Critic's Notebook: Remove art from its architectural context, and what's left?

When we debate the endlessly tricky subjects of cultural patrimony and looted art, the pieces that usually come to mind are marble statues from classical antiquity or paintings stolen and stashed away during wartime. Not street art. And certainly not manhole covers.

But thanks to Banksy, the elusive London-based artist, as well as fresh questions about the fate of Chandigarh, the Indian city designed in the 1950s by Modernist architect Le Corbusier, preparatory notes for a new chapter in this long story have shown up in the press in recent days.

The twin controversies are as much about architecture as art, and give some surprising twists to the question of whether art belongs — legally, morally or otherwise — in the place where it was created. Considered together, they suggest that the framework we rely on for sorting out issues related to patrimony and cultural heritage is in need of a serious update for the age of architectural celebrity and a global art market — not to mention global self-promotion.

Let's begin, speaking of self-promotion, with the case of Banksy, whose film "Exit Through the Gift Shop" was among the five Academy Award nominees this year for documentary feature. In the days before the Oscar ceremony Feb. 27, Banksy-esque pieces of spray-painted, stenciled art began showing up around Los Angeles, suggesting that the artist, while remaining anonymous, was trying in the best way he knew how to generate buzz around the film.

The appearance of those pieces recalled a similar story playing out in Detroit, where Banksy — or somebody doing a very good impression of him — visited an abandoned Packard plant last year, around the time "Exit" opened in theaters. On one of the plant's exterior walls he left behind an image of a boy next to the words "I remember when all this was trees." It wasn't long before the piece was sliced out of the side of the building by a group of artists from Detroit's 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, who then carried the 1,500-pound slab back to the gallery and hid it out of sight.

Bill Riddle, a photographer who knows the artists who removed the piece, later said they were protecting it from potential defacement by other graffiti artists — or even from the potential razing of the plant itself, which like many buildings in Detroit has been sitting empty for years.

"Look at what the big picture is here," Riddle recently told the Wall Street Journal. "It's not a silly tag. It's a world-renowned artist who put something up in a place that is going to be destroyed."

Still, what the Banksy vigilantes and their defenders haven't adequately addressed is whether the piece lost its meaning, to say nothing of its value, when it was wrenched from the architectural context so central to its creation. The slab is now at the center of a lawsuit pitting the owners of the abandoned plant against the artists, who spent two days removing it.

The debate over the fate of Le Corbusier's designs for Chandigarh, meanwhile, resembles the Banksy case in more than merely superficial respects. The Swiss-French architect, who produced many of the greatest masterworks of 20th century architecture, was invited in 1950 by the government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design a new city in the north of India. He produced a master plan for the city, as well as three large government buildings in raw, imposing concrete. He also designed scores of pieces of furniture and other items to fill those buildings.

In 2007, some of that furniture began showing up on the international auction circuit, where it has been sold off in the months since. This week the Guardian newspaper in London reported a fledgling movement among architects and city officials in Chandigarh to halt the flow of objects by Le Corbusier out of the country. The story revealed that a Corb-designed manhole cover sold at auction last year for nearly $25,000.

Richard Wright, director of the Wright auction house in Chicago, told me in a phone interview that he has sold "more than a hundred pieces" from Chandigarh since 2007. Last year a buyer paid $36,250 in a Wright auction for a curving concrete light fixture from the Chandigarh Zoo. Clearly, if rather slowly and in piecemeal fashion, the city is in danger of being dismantled — "stripped for parts," to quote the headline on the Guardian story.

The paper is right to ring the alarm bell: Chandigarh is among the few places where the design work of Le Corbusier can be seen in all its rich variety. And if my conversation with Wright is any indication, Western dealers and auction houses remain content to sell architectural pieces even when their provenance is not crystal-clear.

"I don't know the process by which the furniture" left India, he told me. "I was under the impression that it was done legally."

In the end, what's most fascinating about both cases is how they complicate, if not entirely upend, the assumptions we tend to make about cultural patrimony.

It is not simply that the works in question are modern and contemporary as opposed to classical, although that fact alone changes the calculus here, requiring a Warholian acknowledgement of how the priorities of the market have now seeped into nearly every corner of the art world. In Banksy's case, of course, it is nearly impossible to tell where the art-making ends and the marketing begins.

A broader and frankly more compelling issue is how these two stories turn inside out the relationship between patrimony and exploitation, and between local heritage and colonial privilege. It is one thing when occupying British forces forcibly remove an artwork from its setting, as they did two centuries ago with the pieces of Greek temple architecture and sculpture known collectively as the Elgin Marbles, and ship it out of the country. It is something else entirely when the pieces at risk were created by outsiders, and locals are the ones rushing to loot as well as protect them.

Some of these questions are not entirely new in architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright and the brothers Charles and Henry Greene are among the celebrated architects who in numerous residential projects designed furniture, fixtures, carpets and other interior elements meant to be inseparable from their architectural containers. Pieces from such houses now fill the collections of museums around the world.

But that move to dismantle architectural masterworks, however upsetting on its own terms, at least had the byproduct of taking artworks from the private, moneyed domestic realm to the public sphere of the museum gallery. The Detroit and Chandigarh examples illustrate a trip in the opposite direction, from visible to inaccessible, from public to salable.

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