Review: In A Lonely Place | icon 036 | June 2006

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words Kieran Long

Stargazing in FAT’s installation at the RIBA prompts a hollow, Hollywood kind of loneliness.

As pollution has clouded our skies, the stellar promontory that once illustrated humanity’s myths and legends has faded from view.

The inside of FAT’s In a Lonely Place installation at London’s RIBA is a kind of planetarium, an inflatable black sphere with hundreds of small transparent dots forming a Milky Way around your head. But the pattern of these dots is not that of any heavenly hemisphere. It’s a map of celebrity houses in Hollywood, a transcendental stalker’s guide to the California hills.

Comedian Fred Allen once described Hollywood as a “place where people from Iowa mistake each other for stars”. It’s a shared fiction that has been successfully exported around the world. Look, FAT says, your ancient myths have been superceded by the fabrications of marketing execs on the west coast of America. Don’t you feel alone?

There’s no way out of FAT’s pop-cultural double bind, and that can feel deflating, if you’ll pardon the pun. If you think film stars are irrelevant, then you are in high-brow denial. If you embrace the zeitgeist you are just falling for the same cheap, mass-produced thrill as everybody else.

The question is, when you sweep away mainstream taste with a trenchant and compelling critique like FAT’s, what do you replace it with? Some half-timbering (becoming a FAT commonplace) and Étienne-Louis Boullée references? In a Lonely Place is a parody of Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton. It could be argued that Aldo Rossi has already done this, in built form. Why do it again, unless you think your audience is unaware of the rehabilitation of Boullée that Rossi undertook, or if you think he was somehow mistaken?

I’m a fan of FAT, but one of the problems with their work is that they make very little that’s beautiful. While they say they are interested in alternative definitions of beauty, drawn from popular culture as well as high, this tendency has insulated them from criticism. Middle-class critics are drawn in by the discourse. It all appears so shockingly democratic, but still arty enough to merit coverage.

The experience of being inside the dome is a bit like being shut inside a bouncy castle. The smell is bad, the effect less impressive than a planetarium. The distended abdomen, like the swollen body of a queen bee, is especially ugly as it deflates and sags in the middle of the clean lines of the RIBA’s Florence Hall.

Unlike FAT’s powerful architecture, this art piece didn’t help me escape conventional taste and wisdom, it bound me more closely to it. It contains no craft (but no real roughness), no guile (but no pop obviousness), no moment of beautiful revelation (but no coquettish intrigue). FAT aims high in what it does, but this particular installation is just a bit too throwaway, like film stars. A Lonely Place may be Boullée-style architecture parlante. But does anyone care what it’s talking about?

In a Lonely Place was at the RIBA, London

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