The first image in Amie Siegel’s alluring but problematic 40-minute video Provenance (2013) is of Stanley Gardens, a short road in West London. It’s an establishing shot for an interior: a minimally decorated townhouse with furniture by, among others, Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. In succession we visit other residences with Corb furniture, among them a Parisian flat with a chair reupholstered in beige suede, a severely decorated Belgian home where you can see a giant Taschen book on Le Corbusier on a coffee table, a loft in Manhattan, two houses in the Hamptons (one Modernist, one shingle style), and a super-yacht large enough to have its own elevator whose glass doors make a whoosh sound like something out of Star Trek. Siegel never identifies these locations and presents all their interiors with a forensic detachment: there’s no dialogue, and individual pieces of furniture are showcased via long, slow tracking shots.
All the Corbusier/Jeanneret pieces in these homes come from Chandigarh, the purpose-built Haryana and Punjab capital whose Modernist buildings, many of which have fallen into disrepair, are being picked clean by decorative arts dealers. At Chicago’s Wright auction house, where the Arne Jacobson chairs in the sale room are almost entirely empty, Siegel films a pair of club chairs from the Chandigarh high court selling for US$16,000 to a phone bidder; Artcurial in Paris sells a manhole cover. By now it’s become clear that the film is moving back in time and – after visits to a storage facility, a furniture restorer and the hold of a cargo ship (Siegel blows the budget on a helicopter shot of the vessel) – we finally arrive in India. At the Legislative Assembly, whose concrete expanses are discoloured and chipped, adorable monkeys are clambering up the walls. A Jeanneret desk that would fetch hundreds of thousands on the block sits next to a hideous fake leather office chair and a portrait of Parkash Singh Badal, the long-serving Punjabi chief minister. A teak and wicker armchair exactly like those on the yacht is seen again in an office divided into cubicles; couches like the ones at auction are piled by the dozen outside the High Court.
Provenance is certainly an appealing travelogue. The interiors of Chandigarh have rarely been filmed this elegantly – the HD video makes the legislature’s parti-coloured carpets gleam – and students of the market will have fun seeing how the other one percent lives with its Chandigarh furniture: one owner seems to have upholstered his chairs to match his Robert Mangold. Yet it’s hardly news that Modernist decorative arts, often seen by their creators as part of an emancipatory or even revolutionary project, are now valued even more highly than antiques by an international collecting class. Nor should anyone be surprised (least of all in India) that white people like to go to poor countries, take their stuff and sell it for a massive profit. Siegel surely undertook this laborious project to examine the failed dreams of International Style architects and the recession of their work into the luxury trade, but if there’s any criticism of that phenomenon it’s entirely implicit. Chandigarh and the Hamptons are filmed in the same aloof, sumptuous style – chirping birds are heard in the first case, lapping waves in the second – and the artist’s thorough refusal to identify locations, dealers or collectors keeps us at a distance from the true provenance of these objects.
In a baffling postscript to her Chandigarh project, Siegel sold an edition of Provenance at Christie’s in London last month, and filmed the sale. Her New York exhibition concluded beforehand, but it included a framed page from the auction catalogue (‘A hauntingly beautiful video of tremendous scope,’ the catalogue entry began). I suppose that with this biting-one’s-own-tail gesture Siegel is trying to remind us of what we should all already know: that no art can stand outside the market, which eventually gets its hands on everything. Yet if that’s true then there’s no reason not to work in a much more critical, analytical mode, parameterizing the mechanisms by which public works for the poor become private luxuries for the rich instead of standing at such a polite remove. Siegel’s admittedly lovely film is not without interest if you want to see the end product of this complex cultural and economic process. But I could say the same about Architectural Digest.