english Text: Sinai Hotels
Stephan Berg, The world as a stage
Michael Zinganel, Sun, sand and architecture
Ulrich Pohlmann, Sinai Hotels
below the texts in the above order
(© with the authors)
The world as a stage
In the works by Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche, (public) space becomes an object that undergoes many modifications and transformations – only to lose its supposedly solid reality at the end, when it has become a glittering hybrid of imagination and simulation. Since they began working together in 1998, the artists have reflected upon space and architecture in both their installations and photographic projects – not in the sense of being a factual given, but as a construct dependent upon perception.
The notion that reality sometimes provides better examples than even the most clever artistic experimental setup is seen in ‘Fenster mit Ausblick’ (2002): Haubitz+Zoche declare a sample façade, located at a plain firewall to give an example of the look of a prospective building, as a ‘site-specific readymade’. The fact that the sample property had been transferred to them from the previous owners and, without any modifications on the part of the artists, fit by them into an artistic context, is evidence of a necessary requirement for the way this work functions. What we see is – if you will – a twin reality: the merging of an artificial model space and real space to form a hybrid structure whose paradoxical appearance only becomes completely clear after it has been elevated to a work of art.
‘Spion’ (2001) is an installation that works with this indistinct boundary between real and simulated space in a more classical way. Four double-walled plasterboard elements equipped with a total of eight mirror doors divided the space at the Städtische Galerie Dachau into four small rooms. These accessible rooms, reflecting each other’s interior, not only implied a potentially infinite space, but also suggested a strange, melancholy sense of being nowhere. Instead of the gallery there were circular passageways leading nowhere, which short-circuited into each other in a hallucinatory labyrinth created by the viewer himself. This phenomenon of sliding space, as we could call it, recurs in this complex of works. For instance, ‘Loop’ (2001) consists of two monitors facing each other; one shows a view of blue sky from the cockpit of a glider while the other presents slow-motion underwater pictures of waves. An umpire’s chair placed at an elevated height between the monitors is an ironic reference to the impossibility of actually being able to regulate or control these scenes. There is absolutely no fixed point in the water, which engulfs the screen, nor in the total blue of the sky touched with cirrus clouds. And because it is constantly wandering back and forth between the two screens, the viewer’s own gaze heightens the feeling of intangibility, of transitory dislocation. Additionally, the underwater images seem to keep inverting, turning a view from below into a view from above. In turn, a rear view mirror mounted in the cockpit of the glider adds mystery to the images of the sky, since the image-within-an-image creates simultaneous front and rear views.
‘Treppenauge’ (2001) produces a truly hypnotic confusion of spaces. The work, commissioned by the Allianz insurance company in Munich, is based on a photograph of an elliptical spiral staircase in the company building. This photograph was projected into a white, long hallway and transferred to the walls, ceiling and floor via wall paintings and mosaics as drawings in spatial perspective. There is only one vantage point from which this ellipsoidal spiral can be discerned in its original form. Someone walking through the passage will see the shape dissolved into a distorted, zigzag drawing of space with pointed ridges, which seems to bend, squeeze, expand and fold the space in the manner of expressionist silent films.
In their large-format underwater photographs taken in swimming pools (‘Wasserspiegel’, 2004), it is once again the intangible, even chimera-like quality of the space that interests Haubitz+Zoche. The underwater perspectives produce their own dimensionality, for not only do the clear boundaries of the architecture literally swim before the viewer’s eyes, but also it becomes more difficult to distinguish between near and far. In addition, space and the fiction of space actually become one, because the surface of the water is so still that it reflects the entire underwater world, so much so that the twilight-blue space is doubled. At the same time, this turns the pools, which are often photographed using central perspective, into reflections on how space is transformed into a presentational stage. It is this kind of stage-like quality, which plays with theatrical illusion, that has been a central theme of Haubitz+Zoche’s investigative photography since 2002. Sport arenas, construction sites, sample building façades, party tents, and museum spaces are always presented as sites empty of people, where the melancholy of nothing happening mixes with the vague expectation that something is about to occur. These sites are grounded in an atmosphere that blends anticipation with the sense that things are over. The half-finished hotels in the artists’ latest photographic project also evoke this particular atmosphere.
The ‘Sinai Hotels’ (2002-05) are the results of four trips to the Egyptian peninsula. The series documents various hotels in diverse states of completion – images that constitute an urgent, serial momentum. Beneath a constantly bright, unrealblue sky, the concrete skeleton visions of globalized vacation resorts jut out of the luminous ground of the surrounding rocky desert, practically as if they had fallen from heaven. It does not matter that not all of the unfinished buildings will remain in a state of ruin, and it really makes no difference at all that whenever the hotels lacked real names, the artists invented names for them. On the contrary: randomly selecting a name for a hotel resort seems like the right thing to do because it points out that names such as ‘Tropicana Village’, ‘Sultan’s Palace’ or ‘Coral Beach’ are simply surrogate descriptions of collective, clichéd notions of vacations, without any place or history. Even though some of the buildings under construction (the ‘Taba Heights Resort, for example) actually do open later, they are still excellent metaphors for the destructive results of the boom in tourism that has been unleashed around the globe. No doubt: this series provides a drastically clear view of the interchangeable ghettos being constructed in vacation spots. The faded scent of standardized, off-the-rack goods emanates from the hybrid architecture, which unhesitatingly quotes styles as diverse as Asian, ancient Greek, medieval, and modern, and turns them into a nonsensical pastiche that promises internationalism but actually delivers a kind of theatricalized Nowheresville. And of course they are also a warning signal for the jumbled mess of speculation, bad investments, embezzled government subsidies, and the fear of terrorism, which can in the meantime be observed all around the world.
These buildings, somewhere between ruin and completion, are captured in photographs of unmitigated teetering theatricality. They are captivating illustrations of Baudrillard’s hypothesis of reality’s transition into hyperreality – that is, to a dimension that makes reality disappear by dissolving the difference between the real and the imaginary. According to this interpretation, the real is no longer reality itself, but whatever can be reproduced to resemble reality. The ultimate outcome of this self-reproducing process of reproduction is a reality no longer consisting even of what can be reproduced, says Baudrillard, but instead, that which has always been reproduced: the hyperreal. So, too, the buildings as photographed by Haubitz+Zoche appropriate the aspect of intangible, model-like simulacrity always connected with digitally manipulated photographs. Here, however, not even the tiniest detail is manipulated. Rather, the hyperreal arises, so to speak, out of its factual, given circumstances. We look at the grey concrete ribs as if they were manifestations of a mirage, as if these images would immediately dissolve into hot, shimmering desert air as soon as they were approached. In this case, Baudrillard could confirm just that: there is no unquestionable level of reality. And there is something else that strengthens the simulative character of what is seen: the desert loneliness of the scenes and their utter lack of people. A paralysis and stillness lie over them, resembling a phenomenon Baudrillard has ascribed to the American desert: an ecstatic form of disappearance. It is what is seen that actually first makes the nothing surrounding it tangible and obvious. In view of the sharp shadows cast in the glaring midday light and the empty, staring arched windows in the towers of the ‘Taba Heights Resort,’ one does not have to particularly strain to recall the early, rigid metaphysical buildings of Giorgio di Chirico. The surrealism of this visual world can be seen throughout the entire series, giving it a cool melancholy, an apocalyptic atmosphere frozen under
a glaring light.
This atmosphere makes it unmistakably clear that the reality presented here follows the dramaturgy of images, which are a result of inventions, down to the last thread. It also makes sure that we ultimately perceive these manifestations of this faceless global, industrial tourism merely as forms of art having nothing to do with any sort of function – namely, as sculptures. Thus, ‘Seaview Palace’ becomes a sculpture made of serial modules with echoes of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. ‘King Sinefro’ seems to be a modernist, futurist solitaire, and from the start viewers prefer to understand ‘Pharao Resort’ as an absurd work of art whose extraordinary success is precisely owed to its absurdity. For what kind of functional sense is there in building a single-story (!), architecturally strange, eccentric elevator going up to an as yet non-existent bridge, which in turn, if it is ever finished, will connect to nothing except the nothing of the desert located between its beginning and end pylons? Yet the whole affair takes on a different cast when we regard this elevator as conceptual sculpture. Then it would be a beautiful image for our insatiable longing for connection, for communicative networks – as well as for the way they often fail to function.
The fact that we are greeted here with a sign on rusty posts in the middle of a rocky landscape flanked by bare red mountains, which says ‘Welcome To Freedome Beeach’, fits in with the ambivalent basic atmosphere of the photographic project. Most of the writing has faded, and there is only a hint of the formerly bright and hopeful colors of green, yellow, and blue. Nevertheless, the unintentional misspelling of Freedom Beach is revealing. It is nothing less than proof that there actually is no real life in the fake one. At any rate, the photo of ‘Freedome Beeach’ makes it clear that there is nothing but rocky gravel and the dangerous loneliness of the bare red mountains. In this moonscape, ‘beach’ and ‘freedom’ are just words, whose incorrect spelling also involuntarily betrays that whatever it was that they were meant to make believable was, from the start, a fake. Yet Haubitz+Zoche’s achievement is not simply that they have revealed these fake, surrogate spaces as cheap façades, but that they have transformed them into the reality of hyperreal works of art.
Sun, Sand and Architecture,
SINAI HOTELS in the Context of the Tourist Industry’s Synthesis of Desire
1. Principles of Desire Production
Tourism is regarded as the consumption of tokens and images, that is to say, as an aligning of visual impressions received locally with those of the desire-producing machinery of the tourist industry.1 Brochures and catalogues are abetted by other media – literature, film, works of visual art, and not least, the travellers’ own photographs and souvenirs, which, as evidence for the successful fulfilment of their owners’ desires, become multipliers producing a yearning again in the circle of their immediate acquaintances.
Despite social changes and the march of developments in techniques for exploiting potential and extant terrain, the principal mechanisms by which desire is synthesised in tourists have remained stable. On the part of the protagonists this synthesis is an active process; but, though it begins with the choosing of catalogues and books from the abundant range of professional desire-fuelling products on hand, the protagonists will have the target audience with whom to share their trophy experiences on returning from their travels firmly in mind even before they have set out. Their behaviour is also continually geared to bringing home promising tales of the ‘out of the ordinary’ for their specific respective audience – and that includes the pieces of evidence capable of substantiating their been-there-done-that. That circuit of professionally produced advertising copy and images, of tallying these with the images available on location, of re-reproducing the professional images in tourist snapshots and in the accounts told amongst friends and acquaintances at home, is accorded the key significance in the construction of new attractions. It only follows that, in theory, any and every location can be exploited as a tourist attraction providing that significant images are created, that these pictures from the production-lines of desire synthesis are in fact in evidence at the destination, and that the cycle mentioned above can be set in motion.2
If these hypotheses apply, then, given perfect marketing, it should be possible to recreate even the beach and the world of and under the sea at any location in the world. No sooner said than done, as witness the many temporary inner-city beaches installed under the auspices of local authorities, or the tropical world installed in the former zeppelin hangar in Brandenburg, recorded during its building-site phase in a Haubitz+Zoche work (‘Tropical Island‘) in 2004. These ‘staged’ theme parks do not operate identically everywhere, however, nor do they address the same target public wherever; for all the standardisation, there are subtle differences in these nostalgia productions and in the received narratives and rituals that represent an integral part of the choreography of the tourist sense of achievement. That is why, despite all postmodern theories, there are processes of identification that concede to the ‘real’ experience of the sea a competitive advantage, now as ever. ‘Sun, Sand and Sea’ is still an experience that the majority of the world’s population want to enjoy at the genuine location!
This need relies on a received history of myth manufacture; this in turn based originally on the difference between a civilised but self-estranged culture in the great cities and an untrammelled, but thereby so much more authentic Nature. Life in the city was contrasted with the non-routine experience that was nature in the mountains or by the sea. Here, too, it was artists who contributed decisively to turning mountains and sea from dreaded no go areas into must see destinations. In Sinai, too, this crossing of the culture-nature threshold is marketed as an essential Experience, with civilised individuals going diving and venturing into territory once properly only the reserve of fishes – the same individuals returning to their lodgings in modern luxury hotels whose standard of service and architectural style both appear all but cloned the world over.
2. Destination Sinai and its architectural types
All over the world, tourism is taken to be the market of promise par excellence. For the Egyptian government, too, opening up the country to tourism signified (at least after oil production and the creation of the Suez Canal) one of her paramount projects of modernisation. As in many other holiday destinations, state-run promotion schemes encouraged private investors. There was the self-evident target of the Nile Valley, but also the largely unexploited holidaying potential of the Sinai Peninsula. Large-scale trading units, cheap flights and an extremely low wage level were ideal conditions for radical structural rationalisation of services, marketing and realisation, that is, the necessary precondition to make the Sinai Peninsula affordable for a mass market was given.
Long gone the days when hotel beds would be sold singly to passing patrons or guests. They are marketed in vast quota batches, through wholesale and intermediary agents, on markets that, significantly, call themselves ‘exchanges’ such as the ITB fair – the ‘International Tourism Exchange’ in Berlin. Smaller and medium-scale local operations without national or international contacts or large-scale marketing networks at their call have only slim prospects of survival in this context without a high degree of self-exploitation. So it can only be a matter of time before the reed hut camps that are host to individual holidaymakers from Israel, become a thing of the past.
Before it was opened to tourism, the Sinai Peninsula was as good as unpopulated and unknown, a semiotic and spatial void where there was nothing but sun and sea. Developers and tourists alike thus had first to be flown in and out again; service staff and contractors were and are predominantly from the Nile region. What native population there is, consists of Bedouins who have become sedentary for the most part, attracted by the work opportunities tourism offers – but who are occasionally hired to enact their once nomadic culture for the visitors.
Owing to its specific, geographically isolated situation, this destination has the air of one enormous gated community surrounded on all sides by sea and desert. Even the building materials for the shells, fittings and furnishing had to be imported from outside. That could equally be said of the hotel as a category and of its types and styles. They are part of a comprehensive cultural inland colonisation programme. Like the grand hotels or their modern successors, they are universal types irrespective of locality, shipped unaltered from urban contexts to the tourist destinations (and vice-versa). Destinations developed in the heyday of Fordism in cultures under centralistic governments, such as the drawing-board ski resort creations in the French Alps, the Dalmatian coast as such or later, that of Southern Spain, are marked largely by rationalistic architectural styles. In locations developed only later, such as the Sinai Peninsula, a post-modern strategy consciously articulates marks of local cultures in both the surface finish and the interiors in order to enable the visitors to identify with the locality also on an emotive level.
In Sinai, however, there is no local vernacular that the planners could have drawn on since the sole indigenous cultures were nomadic, had no rigid housing and whose tents offered no globally viable model for middle-class notions of comfort and luxury. Therefore a local style had to be invented and projected. The result appeared to have been put together out of Southern Mediterranean styles and Arabianising ornament. What has arisen is a decidedly eloquent architecture that goes beyond the strictly rationalised structures – a local ‘destination’ mask, but one far removed from ostentation overflowing with tokens and symbols. This stands in utter contrast to the latest projects in Southern Turkey, where the exercises are no more in supposedly autochthonous building styles but in the quoting of the super-symbols of popular culture. The Kremlin in Moscow, the White House in Washington, the cruiser Titanic, even the cartoon world of the Flintstones seem to be susceptible of assimilation as thematic leitmotifs for club premises.
3. Dereliction as an Attraction
In their photographic work, Haubitz+Zoche focus exclusively on the empty architectural shells of such hotel complexes that, taken together, convey the impression that a greater part of the development process in Sinai has thoroughly stalled. That may be true, though not, of course, to the extent that the photo series might suggest. However, no sooner does the obligatory excursion to the coral reef bus one out of the confines of the intact All-Inclusive club resort, but it is these stranded gargantuan sculptures that impinge at least on the periphery of the tourist perspective.
The sight may lead some to ponder the possible causes of the dereliction. Are these monuments to failed subsidies (the development agency having canvassed successfully for public moneys and now, for the time being, lost further interest in the project); or to write-offs (the company was only set up to register losses in the first place – to lower the income tax due); to developers (the developers are waiting for takers to whom they can sell the bare brickwork at a profit); or to speculation (when there really is no capital left for completing the work)? It may even be a simple case of having begun construction without planning permission and incurred a building ban. The questions as to the political and economic causes of the freeze and the dereliction are inscribed in these photographs, but the answers do not come to their beholders of their own accord. From an artistic perspective and that of the theory of tourism, what is interesting about the pictures of the painstakingly neat shells/ruins in the seemingly unexploited desert landscape goes beyond the questions mooted above. The fascination the structures evidently emanate for the two artists, as they do for the present writer and a section of the art public, is an indication of a specific state of mind in the European middle classes. The images are of edifices in a transitional stage between political and architectural modernism, both of which have been lost, and a post-modernist, emotional vocabulary which no one so far has applied to these buildings. That makes them melancholy monuments of modernism, which have narrowly escaped contamination by post-modernism. That any trace of use should have been obliterated in the process makes them all the more susceptible of projections on the beholders’ part; and that they may yet be completed in the time to come and so could without doubt forfeit their sculptural power, only enhances the melancholy element.
The melancholy of the loss of modernism and of the Utopias associated with it is something to which the educated middle classes are especially vulnerable. That group includes the artists and the author and readership of this catalogue. Demand suffices to motivate leading lifestyle magazines like Wallpaper to dedicate issues to such subjects again and again; and much of the pioneering work in opening up new destinations for niche markets is done by artists. Haubitz+Zoche’s photograph series will be an impulse for the nostalgia/longing/desire trade. This book, or rather, probably a tourist-industry follow-on product influenced by it, will beckon an ever-increasing number of distinctiveness-seeking travellers to these insider-tips on the Sinai Peninsula. There they will try to repeat with their digital cameras the self-same photographs printed in this book. Having done so, they will be able to prove to their educated-middle-class datum audience at home that in spite of having gone on an inexpensive package tour, they really did manage to wander a little ‘off the beaten track’. Surely, too, they will tell their audience something of what they have read in this essay, spiced with other tales suitably edited for the target group at hand, – of experiences of (probably physique-based) difference – in Sinai…
1 John Urry: The Tourist Gaze. Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, London 1990.
2 Wöhler, Karl-Heinz: Imagekonstruktion fremder Räume. Entstehung und Funktion von Bildern über Reiseziele, in: Spode, Hasso u. a. (Hg.): Voyage. Jahrbuch für Reise– & Tourismusforschung Band 1/1997.
The concrete skeletons of five-star hotel complexes tower up like a mirage before the backdrop of azure sky, photographed in the desert of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula between 2002 and 2005 in their abandoned, unfinished state by the Munich artist duo, Haubitz+Zoche. Once-intended splendour now rings only in the promising names – ‘Sultan’s Palace’, ‘Sindbad’, ‘Sunestra’ or the ‘Magic Life Imperial’, in namings charged with the lure of holiday bliss and romantic Arabian promise.
The reasons for the abandoning of these construction projects are many and varied, range from bad investment, and misappropriated state subsidised loans, to diminishing tourism as confidence is undermined by the reports of terrorist attacks. Haubitz+Zoche’s photographs show these monuments to failed investment in isolation as architectonic sculptures against the background of mountain and desert landscapes without a living soul. The approach is documentary and conceptual to an equal degree. No post-location manipulation has altered the image, and on location, the artists settled on clearly defined rules of play. They photographed the buildings in fine, stable weather without dramatic contrasts in the light and with the camera at a constant eye-level position. The colour scale of these images, restricted to a few tones only, keeps within an earth ochre, stone grey and sky blue, interspersed occasionally with the soft green of seedling weeds. As a rule the photographs dispense with narrative associations, so that attention is directed to the bare physical constitution of the building.
The rigorous composition of these pictures gives the structures the air of architectural models whose purified vocabulary of form, freed of all ornament, brings out the functional design. Global mass-tourism finds a meet echo in the rhetorical trove of architectural forms across the world, comprising everything from the Chinese pagoda and the temples of the Classical world to European Modernism. These ‘national’ architectural quotations proffer something like a temporary home and identity for the beach-and-culture tourists passing through. In the photographs of the incomplete hotel complexes, the strategies and mechanisms of the business of mounting tourist fantasies become an unconcealed text.
These images of architecture in an interim state are at the same time images of an emptiness recalling Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical cityscapes. They also invoke associations of archaeological sites and excavations. Especially in the interior views, that impression of securing or recording archaeological evidence becomes persuasive with the view giving onto building styles harking back to palaces of classical antiquity. But, unlike the romantic ruins of Antiquity long reclaimed by nature, the queer aura of these edifices stems from the circumstance that the hotel buildings seem almost pristine. One could be forgiven for supposing in these buildings, never completed in our own time, the archaeological finds of the future. Should the superstructures indeed survive under their patina through coming centuries, the outcome would be a fictitious world architecture created with dislocated forms of the kind familiar to us from that standardised chapbook of styles drawn on for functional buildings and embedded in the urbanized face of the present day.
When artists turn their attention to architectural photography today, it cannot avoid being under the impulse of the oeuvre of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who, for the past four decades, have been recording the industrial architecture of the western hemisphere as ‘anonymous sculptures’. The Bechers’ conceptual works have been a formative stylistic influence on successive generations of photographers and Haubitz+Zoche, too are conscious of this seminal background. A Becher ‘trade mark’ is seen in the isolation and precise rendering of the object in uncompromising axial full-frontal view. As most of their architectural shots lack any relation to the environment, the motif, seen against an evenly overcast sky, becomes highly sculptural. Irrespective of an affinity to the works of the Bechers subsisting chiefly in the sculptural look of the subject, the photographs of Haubitz+Zoche, differ in their more flexible choice of perspectives – oblique views are permitted. The desert presents the ideal blank screen and a fitting foil for a symbol-like architecture that may be seen as a morphological typology, in additive or comparative fashion alike.
From an aesthetic point of view, the points of reference for Haubitz+Zoche, as for Stephen Shore in his cycle ‘Uncommon Places’, are the stereotypes of the tourist picture postcard. Photography in their hands is a repository and memory-bank of a specific, transient state. In that sense the photographs of Haubitz+Zoche are eloquent of the paradoxes of an architecture that also depicts the contradictions of our time.