The desire of modern architecture was to encourage more efficient and transparent living, thereby elevating human existence. Like most utopian dreams, however, modern architecture failed to achieve its aims. Human beings continued to make the same mistakes we have made throughout history: We started wars, we lied, we cheated, we destroyed the planet, we persecuted those weaker. Despite modernist architecture, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, supported in some cases by people who lived in those same modernist homes, now relics from the past rather than visions for the future.
The failure of utopia is exactly what Catherine Opie wanted to capture in “The Modernist” a photographic series and 21-minute film composed of stills open at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York through January 17, 2019. “I’m heavily questioning our desires as human beings,” Opie tells L’Officiel over the phone from Los Angeles, where she has lived and worked for much of her career. “Modernism and modernist architecture elevated this kind of utopic sensibility, especially after World War II, when so many artists and architects were leaving war-torn Europe. Heavy metaphors are embedded within all the glass and reflective materials. My character loves the structures so much he wants to destroy them.”
The Modernist, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 post-apocalyptic time travel film La Jetée, stars Opie’s longtime collaborator and friend Pig Pen as a solitary artist obsessed with burning down Los Angeles’ iconic modernist buildings. In a series of black-and-white photographs that click along at a steady beat—Opie describes the pacing of the film as “beat poetry”—the film begins with Pig Pen planning the arsons in a neat, well-lit studio where he sleeps on the couch and papers the walls with collages of modern homes overlaid with flames. In the low light of early morning, Pig Pen then sets fire to architect John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence, a pyramid-like home built between 1961-63, and his Chemosphere, an octagonal structure built in 1960 that sticks out of the Hollywood Hills like a UFO. The film ends with Pig Pen alone in the house, free from suspicion, gazing at his collage now come to fruition in the scant light provided by a pair of lit matches. “The character isn’t a villain or a hero,” Opie explains. “I like the neutral position of the character as a lone wolf artist trying to grapple with today’s challenges.”
“I’m trying to say a lot of things. I’m talking about chaos.”
Opie deliberately left out any soundtrack or voiceover narration, choosing instead to tell the narrative using visual language: Pig Pen’s queer body superimposed over architectural masterpieces tells the history of haves and have nots in America, the words torn from newspapers and superimposed on his collage hints at the violence brewing in America. “Real change at helm,” reads one phrase. “Scorched earth,” another. “Fire’s charred and chilling landscape.” The words are bloated with current events, such as the wildfires that have raged across California this past year, but also hint at revolution, the rumblings of which are only just beginning as the United States becomes increasingly polarized over issues like immigration, the #MeToo movement, transgender rights, and the Brett Kavauagh confirmation. “I’m trying to say a lot of things,” Opie explains. “I’m talking about chaos.”
Opie has never shied away from the political in her work. Raised in Sandusky, Ohio, she moved to California to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in 1982. Later, she received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, where her thesis project consisted of a series of photographs of model homes that projected a vision of the American Dream, as embodied by clear-eyed, healthy-looking straight white people. Those images hinted at Opie’s longtime fascination with architecture as a vessel for values, but it was her self-portraits, shown at the Whitney Biennial in 1995, that grabbed the art world’s.
“I don’t want to make a slogan. I want to start an aesthetic conversation about the relationship of art within political spaces.”
In “Self Portrait/Pervert” (1994) for example, she is shown wearing a black leather hood, her arms pierced with matching rows of needles, the word “Pervert” freshly carved above her breasts, still bleeding. The portrait paid homage to Opie’s involvement in the BDSM community, but to many, they were shocking, showing an underground countercultural movement easier to ignore. Since then, Opie has photographed a wide array of subjects, from Elizabeth Taylor’s personal belongings to California surfers and Boy Scouts, but her self-portraits remain her most iconic work.
But in 2018, the portraits pack less punch. In our selfie-obsessed media environment, the body is no longer taboo. Now, if you don’t put your confessional freak flag with all its scars, stretch marks, and fat rolls on display, you’re a Kardashian or a coward. What Opie considers subversive has also changed. In retrospect, she sees those self-portraits as overtly political—she is hesitant to use the word didactic, although she mentions it multiple times.These days, she wants to make political statements that are subtler and that she hopes will withstand the test of time. “I don’t want to make a slogan,” she says. “I want to start an aesthetic conversation about the relationship of art within political spaces.” First and foremost, the conversation must be beautiful, which The Modernist certainly is.
Who says our dreams can’t be just as lovely when they’re burned to the ground as they were in their heyday?