REVIEW: Speculative value within Amie Siegel's Quarry

Emma Kenny | March 23, 2017

Amie Siegel: Quarry. Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Amie Siegel’s single-channel video, Quarry (2015), was installed at the Audain Gallery from January 12 to March 11, 2017. Quarry speculates on the financial and cultural values of marble and how the material comes to possess its significance. Siegel encourages viewers to look closely and attentively, and to examine the relationship between art and urban cultural space, as well as the value that our contemporary capitalist culture places in material goods.

The video moves methodically and slowly into the Vermont Danby quarry, the largest known, running over a mile and a half into the earth. Through her camera work, which maintains a rhythm of slow, disciplined tracking shots, the quarry is imbued with an eerie yet peaceful feeling. Within this natural setting we are shown the violent excavation process that includes cutting, sanding and washing. In its naturally found form, marble is not yet a symbol of opulence, but a rugged and raw stone that remains unrefined and dirty. Siegel’s decision to depict very few human workers romanticizes labour in the quarry, making it appear as though mining were a smooth, mechanized process. However, the excavation is brutal and exhausting, and the labour is callous. As we are shown, even the largest construction equipment struggles with the incredible weight and power of the marble. A musical score of Neptune: The Mystic from Gustav Holst’s Planets (1914-1916) accompanies Siegel’s images. It is bold and profound, emphasizing the immense perceived worth of marble, and adding value to the stone through association with its opulent qualities.

Amie Siegel, Quarry, 2015, HD video (still). Courtesy Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Contrasting the environment and manufacturing in the quarry, Siegel’s camera moves into the seamless view of Manhattan’s newest luxury condominium showrooms. Paralleling the opening stillness of the quarry, the buildings and spaces are slowly exposed, revealing their tranquil, unlived existence. Slabs of marble similar to the ones extracted from the Danby quarry, furbish the walls, countertops and tables of the display suites. The suites are meticulously clean, and each furnishing, including candles and flowers, are seamlessly arranged and unsettlingly perfect. Unlived and untouched, the apartments emanate modern luxury. Siegel’s slow, rhythmic tracking shots and camera pans are patterned in a way that suggests that the viewer is scrolling through an online catalogue of potential listings, each image is sustained long enough to emphasize its brilliance and to ensure the viewer appreciates every detail. While watching, I found myself admiring them and imagining how amazing it would feel to call one of these spaces home. Siegel’s strategy encourages viewers like me to reflect on our own lifestyle practices, and to consider the personal value that we place on material goods.

Amie Siegel, Quarry, 2015, HD video (still). Courtesy Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

I found myself questioning how these homes could be real. Every element in them is completely still and inconceivably perfect. Even the vistas, seen through the windows of these showrooms are flawless and stable, with no visible activity. In fact, many of the spaces Siegel shows us are too perfect to be real. Some images are rendered, borrowed from real estate companies’ speculative imaging. By moving between three-dimensional life-size space to model replicas to digital images and 3D renderings, Siegel suggests that the concept of material objects may be more enticing than their actual embodiment.

Siegel’s camera work and editing strategies encourage viewers to reflect on the parallels and contrasts between the quarry and the luxury real-estate spectacles. Through suspiciously precise panning and long-observant takes, the beautiful, perfection of real estate developments is imbued with a sense of eerie disillusion. With smooth, careful camera work and a mystical soundtrack, the brutal and raw nature of the quarry is made peaceful and effervescent. By creating these tensions, Siegel presents these two sites as tenuous and precarious, and frames the economy of these objects as speculative – that their value is in the concept of their virtues, not in their material form.

The qualities of tenuous, precarious and speculative, could also be applied to contemporary art and its value. While watching Quarry, it is important to maintain an awareness that the video itself is a carefully conceptualized and constructed art object. In these showrooms, histories of painting, architecture and literature contribute to and inform their design, accrediting value to them. This can be seen through the installation of art in the showrooms, such as a Mark Rothko print displayed in a hallway, or a Brice Marden painting in a kitchen. The Manhattan showrooms replicate the same structure as an art gallery – white, clean, and emblematic of importance. With this, Siegel adds value to the marble and the luxury condominiums through her representation of them in the gallery, as well as the showrooms.

In Vancouver, urban condo development corporations have also capitalized on the value that contemporary art adds to real estate. For example, Westbank Corporation’s recent exhibition projects, Japan Unlayered associated with the 1550 Alberni Street development and Gesamktunstwerk associated with the Vancouver House development, are branded by the concept that they are not just apartments but “total works of art”. Westbank is also the company responsible for re-developing the Woodwards department store, the mixed-use complex that houses SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts and the Audain Gallery, where Quarry was exhibited. This parallel encourages me to question whether Siegel acknowledges the value relations between her own artworks and the spaces they occupy, and whether Quarry adds value to the Woodwards development through its presentation in it?

Last December, Siegel bought a piece of marble that was intended for the New York Trump Tower atrium on EBay. Even though the size of the wedge is very small, it holds a great deal of value, following Donald Trump’s recent inauguration as the President of the United States. The value of this piece post-presidency is vastly different than it would have been pre-presidency. This shifting speculative value is also tied to Siegel’s ongoing engagement with the material. After winning the EBay bid, Siegel displayed the rock as an artwork in her exhibition at the South London Gallery, alongside Quarry, which ran parallel to her exhibition at Audain Gallery.

Amie Siegel. Dynasty, 2017. Mixed media including marble fragment from Trump Tower, dimensions variable. Exhibition view, South London Gallery, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Simon Preston Gallery, New York. Photograph: Andy Stagg.

Although Quarry is a seemingly pleasant video to watch, it expresses a socially and politically fueled representation of North American society’s mindset regarding material possessions and what consuming them represents. With this critique in mind, it is useful to acknowledge that we as consumers are deeply enjoying what we claim to be critical of. What if this production was placed in an IMAX theatre, a space for enjoying awe-inspiring sights of beauty, rather than an art gallery that provokes critical inquiry? The ironic complexity of Quarry may be lost in that context, while in a contemporary art gallery Siegel’s introspective view into prescient cultural conditions is easier to appreciate.