Modernity Deferred: The Work of Luis Molina-Pantin

Coco Fusco

My photographs are nudes of the sets that I see as still lives.
Luis Molina-Pantin

But is the popular nothing more than the effect of certain acts of Enunciation and staging?
Nestor García-Canclini. Hybrid Cultures

With his images of depopulated man-made spaces, Luis Molina-Pantin unhinges photography’s promise to present us with a view of the real disentangled from what we imagine. The starkness of such a message was for me tempered by having had the good fortune to encounter Molina-Pantin’s images in his home in Caracas, which I first visited in 1998. There, I was able to look at his photographs arranged for his own pleasure and contemplation, and to see how they related to his own domestic and urban environment. The windows of the apartment in the 1960s building where the artist lives open onto bird’s eye views of Caracas that resemble his fractured panoramic cityscapes. A wall length mural of a tropical beach in the dining room blends the reality of such scenery’s proximity with its symbolic status as an image of idyllic leisure. A carefully chosen collection of conceptual artworks and 60’s material culture, from figurines to furniture, adorns the rooms.

Altogether, these elements recall a period when people in many parts of the world surrounded themselves with artifacts that symbolized their optimistic embrace of the future and their faith in the inevitability of progress. What does such an embrace mean, however, in a place where modernity’s grasp is palpably uneven? What do the rationalist bent and geometric style of modernist aesthetics signify when they are juxtaposed against the ebullience of a tropical landscape, the chronic economic instability of underdevelopment or the social and political turmoil that accompanies it? And why is it that since the early 1960s several notable artists from Latin America have been simultaneously drawn to and skeptical of the promise of a more perfect world implied by hard-edged modernism? From the answers to these questions emanate the specters that haunt Molina-Pantin’s deceptively cool images. While he eschews the photographic genres most commonly associated with Latin American image-makers –- humanistic documentary and vernacular surrealism – he does not refrain from making incisive social commentaries.

Molina-Pantin is one of several contemporary Venezuelan artists whose works are decidedly unromantic and post-nationalist. Among them the best known are Meyer Vaisman, Sammy Cucher, and José Antonio Hernandez-Diez. These artists came of age during and after their country’s oil boom, living through its subsequent financial decline and political upheaval. They have witnessed the decay of utopian nationalism throughout the region and the backlash against anthropological approaches to Latin American art. They endure the legacy of Venezuela’s kineticists, whose sculptures have acquired monumental status in their homeland as markers of Venezuela’s having a foothold in the history of postwar modernism. They create their works at a time when neoliberalism is sweeping through the hemisphere, engendering a seismic economic shift that has dovetailed with a surge in interest in modernist practices from the so-called periphery.

Many of these artists study abroad, in the case of Molina-Pantin, in Montreal and San Francisco, and they live outside Venezuela for extended periods. As post-modern polyglots, they comfortably adjudicate among a variety of international art vocabularies. In what is now at least a three generation tradition of radical détournement among Latin American artists, they often infuse the formalist idioms of postwar modernism with socio-political content, imparting a more contextually based significance to the intercultural exchange of forms than most of their European and North American counterparts. Molina-Pantin’s decision to operate within the postmodern discourse of appropriation enables him to make incisive comments about the iconic popular cultural imagery as the distorted mirror through which we view ourselves. And in the work he has produced about Venezuela, he reframes the language of new objectivism to underscore its political viability in a place where the project of describing and measuring has been historically associated with conquest and control.

The year before I came in contact with Molina-Pantin’s work I had traveled to Caracas for the first time on a journalistic mission to reveal the secret of Venezuela’s success as an exporter of beauty queens – the country holds the world’s record of international beauty contest titles. In the process I came to understand the centrality of the TV station Venevision to both to the Miss Venezuela phenomenon and to the national culture and economy. In addition to sponsoring the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant, the most expensive and widely exported program in Latin America, Venevision is one of the continent’s most important television conglomerates and soap opera producers. No other television station in Venezuela can match its grip on the national consciousness, or its control of media images that project Venezuelan cultural identity. Venevision is also owned by the Cisneros family, who is also patrons of their country’s most influential arts foundation, and owners of a substantial contemporary art collection.

All these details rushed into my mind when I entered Molina-Pantin’s apartment and noticed small-scale versions of his series Inmobila (1997) scattered around the entrance and hallway. His deadpan renderings of sets from popular television programs are devoid of people but cropped so as to show the edges, that is to say, visually speaking, where the fictions end.

Depicted are a variety of sets, from the living room of a landed bourgeois family to a newsroom, from a dormitory unit in a women’s prison to the backdrop of a prime time talk show. Not only the absence of actors, but also the lack of any clutter that might be generated by human beings gives these images an eerily unreal quality. And then there are the small but bizarre errors that thrust the fictitiousness of these environments into the foreground, such as the roll of toilet paper in stuck in the middle of a wall of a one-room shanty without anything resembling a toilet.
Undistracted by human dramas, my mind wrapped itself around the garish colors, the bright, flat lighting’s enhancement of the scenes’ artificiality, and the calculatedly tidy renderings of poverty and hardship. Molina-Pantin’s style and scale may resemble that of new objectivist photographers such as Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, but his particular choice of subject and title Inmobilia, with its allusion to real estate agencies, evoke references other than the grandiosity of classical painting. An equally relevant antecedent to Inmobilia would be Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, in which the artist Hans Haacke underscored the relationship between objectively seeming photographic documents of property used as city records and the political and economic interests governing New York City. Molina-Pantin transfers this brand of institutional critique to the domain of the televisual, commenting on a corporate conglomerate’s control of a collective imagination through his metaphorical deployment of property. By presenting the works as if they were part a portfolio of properties for sale, Molina-Pantin undercuts the apparent objectivity of his view and implicates himself as a purveyor of sites that exist as cultural imaginaries but that cannot actually be bought. In doing so he hints at a far from disinterested relationship not only between artist and viewer but between artist and patron, the irony of which is doubled by the fact that Inmobilia is now part of the Cisneros collection. One might then ask what he is selling? If it is the sets themselves, is this a message about the bankruptcy of the fictions staged therein? Or do these images form an allegory about peddling fictions as realities and about television as a virtual reality that audiences want to buy into and view as real? By teasing out these possibilities for our contemplation, Molina-Pantin captures and reflects the construction of a social reality without illustrating it in a literal sense.

Another series that the artist produced just before Inmobilia also plays upon the iconicity of the photographic image, which is to say the ways in which images become disentangled from their pro-filmic referents. It is only then that those images evoke ideas of place and impart the fantasy of ownership to the subject who consumes them. Apocalyptic Postcards (1996) consists of a set of scrupulously exact enlargements of postcards representing eight cities. Each image conveys an overly familiar view: for example London’s Thames, Venice’s Piazza San Marco and Paris’ Notre Dame. The postcards’ lurid palette of red, orange, yellow, purple and black accentuates their liminal representational status as both document and icon. As visualizations of clichés symbols of the experience of tourism, the recall the postmodern subject’s relationship to time and space as images and commodities that can be exchanged and consumed.

Only one of the images in Apocalyptic Postcards is of Venezuela. It is a view of a flaming oil tower in the lake of Maracaibo, the seat of the country’s top industry. In that picture, the colors that in the other images appears garishly expressionistic suddenly seem almost hyperreal: the sky’s golden hue reflects the flames around the tower, the steel blue clouds look more like smoke from the fire. And whereas it might seem typical and harmless for a tourist to identify Paris with Notre Dame, the reduction of Venezuela to an burning oil tower suggests a somewhat bleaker situation. Venezuela’s dependency on its oil industry is precisely what made the country structurally underdeveloped even at the height of its affluence. Molina-Pantin appears here to be presenting an image of his country being devoured by its primary source of wealth.

While Maracaibo may be known for its oil towers, Caracas is more readily identified with its hi-rise apartment complexes, an architectural sign of its embrace of the modern. The ubiquitousness of buildings under construction in the present day however, Molina-Pantin suggests in his recently produced exhibition Falsas Pistas (1998) (False Trails or False Clues) might not necessarily represent economic growth. Though many artists throughout the world have used buildings as a metaphor for modernity, and for the capacity of human beings to create and recreate their world, Molina-Pantin resurrects that familiar trope in order to turn it on its head. The buildings in his pictures are incomplete, but no one works on them. It is not clear where they are located, but many seem to be sprouting in uninhabited areas, at the end of unmarked dirt roads. The stillness they convey suggests stagnation, a process interrupted, or even cancelled, as if these half unbuilt buildings were ruins of a social project gone awry, symbols of a recession or evidence of money laundering. It is as if the artist asks us to consider them as failures or as facades.

I would not want to suggest by these comments that one can reduce Molina-Pantin to a chronicler of the Venezuelan condition. In fact, a good deal of his work has been shot outside his country, in Europe, North America and Cuba. Nonetheless, many of those works, also unveil the strange intercultural ties that bind people from one world to power structures in another through the display of the oddly unreal places where those exchanges often take place. I am thinking here of his 1995 series from the ANA Hotel
which is composed of images of the halls and rooms of a hotel in San Francisco that is actually part of a Japanese chain the which are designed to look generically western. In the same way that the sets of the television shows in Inmobilia represent Venezuelan-ness as artifice, the western-ness of the hotel interiors is just odd enough to be noticeably fake.

Molina-Pantin’s most recent series of photographs of the German airline Lufthansa’s planes and other signature products might seem to be a departure from the works I have thus far concentrated on. They’re framing and focus on geometric perfectionism and morphological uniformity stress the function of these modernist principles as the visual metaphors in the age of global communication for technology’s transcendence of nature, mortality and organic complexity. Indeed, with these images, Molina-Pantin joins a host of young artists in a variety of countries who are currently turning their lenses on airplanes and airports as representations of classical ideal forms with palpable social functions. In several conversations that I have had with the artist, he has stressed his own fascination with what he calls Lufthansa’s aesthetics as his conscious motive. I cannot help but ponder, however, the significance of the metaphor of flight for a society in which the majority voting population recently ejected an established political class and whose new president advocates dispensing with the political system that enabled his own rise to power. Could it be once again that flight could be as much about waiting to depart as it is about having arrived? Can images that serve as a representation of an already achieve cultural shift for some, could signify unfulfilled wishes for others?

Despite the apparent fluidity of exchange of signs in the age of globalization, one’s view of the phenomenon is still marked by one’s place in the world. It thus remains strategically beneficial for cultural production and interpretation to know what things mean where they come and how they resonate differently when they arrive from elsewhere. Molina-Pantin takes on many familiar photographic subjects of postindustrial corporate culture, such as futuristic architecture and images of mobility and transit as paradigmatic of nomadic sensibility. He does so using an apparently rationalist style of presentation. Nonetheless, his photographs are not celebrations of the end of a sense of place, nor do they unequivocally champion the power of the lens to capture the world for an observer. In each case, he presents us with symbolically charged social spaces that exceed and even subvert their frame.