Empire of Signs

Investigating Imperialism With Julian LaVerdiere

The symbol at the back of the gallery looks like it could kill you. An eagle, five feet tall and seemingly made of iron, swings from a ceiling crane like a wrecking ball. The gallery had to hire an engineering team to install it and then put up a floor-to-ceiling cargo net to keep spectators safely at bay.

Artist Julian LaVerdiere explains that this kinetic piece, The Lost Cornerstone, is an exact replica of a sculpture removed from the original Penn Station when the building was demolished in 1963. So many layers of meaning revolve with the eagle. It's an artificial artifact, actually made of urethane, but at 250 fast-moving pounds, harmful enough. It's also a casualty—no, a survivor—of the conflict between neoclassicism and modernism as it played out in the city's architectural history. LaVerdiere points out that his neoclassical eagle now happens to be tumbling through a modernist space, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, designed by Rem Koolhaas. (Nothing is square.) But above all, the eagle is an icon of imperial power, used first by the Roman Empire and appropriated by subsequent empires.

LaVerdiere's show, "Goliath Concussed" (at Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, through May 24), is about our current state of imperium and "the historic state of delirium we find ourselves in right now." America could be either giving or receiving the concussion—maybe both. The other pieces in the show are three Imperial Dragsters, each a half-scale replica of Napoleon's tomb set atop an SUV chassis. Then there's the Lantern Shuttlecock, hung horizontally from the ceiling to resemble a bomb in flight. Its exterior replicates the light fixtures on New York's neoclassical municipal buildings, while the interior is modeled on the great mosque at Cordova, Spain. Built on the ruins of some ancient Visigoth structure, the mosque was converted to a cathedral during the Renaissance, demonstrating "the volley of ideological power shifts between empires," says the artist.

"This is the Vegas Napoleon": LaVerdiere with his trio of Imperial Dragsters.
photo: Robin Holland
"This is the Vegas Napoleon": LaVerdiere with his trio of Imperial Dragsters.

He's always interested in such paradigm shifts, even those turning points born in folly or disaster. For example, he's made a whole body of work (photos and sculpture) about the first transatlantic telegraph cable crossing. (A failure. The cable snapped.) He's especially interested in the industrial revolution, its hubris, its imperialism, its crude but revolutionary science. And that, of course, was the golden age of neoclassicism. In New York, says LaVerdiere, "this period of civic architecture applied classical form as a means of creating artificial historic foundations and municipal authority." The lantern he replicated was the signature style used by McKim Mead & White, the firm that built many of New York's courthouses, police stations, and libraries, along with the much lamented Penn Station, which was modeled after a great Roman bathhouse.

Napoleon's tomb was based on Caesar's tomb, and LaVerdiere decided to reconstruct it for an American context by adding the SUV base, specifically the Lamborghini LM002, the prototype for all SUVs and a design influence on the military Hummer. He finished the three Dragsters in metallic versions of the tricolor—the red, white, and blue of France, Britain, and America. But while critiquing grandiosity, he admits to some awe. That footage of soldiers in Hummers blazing across the desert in the first days of the war: "Vulgar, yet you couldn't take your eyes off it," says LaVerdiere. "Those gestures need to be examined. It's about the artifice, too, the way we relate to mediated experiences. As Americans, we're so far away from it. Most Americans are comfortable observing history by going to Las Vegas to see the wonders of the world, and these are those. This is the Vegas Napoleon."

The common denominator in "Goliath Concussed," says LaVerdiere, is that the eagle, tombs, and lantern "all reference symbols and icons established by the Greek and Roman empires. These particular icons have been so well applied to every empire over the last 2,000 years that they will never hold a root meaning. The eagle is no more American than it is German or Roman—or Iraqi, for that matter. I'm fascinated by how and why these symbols still resonate with authority even after all the cultural erosion."

LaVerdiere, 32, was one of the artists who designed the Tribute in Light at ground zero. He and artist Paul Myoda were in residence on tower one's 91st floor until spring 2001, working on a bioluminescent beacon they intended to install atop the radio tower. LaVerdiere says the beacon would have been "a real bioengineering stunt." The artists were working with dinoflagellates, phosphorescent single-cell organisms about as big as the tip of a needle. They designed a tank with a cockpit for a single cell and a light sensor that could pick up the tiny creature's emanations and translate them into an electronic impulse to send to the radio tower. The beacon atop the World Trade Center would be blinking in sync with it. "The idea was to elevate this lowest member of the totem pole to the highest position available," says LaVerdiere. The Port Authority, then the landlord, was all for it.

LaVerdiere and Myoda had been working on the project for three years, even doing a residency at the American Museum of Natural History's invertebrate lab to cultivate strains of dinoflagellate powerful enough to monitor, but after September 11, they abandoned it.

Next Page »