The Obelisk at the Plaçe de la Concorde: Beyond Contested Space

Abstract:

The Center for Landscape & Artefact is applying itself to an excavation of the historical and experiential components of a space previously occupied by the guillotine that extinguished both revolutionary rebels and the aristocracy, and currently occupied by the Obelisk of Luxor: the Plaçe de la Concorde in Paris. The current mode of conceptualization of heritage sites – monuments, places or buildings which are repositories of social memory and serve as referents for identity politics – is static and incapable of illuminating the immediate experience of sites and spaces which increase and diversify with each passing generation. The Obelisk is an example of a “monument” which is fully charged with a postmodern sense of irony. This irony threatens the holistic experience of space, locking the subject into a closed discourse of power and nostalgia. The aim of the Center is to investigate the repercussions of spatial investments of irony and explore new ways of interpreting doubtlessly “meaningful” places. We shall submit an article for publication in a scholarly journal, which will explore these issues of space and meaning, as well as propose novel vocabularies for the improved articulation of the dialectic of space and memory. A live video collage exploring the material history of the space and its implications in a wider socio-historical context will be projected onto the Obelisk itself, accompanied by a live audio collage performance, in late 2004. Via these polymediatic presentations, the Center for Landscape and Artefact will illuminate for a wider audience and in a more visceral manner its theoretical approach to space. This new approach will invoke a fluid state of reinterpretation surrounding the space of the Obelisk, rendering possible a more liberal read of the space for the contemporary global community.

Click here for an Aural Archaeology of the Obelisk

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Spatial Stratigraphy:

  France is a complex postmodern society with a multicultural history. This legacy produces cultural fission, fusion and hybridity. The educated flaneûr in this environment approaches the cityscape and its space-markers (henceforth: herms) with a gaze critical of imperialism. This gaze has distinct effects on how space, herm, and the extant urban fabric are imagined and experienced. In the context of the postmodern gaze, the city is a prison of contested spaces where global corporations and hegemonic ideologies rule. The city is a theater of power; an arena of possession and dispossession, where, at best, the individual can re-appropriate a shard of dignified identity or, worse, feels disenfranchised or cognitively colonized.

  The Plaçe de la Concorde abuts the Tuileries Gardens at the Louvre and is a space in which major European ideologies have often been made manifest. Archaeological data suggests that the space was an important medieval site. In 1764, the plaza was completed and bore the name Plaçe Louis XV. The nexus of the octagonal Plaçe Louis XV was an equestrian statue of the King, bordered by large moats. This statue was removed when the plaza was renamed the Plaçe de la Revolution, and at its center was erected the guillotine that executed Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton, Robespierre and two hundred eighty other members of the aristocracy between 1793 and 1795. After the Revolution it was renamed various times: Plaçe de la Concorde, Plaçe Louis XV, Plaçe Louis XVI, Plaçe de la Chartre, until it was again reunited with the nomenclature Plaçe de la Concorde.

Today, heavy vehicle and tourist traffic circulates through an oval roundabout which rings the Plaçe de la Concorde. At the center of the plaza is an object: the Obelisk of Luxor. The eighth-century B.C. obelisk, which formerly marked the entrance to the Amon Temple at Luxor, was installed in the Plaçe de la Concorde in 1836, a gift from the viceroy of Egypt to Louis Philippe. This space is visited by millions of tourists each year. As such, it is an important landmark in Paris. In the contemporary period, small strongholds of royalists and anti-globalization protestors have been known to gather here. In May of 1998, President Jaques Chiraque agreed to finance the construction of a gold-leafed pyramid cap, or “benben,” atop the Obelisk. In 2003, Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, demanded the return of many artifacts, specifically the Obelisk and the Rosetta Stone, both appropriated by Napoleon. He is threatening to sue uncooperative museums in international court.

  Project Proposal:

  The Center for Landscape and Artefact has chosen the space of the Luxor Obelisk as a subject of study due to its meaning to postmodern social theory. Fashionable in societies of late capitalism, this approach, plagued by irony, tersely writes the Obelisk as a sign of nationalism and colonialism. In this situation, where an artefact from an early-state level civilization is placed on a space previously occupied by discursive icons symbolizing a radical historical event, another potential (beyond irony) is possible. Like all great dialectics and truisms, irony has a multiplicity of perceivable emanations. Postmodernists have capitalized on irony and have correctly designated it as one of the overarching themes of our era. They have perceived this irony as a burden. The relation between these properties is oppositional, yet essential, and when plumbed to their sources, all structures and ideologies reveal this oppositional irony. This postmodern conceptualization of the power of ironic landscapes is trapped in a dichotomy of resistance. As cognitively conceived, each form within the ironic dialogue is fundamentally reduced. As such, stripped of its Baroque ornamentation, culture and wit, a concept, historical moment or material icon cannot be appreciated in its prismatic fullness. Only with the help of its companion, the equally romanticized, oppositional invention, can it persist.

  As we perceive it, however, irony is not a dialectic arranged in a closed, self-referential system. The past event and the present one do contribute to the puissance of the space: not through their fricative juxtaposition, but through their integration into the non-linear teleology of the space.

  To conceive of the space as open, prismatic, multidirectional, poly-glot and –mediatic, which emits a non-verbal essence is to experience the immediate city. Ironic spaces signify not just poetry, comedy, or hegemony, but point also outside of their spatial boundaries, beyond the confines of previously incarnated gazes and toward a yet-unknowable landscape. It is most-human, most-transhuman, to at least try an approach which supercedes the cynical, dispassionate, numbed gaze of postmodern irony. It is a more complete appreciation of the human integration with space and our obligation to recognize its symbolic power. Spatial irony is obvious, and to capitalize on such irony, as is the mode of postmodern discourse, is to miss the actual mechanics of the present-in-making. The total admixture of the space creates the medium whereby a novel contemporary experience may evolve.

  In the process of this appreciation, we will critique the utility and longevity of the conceptualization of heritage places. “Monumental” spaces, existing in the extant urban fabric and reemerging under the demands of new socialities, will need a term that will describe both their stratigraphic continuity and contemporary uses. The demands that the superidentities of the future will place on herms via unprecedented celebrations of memory and identity are unforeseeable.

  Methodology:

  In March of 2003, a film crew from the Center for Landscape and Artefact, lead by the Institute’s archaeologist and resident urban ethnographer, visited the Plaçe de la Concorde. Currently, we are researching contemporary French experience at the Obelisk and investigating historic cartographic documentation. The field interviews will be concluded in early 2004. Still and moving digital film collages were constructed to accompany a franco-arabic ambient audio DJ presentation at the Grooveside Connection III in Seattle, Washington on August 23, 2003: click here to view flyer. This performance served as a preliminary investigation into representation technologies and praxis. The full version of this performance will take place in Paris in the summer of 2004. Associated French microcommunities will be invited to attend, the performance will be streamed live on the Internet, and the proper professionals will be issued a press release. The Center uses spectacle intentionally; the desired end of guerrilla audio-visual tactics in representation is to draw the attention of a crowd, whose presence shall function as a christening celebration, propelling the space into a new mode of use for the contemporary populace.

The Center will publish an article on the subject that will form a theoretical contribution to the fields of geography, cartography, urban archaeology and heritage studies. Also, an article discussing the process and presentation of the artwork shall be submitted for publication in a journal of contemporary art. The Center will accept requests from galleries to archive and exhibit the associated filmic, textual and material artefacts from the engagement.

   

Project Contributions:

  This project, while positing new theories of praxis and expression within the appropriate fields, shall also constitute a novel theory of inquiry and presentation. Additionally, the artwork and theoretical texts, taken as a whole, will bring attention to the work of the Center and the problems of postmodern epistemology and reframe the space for contemporary use.

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