The Polish-French photographer's latest series subtly underscores the performative aspects of power in architecture and design - and the process of replicating such structures of presidential authority
Nicolas Grospierre, photograph from the "Oval Offices" series, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum College Station, Texas, courtesy of the artist
The paragon of Oval Offices is that of the President of the United States of America, located in the west wing of the White House. It was built in 1909 based on the design of Nathan C. Wyeth, only to be destroyed in a fire 20 years later. Redesigned by Eric Gugler and rebuilt in 1934, it has remained more or less intact to this day. To many around the world, that's the be all, end all of this iconic chamber - its broad desk flanked with flags, its characteristic semi-circle windows. Yet Grospierre's research has proven that the U.S. boasts Oval Office replicas of all sorts.
Grospierre first got wind of the idea while reading Umberto Eco's 1975 essay referring to a replica of the Oval Office, and soon discovered "that there are a great deal more. I decided to photograph them", he said in an interview with Przekrój magazine. Grospierre, the Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale in 2008 - for Hotel Polonia. The Afterlife of Buildings, together with Kobas Laksa - has made his way into 18 such offices, in Boston and around Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama - each distinct in its own way. As Grospierre explains,
Some of them are built in presidential libraries, established following each subsequent administration. They gather documents, objects, gifts, all tied in with each one. Then the copy of the office is created based on a precise documentation provided by the White House. Yet I was able to gain access to private individuals, who have some sort of fascination with power, they want to have a symbol of it at arm's reach. These are independent, free interpretations.
Nicolas Grospierre, photograph from the "Oval Offices" series, William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas, photo courtesy of the artist
The project is first unveiled at the National Gallery of Art in Sopot, on northern Poland's coast, the classically printed and framed photographs presented with materials relating to the Oval Office and its replicas, the reports and historical materials relating to U.S. political history - as well as to that of the Roman Empire.
For Grospierre, implications of power and performance are a vital part of his project. As he explains,
The Oval Office has nothing to do with real power, this is theatre. Let's start with the shape. Why not round or square? An oval is soft, cosy and friendly. Are these the conditions for strategic decision making? I don't think so. Hence my interpretation of the Oval Office as a looking glass of power, presented for the benefit of the public.
As curator Adam Mazur writes in the statement accompanying the Sopot exhibition,
The scrupulousness with which the Oval Office has been recreated gives the impression that the viewer is in the presence of the "actual" office. Perhaps this impression is even stronger when looking at the image than in actually being present in the physical replica. In other words, the photograph stretches the illusion, perfects it, becoming a mirror for reality.
Nicolas Grospierre, photograph from the "Oval Offices" series. Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Austin, Texas, courtesy of the artist
Nicolas Grospierre is a photographer and experimental artist born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1975. He resides in Warsaw, creating photographs, series, projects and installations that are a reflection of the social, political and economic realities we live in. Among his most well-known projects is Bank, a performance-based photography series that examines the nature of wealth in a crisis-ridden world. In 2011, he received the prestigious Polityka Passport award. This year the Jovis publishing house released an album of photographs and texts comprising a complete overview of his work to date.
The Oval Offices project was made with the support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. It is on show at the National Gallery of Art (Państwowa Galeria Sztuki) in Sopot between the 15th of June - 14th of July. For more information, see: www.pgs.pl/eng
Author: Agnieszka Sural. Translated (with edits) by Agnes Monod-Gayraud
Source: Press release, curatorial statement, whitehouse.gov, own sources