Beautiful Test Sites/Now I am become death


Beautiful Test Sites/Now I am become death, Mitchell Squire and Nora Wendl, Sanitary Tortilla Factory, Albuquerque, New Mexico | July 13 - August 31, 2018

In Beautiful Test Sites / Now I am become death, Mitchell Squire and Nora Wendl make full use of their research-based and architecturally-founded practices to present a series of photographs that meditate upon “beautiful test sites”: spaces and bodies wastelanded by the American techno-utopian imagination of the 20th century. For Squire, this means unearthing a series of inherited mid-20th century photographs taken by an amateur photographer—who at the time served as Executive Secretary of the Iowa Industrial and Defense Commission (1941-45), the first Director of the Iowa Development Commission (1945-53), and State Director of Civil Defense during WWII and again in the 1950s—and whose subjects were both women and nuclear blasts, whose images Squire alters through the strategic use of gilded frames, veils, and glass vases. Nora Wendl presents a series of photographs taken during her recent occupational performance of the all-glass Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in the mid-20th century—a house that was conceived the same year as the first American nuclear test. Wendl pairs these with a series of archival photographs of women within this house who have commonly been mistaken as being Dr. Farnsworth, which she heavily annotates with autobiographical and biographical information, thus bringing specificity to women who are otherwise anonymous within the visual discourse of architectural history: researcher and subject alike.

The mode of operation in viewing visual information today, and particularly photographs, is that even a casual observer must work as a journalist to determine veracity. At the same time, the photograph is a way to arrest beauty, to prolong it, and to catalog even those places and bodies that are wastelanded until a future time when they can be read and named.


“I Listened” (2017) and “Any woman in the company of this house” (2018) comprise my contribution to this exhibition with Mitchell Squire, Beautiful Test Sites/Now I become death. In the first set of photographs, I inhabit the Farnsworth House, designed by Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth (1951) and located in a floodplain in Plano, Illinois. In exchange for a cash payment and the promise that I would give a lecture at no cost, I was allowed to inhabit the house for one hour. For this performance, I wore a dress designed in the 1940s (when Farnsworth and Mies began their conversations) and I used the house in fairly ordinary ways while recording the fallout of this occupation: human sounds. My aim was to bring presence to the invisible and the temporary, the un-recordable elements of history: traces of Farnsworth’s inhabitation of this house, which is today a museum to the architect. I was photographed through these glass walls in a series of images that are true to the disorienting experience of this glass house: the transparent exterior renders the world that one observes flat, and the disorientation that is perceived is actually the disorientation of the clarity of vision with the reality of all but sensory input removed: the vivid world on the other side can only be seen (not heard, felt, etc.)

The distancing effect of glass in this series is also central to “Any woman in the company of this house” (2018), in which the history of the house itself is taken as both material and subject. Traveling to numerous archives in North America—the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Museum of History, Museum of Modern Art, and Newberry Library—I have amassed a collection of photographs of women in the company of this iconic modern house in its various states of being: from picnics attended by the client, the architect and his staff during the design process to photographs of visits to the house under construction, to its inhabitation. Depending upon the archive and the staff’s familiarity with the history of this house, and depending upon the historian interpreting the image, there can be an ambiguity and at times a total misidentification of which woman is Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Farnsworth is one of the most important patrons of modern architecture of the 20th century, and yet because she is not ‘iconic’ in the sense that figures of men and buildings often are (the architect and his iconic cigar, the iconic and clean lines of the house), she becomes lost in history: to the extent that women misidentified as her have been emailed to me by well-meaning colleagues. I read this as an extension of her place in mid-20th-century America, a culture in which as described by Kelly & Girard and by Jenn Shapland, the woman alone, the single woman, is queer, refuses and surpasses categorization.

Historians act much in the way that artists do—choosing their material, selectively framing it and, inevitably, obscuring it with language. In this case, the language (which I have authored) gives an autobiographical account of my relationship to each archival image of the house, reifying that which is typically invisible. These texts encompass questions about Farnsworth’s desire: the desire she felt for architecture was not in the details of the structure itself (which she mostly left to her architect), but in the promise of a house of one’s own, an element of that ever-elusive American dream and what it affords: social mobility, a cultural locus, and status. She didn’t want the architect, or the house itself, but a place to have company, to discuss and problematize the mid-century condition—a time in which nuclear weapons were being tested and deployed by U.S., first in New Mexico, and then all over the world—while the consumer economy hit a fever pitch, conflating American patriotism with the consumption of home products.

These two projects are experiments—beautiful test sites, so to speak—in a radical approach to architectural history that might include and engage (and hold fallible) the historian as both the author and the inhabitant of materials of the past: working not only to interpret facts, but to locate and make visible the less material elements of architectural history, prioritizing and problematizing that which precedes every human act: desire.