Model, Moment, Monument.

On the work Ghost Light Light House by Florian Graf 


Architecture and the expectation of its permanence are related to our desire for a safe place, a home. The lighthouse, which points to the anchorage for the night or the safe way into the home port, is literally as well as figuratively the announcement of a safe spot. In September 2012, a lighthouse over eight metres high designed by the artist was towed on a pontoon by motor boats to various stations on Lake Constance, reappearing somewhat unexpectedly, haunting the lake like a ghost. Something, permanently anchored on the shore, that would otherwise indicate the way to ships, was now cast off, dependent on the assistance of ships that would normally be guided by it. The tower was therefore deprived of its outward purpose, no longer anonymous, functional architecture and picturesque postcard motif at the same time, but an art work, and in turn a reference to the historicity and different use of its prototype. It became an ephemeral monument to a symbol of power robbed of its authority. Light House in combination with Ghost Light is ambiguous. Ghost Light alludes to ghostly myths, for example the ghost ship. Light House also refers to the tectonic oddity of the architectonic form of Florian Graf: light means not only a source but also light in weight. And actually his tower is not made of stone but built of thin wooden panels. The project received a big response from the public and the press, and the work has been continued within the institutional museum context.

In the exhibition room of the Zeppelin Museum there is again a lighthouse, this time two metres high. The function of the object, which resembles a capped obelisk, is that of a container. In place of the lantern there is a projector, and the projected film is a reference, and at the same time part of what is referenced: the project in which Graf dispatched the tower sculpture on a tour, and at the same time part of the same work. The installation in the exhibition room is not simply a relic with medial documentation: the revolving projector creates a panoramic media installation, in which we again have to search for a point of reference. And the supposed relic is a small scale model of the authentic work on the lake. In the exhibition room the model becomes a monument to the past; a small impulse for reflection, guiding our thoughts in different directions. This is the ambiguity hinted at by the word replica, borrowed from the Latin: exact copy, but also in German Replik, a reply.

With this double life of the lighthouse in our sights, the formal fidelity of the model to the original suddenly strikes the eye, despite all the changes in dimension and function. This compels us to ask what the contours of the traditional lighthouse mean, in terms of the history of architecture. The difference between the almost pyramidal construction and the gentler curve of conventional lighthouses is striking in a photo that shows Graf’s work between the Lindau lighthouse and the Bavarian lion there. One thinks of an obelisk. The obelisk in Ancient Egypt symbolised a sun ray, the connection to the divine world, and in this sense, indicated the way between life and death, between present and future, between one’s own being and the macrocosmos of the Gods and Fate. Unlike a lighthouse, it does not offer safety in the present, but seems to lose itself in the tension between present and (imagined) past. 

Not surprisingly, such pre-Christian allusions to eternity attracted the architects of the Enlightenment. Formal references to the mostly utopian architectural designs of the French Revolutionary architects, such as Étienne-Louis Boullée or Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, are, in the choice of the classicist obelisk, unambiguous and intended by the artist. The decision for a light, cladded, braced structure makes us also think of ephemeral festival architecture, a mise-en-scène, a story that will be told here wherein myths typical of the Lake Constance region are taken up, hinted at and brought to life again. That a floating monument can promote traditional relationships with the place may seem paradoxical. For the conservative architectural historian Hans Sedlmayr, the unornamented, gigantic designs of Boullée, in particular the use of simple geometric forms like enormous spheres that seem to hang above the ground (as in his proposal for the Newton Cenotaph, 1784), were the beginning of what he called earthlessness art without a home and without divine or collective inspiration. ›Verlust der Mitte‹ (The Lost Center) was the title of his book written towards the end of the Second World War that was a reckoning not only with modern art, but also primarily with its autonomy, its alleged lack of function, as soon as it sought to be free of its servitude to church and state. For Graf, who studied architecture at the ETH before devoting himself to the study of art at the Edinburgh College of Art and later at the Art Institute of Chicago, the question of function and the lack of it is also raised because of his profession: the conflict at the interface of art and architecture is almost always ignited by this question. In many of his works, he liberates architectonic forms from their supposed purpose, be it through small building annexes that recall ›Alice in Wonderland‹, be it through imaginary flying concrete monoliths or waltzing exhibition walls that humorously embody Sedlmayr’s fears. Being art opens such projects to a potential that is barely possible within architecture: existence outside of a concrete context, whereby a thought and experience space is in turn opened, in line with what Umberto Eco once called open art work

The lighthouse, which has itself lost its orientation instead of giving it, can therefore be interpreted as a symbol of the artistic approach of Graf. Furthermore, in the border area between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, political interpretations obviously arise: the tower that crosses the borders and, as a poetic mark, crosses the lake; the seemingly effortless glide that recalls the lightness of the Zeppelins, that were built so successfully here and whose poetic beauty masked their importance as instruments of war. 

Indeed, movement is an ever returning motif in the oeuvre of the artist and, in this particular case, the turning of stable architectonic forms into symbols of impermanence and loss. In 2010 at the ›Art Chicago‹ the artist let the display panels wander about. He called the work ›Waltzing Walls‹, which referred to the typically banal arrangement of commercial art fairs: white-painted neutral-looking walls that can be matched to the size of the stand and create a temporary sales- and showroom in which art works have to assert themselves against their competitors without any kind of atmosphere. However, Graf’s walls, together with the pictures mounted on them, were set on wheels and became a sort of disturbance in varying spatial contexts. They caused not only confusion but also displeasure among the gallery owners: in this case the work can be read, on the one hand, as a commentary on the art market, and the artistic as well as the ideal position of the artist in his institutional framing. On the other hand, it is again the supposed stability of architecture that turns out to be an illusion. The paradigm of the wall as a load-bearing element – like a tower or columns, an essential component of what we interpret as architecture – is questioned, and its symbolic role beyond the clear confinement to purpose at the frictional interface between art and architecture is explored. 

At the same time as Graf’s ghost tower was underway on Lake Constance, visitors to an exhibition in Graf’s hometown of Basel devoted to the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin could, in a similar vein, see two of the models for the famous tower that Tatlin designed for the Third International in 1919. At that time, this construct, which can be classed somewhere between the Eiffel Tower and a media machine, satisfied the desire for a communicative monument, a real people’s monument. Parts of the tower were designed to move and accommodate departments of the revolutionary state of the time: for example, the department of propaganda, lecture halls, and a radio station intended for disseminating guiding ideas. The movement suggested interaction as a way to overcome the traditional, static monument: in the same general way as the idea of no longer worshiping a great man, but addressing the mass of the people and thereby symbolising it. In an interview, Graf calls the utopian idea of the moving monument a ruin – a failed illusion, and in reality Tatlin’s design with its propagandistic authority and, in spite of its complex structure, one-dimensional functionality, must seem problematic to us. What connects the contemporary artist and the constructivists is the conscious use of the model, namely the utopian dimensions of the real missing tower – whether this has been scaled down, as in the case of Graf, or could never be realised, as in the case of Tatlin, may play a secondary role.

In supplementing the temporary art work, the event, through its subsequently built model, the latter becomes the permanent art work, a finished object, that can be admired and collected. Although not part of the sculptural project, it is what now remains behind in the exhibition room. The model as result is a motif in Tatlin and the revolutionary architects, like the free sketches of the academic painter and the piece of crumpled paper of Frank Gehry. By contrast, in the case of Graf, the time factor seems to be an important clue to the possible generalisability of the work. Lifting the tower out of its permanence (such at least is the association with lighthouses), the stipulation of a time frame in which the tower not only changes its position, but also leads the onlookers to change their surroundings, the landscape, the accustomed picture of the place, and the conservation of this event on film, should possibly not only be read chronologically. Whereas the model and finished object change their traditional place in chronological order, the past is actually reflected in the movement of the projector in the exhibition room; the past action, in being stored on film, has a much greater possibility of becoming a monumental happening than the tower, which is no longer part of the work. Rather, we ought to understand the model and prototype as nested within each other, each being a spatially and temporally inclusive construct making us aware that perception, memory, and expectation merge in our heads to form an overall impression that is individual and yet never really complete.

Giotto, who worked at the beginning of the 14th century as an architect and artist, depicted in the Arena Chapel in Padua the patron, Enrico Scrovegni, presenting a model of the same chapel to the Virgin Mary during the Last Judgement. A similar sort of thing occurs in languages whose syntax can itself be formulated in the language (what Rudolf Carnap called autosyntactic languages). The model in such cases is incomplete – since, if the model is already part of the language or picture, it ought, in order to be complete, also represent itself, and this representation of itself in itself would go on ad infinitum. How, for example, should we imagine Giotto’s painting shrunk again in his small painted chapel? The model as part of the art work may well serve as a light in the darkness, as is required of a lighthouse—but, so as not to let ourselves be led astray by the ghost lights, we must do without the completeness of the picture.

Mechtild Widrich is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Institute of the History and Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich. Her interests are performative architecture, performance, art in public space, monuments and aesthetic theory.