"It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, either in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality over the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their directions, and he awakens them."
- Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
"The truth will set you free. But not until it is done with you."
- David Foster Wallace
In 1928 the architect Mies van der Rohe was commissioned to design a pavilion representing Weimar Germany at the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. The building ended up becoming justly famous as the most eloquent definition of what was later gathered into Modernism. This definition would be something like, ‘Not only doing way more with way less, but becoming so good at it that you could thread a way out of the bewilderment and perversity which gnaw at modern lives of otherwise unparalleled bounty and convenience.’
The pavillion was designed to be doorless and mostly made of glass. In almost every way a building could be optimistic for the century it wanted to predict, this one was. The evidence for class oppression that great houses bear, like backstairs and basement kitchens are gone. Blank walls on which evidence of wealth could be displayed have been replaced by windows. Reality is the thing that transparent walls force your attention to confront. The pavillion even does away with the convention of a ‘front’ or a ‘back.’ Without a face on which to project how we want to be seen, duplicity becomes more difficult than simply being honest. The building hopes that without anything to hide behind, the very ideas of secrecy and guile will become too cumbersome to survive.
But in the very temple of delight. There was one place in the pavillion that showed a terrible shadow on the 20th century. Beyond the main room there was a reflecting pool. In the middle of the pool stood a statue of a nude woman. This choice to place a statue at a remove from anyone who would look at it is as elegant a definition as anything else in the building, but what is being defined is hideous. The fact that a statue has been taken out of the round and put in a position that allows only one point of view is an example of something our era has done on an industrial scale—the reduction of volumes to images. A statue by definition fills a volume, but limiting our perspective makes it flat. An image.
The act of reducing the freedom to see from whichever perspective suits you, down to only one, is as old as the allegory of the cave, where statues were reduced to their shadows. But the pavillion predicts that this process will come to dominate everything the statue represents: Art, diversion, beauty, and eventually, people themselves. All of us will buy, favor, love and appreciate from across an impassable distance. We will be segregated from everything we admire and from everything we want, because images are all we are presented with and flatness cannot be embraced.
Over and above every other example of this process is fame. If we are tricked by advertising into buying a phantom, wanting to be famous is wanting to become the phantom. It’s a desire that mistakes isolation for rarity, loneliness for exceptionality, and distance for height. The popular desire for fame is the crowning achievement of a hundred year campaign to iron out any aspect of being alive that calls for a complex and irreducible expression of humanity.
The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil by photographer Rodrigo Baleia. (via the Wall Street Journal)