Jet TravelMarch 20, 2011
Geography is a genre with long attestation in literate cultures. From Western antiquity’s first wandering inquirer Herodotos to the chronicler of imperial Islam Ibn Battuta and his contemporary Marco Polo, discursive writing has been deployed as a way of codifying alterity. I mean that such texts usually regiment a sense of normativity and identification within a certain culture. Contemporary capitalism has its own version of these investigative reports—the guidebook, which might currently be read most accurately as an index of what and where to consume: dinner, handbags, pyramids.
As the texts and images that purport to represent these non-native topoi enter a traveler’s culture, they establish a caché of fantasmatic information. Their narrative seductiveness vies with their stated intention to edify the reader. And, yet, photographs of one’s travels have become a cliché image for the torturously boring. Such banality bristles against the fact that travel remains a primary mode of transformation, assisted by the saturated era of high-speed journeys (for our bodies) and Flickr tags (for our imaginary relations to other places)—a reciprocal transformation that applies to travelers’ bodies, sure, but that also transforms the places into which travelers enter via their native experiences, customs, and cash.
The irruptive simultaneity of this banality and transformative potential finds figural expression in Pablo Guardiola’s Jet Travel, at Romer Young Gallery. Guardiola has taken off from the etymological ground of the “tropaic”—Greek trepho or “to turn”—and literalized that movement in his framing of mostly appropriated imagery of mostly “other places.” In A Note for the Future (2011), the landscape is doubled. The city’s buildings meet the ground in the middle of the image. Below, another cityscape points toward the bottom of the frame. The city is thus turned upside down, but preserved in mirrored and fugal relation to a conventionally pictured and expected image of the skyline. The uncanny duplication of the monolithic buildings recalls the map of Dante’s journey from inferno to paradise with its allegorical subterranean geography and complementary realm above.
Turns mark nearly every work in the exhibition, including two large prints that are not appropriated, but presumably have been taken by Guardiola himself. The needle of the compass in Signal (2011) is built to “turn” with the holder, and yet what it “signals” is an objective relation of that subject to magnetic pull/poles. In the astonishing print “What do you think about space and time travel?” “But I thought all travels were done in time and space” (2011), Guardiola has performed a translation of spatial signifiers into temporal signifiers. Isolated stylized emblems of urban domiciles are re-presented as the names of years from the 1900s and 2000s, recuperating their anonymity by depriving them of locative significance.
In Salitre (2011), a picture of a crowded and festive resort swimming pool is literally turned 180 degrees. The pyramids in Sand.Castles. (2011) have been transformed by virtue of distance and scale from monuments to toys. I wish to communicate with you, K/Kilo (2011) portrays a beach city of undoubtedly coveted high-rise condos; the image is bisected so that the left side appears through an infrared yellow, and the right side through sky or sea blue—as if the sunset itself is turned on its side, engulfing the city from that perverse vantage. In the diptych Sea Is History. Giant Waves (2011), adjacent images show the lovely placidity of buildings next to water on one hand, and on the other, the devastation that’s always an inherent potentiality in human habitations built next to unstable and rapidly disastrous waters. Seeing these juxtaposed images just after the massive loss of life effected by the tsunami waters in Japan provoked a perhaps unintended contingent drama to the encounter.
To some extent, the photographs aspire to the ahistorical. That is, they recapitulate photography’s paradoxical wager of establishing an enduring image of the quintessentially ephemeral: here, cities and landscapes of other places. And yet the long tradition of geography as a genre is fundamental to Guardiola’s sense of what and how these images provoke. The aluminum portfolio Marco Polo (2011) states this, asserting that Marco Polo is the anti-Ulysses. Odyssey is a teleological journey in which every region is a mere obstacle to Odysseus’ ultimate return to Ithaca; Marco Polo, on the other hand, continually moves from one place to another, obsessively repeating an abdication of the home in favor of new experience.
Jet Travel seems allergic to even this post hoc didacticism of Polo’s descriptive discourse. You know how Herodotos is always like, “The Parthians like to eat stewed turtles and their wives pick nuts and stir them into the stew,” or whatever; scribe-travelers like Herodotos return home with a marvelous story to recount; they try to instruct their fellows and sisters who might one day travel to such lands. But these texts also traditionally instate the author as the heroic traveler. In this sense, Guardiola’s comparison of Polo to Ulysses, even in the negative, is extraordinarily acute: his travels are epic.
Yet, in Jet Travel, the protagonist doesn’t appear and, even if she did, she wouldn’t have actually gone anywhere. There is no impulse for a pedagogical geography beyond the insistence on perpetual turning: a serial interrogation of this tradition’s never-objective mode of inquiry. However, there is a conventional exhortation to viewers—an attention to renewal, detournement. Remember how Derrida describes the gallery as a labyrinth that includes in itself its own exits? Guardiola’s labyrinth figures instead as the jet plane with its LED emergency exits. The stability of imagery threatening to emblematize a whole place is highly unstable; there is no telling what will emerge. The specter of the flâneur is one possible figure not cited here, but extractable; the armed, insane colonist another. Viewers may embark on psychogeographical explorations of their own. With fits and starts. Expect turbulence.
Jet Travel is on view at Romer Young Gallery, in San Francisco, through April 9, 2011.