The Petrol ( Service ) Station:
“ The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, signs that had no changed at all. “
Built as convenience stop along the motorway, the petrol/service station is just as provisional and temporary space on the global network of road travel, as airports lounges are.
There is no history in the service stations or identity due to its solitary arrangement.
A service station is a dehumanising place, where all are reduced to the stereotypes of traveller and consumer, and individuality holds no currency. Being on the road, choices for travellers are limited by necessity, so one is very often forced to use and consume whatever is on the offer: low-cost and unhealthy food and drinks, often unclean toilets etc.
Thinking of petrol stations, as another non-place of travel, the first artwork that springs to mind is Edward Hooper’s painting Gas. The painting shows the exterior of a petrol station in a deserted landscape at the very entrance of a forest. “ The manager has left his cabin to check the level of a pump. It is warm inside and the light is as brilliant as that of the midday sun which washes across the forecourt “
As most other Hopper paintings, Gas deal with the issue of isolation that is enhanced with the approaching shadows of the endless woodland in the background. Petrol stations are often located in remote, far away places, like the ones on motorways, which are part of service stations.
Another work that deals with service stations is Hans Op de Beeck in his installation Location 5. This installation is actually a reconstruction of a motorway service station.
The moulded scenery includes a replica road with street lamps that decrease in size to give the viewer a feeling of perspective. The installation is set in the darkened interior and includes an empty kitchenette, a large and uniformed dining area with a couple of solitary persons sitting around the table. They are staring through the restaurant’s panoramic windows toward the night-time empty motorway. The uncertainties and loneliness of travel hang in the atmosphere, in the oppressive presence of darkness, either approaching or already surrounding. The solitary human figures in both works, like Gursky’s Ruhrtal are dwarfed and alienated by these non-places.
“I had ended the days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels.”
Supermarkets are also defined as non-places of travelling, as to reach the supermarket one has to travel since supermarkets are usually located away from the centres of the cities.
They are located in large and often deserted industrial and/or suburban areas, easily accessible only by cars and almost completely unreachable by foot.
Designers of supermarkets were obviously trying to create some kind of urban identity within these places. The intention was most probably to convince the people to use them not only for shopping purposes but to socialise too. Most certainly, this would result in the increase of supermarket’s profit, as people, if socialising in the area, would also consume more, therefore, spend more too.
Within supermarkets, the pedestrian areas and café’s are often also included. As these places have no identity of their own at all as they are as provisional as the other mentioned spaces. They are actually mostly used by the homeless or others who are perceived to be outcasts of society, sometimes hanging around or begging, while other people just come here, to buy their shopping and leave as soon as they can.
Global chains of supermarkets are also the places where most of the people recognise and often only buys the corporate brand logos.
This particular issue is addressed in Andreas Gursky’s photograph 99 Cent – an extra large photo of the interior of the apparently American supermarket (I said American as prices are displayed in cents and $). This photo is digitally over saturated to accent the brightness and seduction of colours of supermarket’s displayed goods. Everything is so cheap that large posters of 99-cent prices are proudly displayed in the background.
This image is at first sight pleasing to the eye, an interesting and beautifully composed scene. The deliberate manipulation of the image demonstrates his “painterly use of colour”. He is making a non-space into a work of art, as well as making a comment on our garish and mass-produced consumer culture, as Reimschneider and Grosenick suggest of his work as “…a kind of photographic stock-taking distilled into symbols of Western Civilisation.” The significance of this image lies in its recognition of the non-place as a constant contemporary reality.
“Gursky’s images seem unreal and yet true at the same time and this paradox between the familiar and hyper real makes Gursky’s work a treat and wonder to see.”
The non-place depicted as a subject worthy of conscious artistic inspiration is an idea demonstrated by Wim Wenders’ Safeway. This photograph shows the back wall of an American Safeway supermarket. An image of such a high wall, dwarfing the small, single employee side door, may seem imposing or forbidding, were it not for the sense of warmth generated by the blue sky and the strong shadows of the Safeway letters created by the sun. Even the detail of the yellow doorstep of the side-door complements the warmth of the image. Although this is indeed a view of a non-place, Wenders has chosen it as a subject, not in order to convey a sense of alienation or displacement, but in order to note and emphasise a pleasing aesthetic and a meaningful quality. This is conveyed not only by the prominent primary colours (the blue sky, the red letters and the yellow doorstep), or the inviting and secure sense suggested by the words Safe Way but also by the fact that this image was evocative to Wender’s haiku poem which accompanies it.
A few moments ago,
someone probably stood on the yellow step
in front of that door,
smoked a cigarette,
flipped the butt into the hot street
and went back to work inside.
Behind the wall and its promise
of a safe way,
it was certainly nice and cool.
Despite this being part of just another supermarket, another piece of anonymous architecture, Wenders has succeeded to breathe life into it, giving this piece of urban landscape its own character, bringing a different dimension by imagining a story behind the wall.
This is an example of the sense of a subtle beauty that exists within the seemingly mundane or desolate non-places, alongside their alienating quality. This juxtaposition is what makes them interesting subjects for works of art, as Wenders himself has suggested: “The appearance of graphics and writing and hieroglyphs and type-face, both in the city and the desert landscape, is an enormous part of the American culture, and extraordinarily unique. Americans seem to look down on that. For me, it’s on a level with Rembrandt.”
Are all cities becoming the same as Trude in Calvino’s ‘Continuous Cities’? Do non-places diminish our sense of identity? Should this increasing sense of animosity be viewed as entirely negative?
The artists I have selected to convey a presence of non-places all retain a sense of the alienation that these places generate.
But at the same time, they portray them as visionary landscapes which create their own aesthetic, either through artistic adaptation; a sense of poetic license or simply in the act of choosing them as a subject for their art.
These artists choose them as subjects because, despite their initial bleakness, these non-places have something to say to us.
Although a non-place, a lack of place, may signify a loss of identity, it simultaneously creates its own unique experience of new and previously unexpected identities.
I am leaving this journey through the non-paces of travel with one sentence on my mind:
“ You can resume your flight whenever you like, “ they said to me, “ but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by the sole Trude, which does not begin, nor end. Only the name of the airport changes.”
Edita Pecotic (2005)
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Safeway, Corpus Christi, Texas