in Features | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Dave Hullfish Bailey

Las Vegas and Berlin; bird-watching and urban development; mobbing and elbow room

in Features | 14 NOV 05

In 1999 the ‘real’ Dave Hullfish Bailey was temporarily hidden behind the promotional persona of a sweet-talking urban developer, selling the idea of transplanting Berlin’s visual image to Las Vegas. Including reenactments of Die Luftbrücke (the airlift to West Berlin in 1948), and replicas of the East Berlin television tower and the Pergamon altar from the eponymous museum placed alongside the Luxor Hotel, a big dose of Vegas-style mythification would, apparently, help the unified Berlin lay its historical ghosts to rest and really find itself again.

Bailey’s book Union Pacific: Berlin’s Neue Mitte and the Fringes of Las Vegas (1999) is a meticulous satire on how the unification hype sought to redeem Berlin as a global city. Setting out to nail the primary engines of Berlin’s collective memory loss – escapism, nostalgia and exoticism – Bailey’s bricolage of text and image is a piece of devil’s advocacy; it uses its fictitious plot not as a mechanism to escape the social and political realities of the city, but to investigate them in minute detail.

Reading Union Pacific today is like flipping through a blueprint for the subsequent development of the German capital, with the corporate trophyism of Potsdamer Platz as the most salient example of a process in which Berlin itself was cast to play Las Vegas playing Berlin – a peculiar, on-site displacement that possibly involved a greater amount of historical amnesia than would have been involved in actually building Berlin’s mirror image in the Nevada desert.

Making use of a wide range of strategies, Bailey’s installations and sculptures make elbow room and escape routes for when the spaces we inhabit are threatened with being shut down. They speak of the protean fluidity of space with its migrations and occupations, exposing frontiers and trouble spots, haunts and refuges, and investigating the social opportunities latent in our individual mapping and world-making activities. Listening Post (2004) was a kind of shelter, partially buried under a tin roof and dug out at the edge of the Danish city of Herning. Part excavation, part construction site, part yet-to-be-defined hang-out, it staked out urbanization. Parallel to this, Bailey installed a tableau at the local art museum in which carpets with abstract patterns formed the backdrop for a diverse range of objects lent by locals, from private snapshots to stuffed birds. Ornithology became a metaphor for longing and desire, and the ways we bend semantic and functional conventions to private ends. The site/non-site dialectic of Listening Post pitted what we know about a place against the ways we desire it, off the official maps: Bailey’s impulse for making the piece was ‘in effect to spatter “Herning” across one or more hemispheres until “it” would not fully disclose the truth of the place, but at least it would not conceal it with a dot on the map’.

Beneath Bailey’s playfulness is a strong sense of urgency. His work makes it clear that the limits of civilization are not only encountered in wars and disasters, but are inherent in the ways we imagine the world politically. How do we find ways to get along, here and now? How do we enter into co-operative communities without stumbling into the same old collectivist pitfalls?

Most recently, at Daniel Hug Gallery in Los Angeles and earlier at IBID Projects in London, Bailey dramatized these questions in the form of a contemporary people’s theatre. At Daniel Hug Gallery, the first thing the viewer came across was a seating platform made out of bales of straw, Platform (Proposal) (2005), a morphology loosely based on a Russian Agit-prop theatre set and reminiscent of the Stealth fighter plane in shape. The overall project, realised differently in each location, takes its cue from the piece of bird behaviour known as ‘mobbing’, a fear-based response typically used by flocks of songbirds to divert attacks by larger predators. Next to the Constructivist stage, nine drawings of owls (Fright Mask Studies, 2005) and a puppet theatre of wooden owls (Decoys, 2004–5) in various states of abstraction (if not reduction) explored the minimum requirements for the identification of an enemy, real or imagined. Accompanied by sporadically timed field recordings of the screeching and hissing of owls, Old Testament verses mentioning the ominous presence of owls were written on wooden signs in a barely legible typography, leaving it to the beholder to unscramble the holy text. The installation’s low-budget aesthetics blended the village fête with Parliament in a way similar to the rhetoric of much recent American and European political discourse, in which manufactured sincerity and ‘folksiness’ have become essential principles of social bonding. Bailey reminds us that, just as the invasion of space provokes territorial behaviour and hostility, so the politics of fear always evokes the evils it warns against.