Terminal: Marco Brambilla, Thomas Demand, Charles and Ray Eames, Alex Prager

Marco Brambilla, Approach, 1999, video installation, 9mins

Marco Brambilla’s Approach has been called ‘a love song to airport voyeurism’,[1] and ‘a kind of action-flick trailer’.[2] It turns a mundane moment of the airport experience—the thrusting of the long-haul traveller back into the world via the arrivals lounge—into a portentous rite of passage with a journey-across-the-River-Styx feel. Brambilla often explores transit between different states of being. Commissioned by New York’s Standard Hotel to make a work for its elevators in 2009, he devised the vertically-scrolling video Civilization, which moves between visions of heaven and hell sampled and remixed from Hollywood films as the elevators move between floors.

Approach splices together footage shot over a fourteen-hour period at JFK International Airport with telephoto-lens-equipped camcorders. It captures the movements and expressions of individual travellers released by the airport’s systems, but still subject to the physiological, psychological, and emotional effects of long-haul flight. While relatively diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and class, the travellers respond to this situation in choreographed unison. A glazed-over, disorientated stare gives way to a desperate search for someone or something to pull them back to the world. This is followed, a split second later, by a moment of relief when this point of contact is identified. Approach extracts this shared vulnerability out of the journeys of its individual subjects, the moment before they all quickly snap back to life and human relations.

The project is less humanising and documentary than it sounds. Brambilla’s various manipulations of the accrued material turn this transitionary moment into something metaphorical and disturbing. He focuses on the traveller’s faces to emphasise the psychological dimension of this return. The footage is slowed down and split over four monitors, with a two-second delay to further stretch out this moment and its sense of disorientation. The ambient soundtrack amps up the discord, blending the music of György Ligeti (famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) with field recordings made in JFK and Charles De Gaulle Airports. The result is less a portrait of individuals arriving at particular destinations at particular times, more an abstraction of ‘the traveller’ subjected to the technologies of flight and the airport, as well as to the ambitions of art.

Brambilla processes passengers at JFK as Taryn Simon does the items confiscated from them by customs agents in the same airport a decade later for her project Contraband. Rubbing these two projects together raises the question of what Brambilla’s passengers might be carrying in their bags or pockets. Art is usually situated on Approach’s side of the border. Made a year later, British artist Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom (2000) presents slow-motion footage of the endless flow of passengers through the international-arrivals gate at London City Airport, set to the music of Gregorio Allegri. He made the work after overcoming his fear of flying due to the realisation that ‘it was airports I was frightened of, not the plane’.[3] Both videos now have a time-capsule feel, in terms of their technologies and the airport designs and traveller fashions they capture. In a more important way, both videos belong to a different moment. They were made just before 9/11’s radical reshaping of the flying experience and, especially, that transitionary zone between inside and outside the airport. There is something elegiac or prophetic to both Brambilla’s and Wallinger’s videos—in the same way that Johan Grimonprez’s plane-hijacking film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) seems to anticipate 9/11.

9/11 also changed the role of cameras in the airport. While security cameras have been employed in US airports since the late 1980s, their use expanded exponentially after 9/11. JFK now proudly boasts that its 247-strong Sentry360 camera system covers every inch of the terminal and every traveller that passes through it.[4] In 2019, Homeland Security trialled the extension of biometric and facial-recognition technologies to domestic and international gates. It was forced to abandon the programme following intense criticism over invasion of privacy.[5] Brambilla’s scanning and profiling of passengers now feels even more unsettling and prescient. In exploiting the creative possibilities of these then-nascent technologies, Approach sits somewhere at the start of the sousveillance tradition that subverts these tools for other ends. It aligns with recent examples of passengers turning their camera phones on airport officials, to document potential violations of their rights through the screening process.

Approach focuses on the psychology of viewer and gallery. The videos play on suspended monitors, mimicking airport-display technologies (those screens Alex Prager’s characters look up towards). Roles reverse. As the viewer enters the camera-and-security-monitored gallery, their eyes alight around the space in search of points of connection—making the art-gallery experience as labyrinthian and problematic as the airport one.

Thomas Demand, Gangway, 2001, colour photograph/diasec, 2250 x 1810mm, collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; gift of John Kaldor Family Collection

We have received a radio message from Washington. They have asked that you should be the first to step off the plane so that the television cameras and photographers can get pictures.

—Chief Steward to Mary Quant[6]

The plane rolls in and slows to a stop, the gangway pulls up, and the door opens to reveal a waving visitor. It’s the modern photo-op par excellence—one burned into the collective consciousness—probably because it says as much about the host as it does about the visitor. In Aotearoa, the most iconic examples are the images of the Beatles landing in Wellington to thousands of adoring fans in 1964, followed by returning world champions, and the odd politician or pope on a global tour. Over time, they blur into one. It’s the arriving that counts.

The power that this scene holds in cultural memory banks makes it an ideal subject for German artist Thomas Demand’s photographic-sculptural simulations of found images. His source images, often connected to historically loaded sites or events, are culled from the media. Demand dislodges the image from its referent through a distinctive translation process. The image is remade as a 3D, life-size model out of coloured paper and card. This model is built camera-ready; made, presented, and lit with the lens in mind. It’s photographed—with a large-format camera equipped with a telescopic lens for enhanced resolution— then destroyed. The image then travels back to the world in a different, more-contingent photographic form.

While there’s an uncanny, illusionistic quality to Demand’s photographs, the aim is less to trick the eye than the brain. Telltale folds and creases in the paper are visible, along with the odd pencil or scuff mark. This handmade quality emphasises the scene’s unreality, jolting it away from any experience of the ‘real’, especially as associated with the documentary tradition Demand draws his source images from. His skilful, yet slightly wonky reconstructions parallel the faulty workings of memory and the ways we consume images to construct personal, collective, and political ‘truths’.

We may think we know Gangway, but we don’t really. Demand withholds any contextual information that may clue us in to his source, most notably by omitting the figure stepping off the plane. Demand prefers his work instead to accrue meaning over time as stories and rumours are told about it—another form of unreliable transmission. With Gangway, Demand has spoken about the trope of the tarmac arrival as ‘such an enigmatic image’. He continues:

It has memories of someone like Cary Grant coming into Winnipeg (Canada) or George W. Bush coming to the airport in Cairo, Egypt, and you see the shot of the plane door opening and the person comes out and raises his hand. It’s such a clear shot and a beautiful and really simple thing.[7]

It has been suggested that the source image for Gangway may be Pope John Paul II arriving in Berlin in 1996. This controversial first papal visit to a reunified Germany would fit with Demand’s focus on historically and culturally loaded events and sites connected to German history (he has reconstructed the room where the failed assassination of Hitler took place, Stasi headquarters, and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s archive). It would also befit the image of the ‘globe trotting’ John Paul II.[8] The first pope to travel by plane, he used the power of modern technology and the media to become the most visible pope in history. He’s remembered through images of him stepping out of planes and kissing the tarmac. Strangely, one of the closest resemblances to Gangway is an image of John Paul II stepping out of a koru-emblazoned Air New Zealand plane in Canberra, as part of a Southern Hemisphere tour in 1986. Somehow, he is always present in Gangway, whether he’s there or not.

Demand is drawn to generic modernist sites and architectures loaded with cultural baggage, yet his works are open-ended propositions. Where other artists undercut the modernist idea of the airport as non-place, Demand has found a way to retain this mythology. Another work takes us inside the terminal. Gate (2004) reconstructs a security-check zone, complete with paper stanchions, X-ray baggage machine, roller trays, and examination tables. So far, so generically airport. Where Gangway’s low perspective emphasises the absent human subject, here the overhead perspective creates a disturbing sense that we have seen this before. In this case, you almost certainly have. The photograph is a reconstruction of the security-camera footage of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta passing security at Boston’s Logan International Airport, about to board AA Flight 11, which he will fly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Demand extracts Atta from the scene, returning the world to a moment before his actions changed the course of history.

As always, Demand circles back to explore the nature of representation. His photograph is less a reconstruction of a specific scene than of a form of representation that acquired new currency through 9/11 coverage—forever changing how we see the world. The sweeping security measures after 9/11 would restrict press access to the airside of the terminal. Now, notable travellers are more often photographed upon entering the arrivals lounge. The visitor-stepping-off-the-plane genre Demand toys with in Gangway has nearly disappeared as a relic of aviation, cultural, and photographic history.

Charles and Ray Eames, The Expanding Airport, 1958, film

In 1958, architect Eero Saarinen needed assistance to concisely describe a revolutionary feature of his terminal design for Dulles International Airport in Washington DC for a pitch to the Federal Aviation Authority. Charles and Ray Eames answered their friend’s call by whipping up this film-as-visual-demonstration. (Whether it’s art is debatable. Charles Eames always scoffed at suggestions that the studio made ‘experimental films’. He famously called them ‘just attempts to get across an idea’.[9])

Saarinen had a big idea. He was building a new type of terminal for the jet age—a classic of modernist airport design. Two sets of columns running along the building’s long facades are connected by a curving, wing-like roof that feels ready to take off from its foundations. The experience of the interior bothered him more. With the arrival of commercial jets and swelling passenger numbers, airports were forced into rapid expansion. Many just tacked on finger piers to accommodate additional gates and holding areas. Terminals were becoming more complicated, less enjoyable. Saarinen’s solution was introducing mobile lounges. After checking in, passengers would enter a lounge that would be transported to the plane. Mobile lounges would keep the airport’s footprint small and minimise passenger movement in the terminal.

The Eameses’ jaunty hand-animated film sells this concept. Real and cartoon passengers are tracked on their journeys through the terminal—some on foot, some in the mobile lounge. Infographics insist that the mobile-lounge option is far superior. The real selling point is luxury. It is part cocktail lounge, part party bus, with bar, piped-in music, comfy reclining chairs, and observation deck. It was an attempt to retain the romance of flying as it was coming under threat through shifts in the aviation industry. While presented as a means to improve the passenger experience, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to protect the sanctity of modernist airport architecture.

Mobile lounges were adopted at Dulles and a few other airports. In most cases, they were quickly abandoned or became a no-frills bus service, rather than the luxury, futuristic experience the Eameses promised. Other passenger-conveyance systems proved more effective and Saarinen couldn’t have predicted the impact later security policies would have on passenger movement through the terminal. Remarkably, at Dulles, mobile lounges are still in operation. No drinks are served and the airport’s problems remain. Dulles regularly appears in ‘worst US airports’ lists. The big complaint, though, is the failure to deliver a long-promised rail extension connecting it to Washington DC. Getting passengers to the airport is a bigger issue than moving them around inside it.

The Eameses’ film looks past such issues to offer a revolutionary idea about the airport—one that eyed even-greater possibilities. Anticipating the opening of the TV show The Jetsons, the final scene makes a fantastic leap to a future tarmac, where rocket ships now dock. A voiceover suggests, ‘There is a high probability that something like the mobile lounge will be servicing quite a few of the conveyances that are yet to come along.’ We are still waiting, but perhaps not for long. Architect Peter Ruggiero, responsible for many airport redevelopments, recently floated the possibility of a return to Saarinen’s core ideas—separating the plane and the terminal, getting rid of boarding gates, and using a mechanism to transport passengers to the aircraft. He is clear that this mechanism ‘should not [be] a mobile lounge like at Dulles’.[10] Instead, he has namechecked Hyperloop as a possibility—the Elon Musk/SpaceX transport concept that uses sealed, low-pressure tunnels to move vehicles at high speed.

Saarinen called on the Eames Office to make another, more-enduring contribution
to the modern terminal. The Eames Tandem Sling Seat—a modular, scalable system of chrome-framed, leather-or-vinyl-padded armchairs—was launched at Dulles International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 1962. Blending aesthetic and functional needs, the Sling Seat and its imitators remain the go-to seating option in airports globally. Christopher Schaberg suggests that they ‘are arguably one of the most iconic symbols of airportness’[11]—more so than the failed mobile lounge.

Alex Prager, Crowd #7 (Bob Hope Airport), 2013, pigment print, 1496×1976 mm

We often refer to a golden age of air travel: it existed somewhere after the middle of the last century, perhaps, but definitively, it is a time that has passed, it is no longer here.

—Christopher Schaberg[12]

Crowd #7 (Bob Hope Airport) evokes the golden age of air travel as something we have lost but perhaps still pine for. It’s part of Los Angeles artist Alex Prager’s Face in the Crowd series. These elaborate, constructed photographs are full studio productions, utilising set design, actors, costumes, and lighting. Prager is drawn to crowds as complex sites of human interaction that reveal larger cultural questions or conditions.

The airport is the ideal laboratory for Prager’s investigations into human behaviour. Here, the arrivals lounge is presented as a human zoo, fuelled by the contradictory feelings experienced in the airport: anticipation, boredom, anxiousness, confusion, excitement. This is where we arrive and depart, return to and escape from, greet and farewell others.

Prager builds a swirling melodrama out of the intersecting stories, clashing personalities, and chance encounters of travellers brought together under the announcements board. Banality and surrealism collide; small details take on momentous meanings. Passengers are defined by their choice of luggage or travel attire. There is something uncanny and disturbing in the way Prager freezes the constant movement of the traveller through the airport. Her characters are close cousins of Duane Hanson’s Traveller (1986)—a hyperreal sculpture of a dishevelled man slumped on a suitcase on his long wait between flights. The sculpture has freaked out real travellers since being installed near the foodcourt inside Orlando International Airport. The unreality of Prager’s constructed scene emphasises its reality. It also has an unerringly close resemblance to the ‘real’ crowd scene captured by Andreas Gursky in Düsseldorf, Flughafen I (1985)—the companion piece to his work in Terminal.

Prager sucks us into her characters’ stories to emphasise their estrangement from one another. Each follows their own route, but the airport is processing them as a pack. Prager taps into the airport’s central paradox—its promise of individual escape is a collective delusion created and controlled by the aviation industry. The floor’s chessboard pattern emphasises that the characters are being moved, rather than moving themselves. Prager shoots from an elevated position, looking down on the crowd. This perspective would seem to be from either the announcements board or the security camera—one promising escape, the other control. As in all Prager’s crowd scenes, a single character stares back. Normally this grants agency. Here, she might just be checking her gate number.

The colour-saturated, timeless styling of Prager’s photographs jolts them out of time and place. In this case, a specific location is invoked—Bob Hope Airport (now called Burbank Hollywood). Once LA’s largest airport and the gateway to Hollywood, it was named after the famous Valley resident who jealously petitioned authorities after hearing that John Wayne had an airport named after him.[13]

Prager’s photography is bound to the history, mythology, and production methods of old Hollywood. Here, she connects the ‘golden ages’ of film and aviation. This was the airport where aspiring film stars landed in Hollywood seeking fame and fortune (Prager’s photographs are full of such ‘starlets’, often accompanied by planes flying overhead). For a long time, it was thought that the final moments of Casablanca (1942)—the most famous airport-in-movie scene—was shot at Bob Hope. It was later revealed that—like Prager’s photograph—it was made on a Hollywood sound stage. Film critic Richard Alleman laments the fact that ‘They don’t make airports like this any longer—just as they don’t make films like Casablanca. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”’[14] Films continued to be shot at Burbank, including Top Gun (1986) and The Bling Ring (2013).

Bob Hope Airport represents the faded glories of aviation’s past, but Prager’s photographs belong to the present. As art writer Alissa Guzman puts it, they have a ‘historical nonchalance’ that represents ‘an aesthetic plight that is uniquely 21st century’.[15] She shares this aesthetic with LA filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, whose film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) similarly channels the mythologies and styles of old Hollywood. Set in the final moments of the industry’s golden age, it features a key airport scene. Faded TV star Rick Dalton and Italian actress Francesca Capucci land at LAX, trailed by bag wrangler Cliff Booth. They pass the airport’s iconic coloured-tile mural, which has appeared in many films and TV shows, such as The Graduate (1967), Jackie Brown (1997), and Mad Men (2007–15). Accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ refrain ‘Baby, baby, baby, you are out of time’, they could be walking straight into or out of Prager’s photograph.

Published in Terminal (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2020), 20-31.

[1] Thad Ziolkowski, ‘Marco Brambilla’, Artforum, January 2020: 117.

[2] Shonagh Adelman, ‘Marco Brambilla’, Frieze, 3 March 2000, frieze.com/article/marco-brambilla.

[3] Martin Herbert, Mark Wallinger (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011), 112.

[4] ‘Total Security Completes Security Camera Installation at JFK International Airport’, ASMag.com, 2 July 2018, https://www.asmag.com/showpost/24635.aspx.

[5] Zach Whittaker, ‘After Criticism, Homeland Security Drops Plans to Expand Airport Face Recognition Scans to US Citizens’, TechCrunch, 6 December 2019, www. techcrunch.com/2019/12/05/homeland-security-drops-airport-citizens-face-scans/.

[6] Vanessa R. Schwartz, Jet Age Aesthetics: The Glamour of Media in Motion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 116.

[7] Paul Weideman, ‘Immaculate Perceptions’, The Santa Fe New Mexican, 15 February 2002: 36.

[8] Robin Wright, ‘How the Pope Flies: across Four Continents with John Paul II’, The New Yorker, 21 September 2015, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-the-pope-flies-across-four-continents-with-john-paul-ii.

[9] Sarah Cowan, ‘The Best for the Most for the Least’, Paris Review, 14 June 2017, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/06/14/the-best-for-the-most-for-the-least/.

[10] Edward Russell, ‘Did Washington Dulles Get It Right with the Mobile Lounge?’, The Points Guy, 8 March 2020, http://www.thepointsguy.com/news/did-washington-dulles-get-it-right-with-the-mobile-lounge/.

[11] Christopher Schaberg, The End of Airports (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 104.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Richard Alleman, Hollywood: The Movie Lovers Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie LA (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013), 421.

[14] Ibid, 423.

[15] Alissa Guzman, ‘Living or Being Seen in Alex Prager’s Sun-Soaked Psyche’, Hyperallergic, 28 January 2014, www.hyperallergic.com/105416/living-or-being-seen-in-alex-pragers-sun-soaked-psyche/.