Hall of Mirrors

post by Rachel Pastan

Close to a hundred people turned out last Wednesday night to see Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane at International House. The film was being screened as part of a series organized with ICA’s exhibition Set Pieces, curated by Virgil Marti from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). To make the exhibition, Virgil trawled through the vast rooms of the PMA’s storage, chose objects that appealed to him, and re-staged them in ICA’s galleries (read more about the exhibition here). Some of the objects are arranged in ways suggested by his favorite movies. The first thing you see when you enter the galleries is a gorgeous model of the Philadelphia Waterworks, which reminded Virgil of the vision of Kane’s unfinished palace, Xanadu.

Before the screening, Virgil got up and said a few words. He told us for example that Roger Ebert, after explicating what was groundbreaking about Citizen Kane, remarked, “It’s not the film I’d want to see again right now.” Ingmar Bergman is reported to have called it “a total bore,” opining that Welles was totally overrated as a filmmaker. On the plus side, Virgil advised us to look out for Kane walking zombie-like through the hall of mirrors; the vast shadowy spaces; and the stark, haunting scene of words going up in smoke. He also talked about the amazing vision Welles gives us of the boxes and cartons and crates containing Kane’s collections. Referring to his own visit to the PMA’s store rooms Virgil said, “It’s virtually impossible to walk into a storage space and not think about the storage scene in Citizen Kane.”

I’ll confess right here that my feelings about the film are more or less in line with Bergman’s. Despite the extraordinary, original shots and Welles’s larger-than-life presence, I was bothered by the story’s narrative, which is perfunctorily handled. Welles doesn’t seem to care that much about dramatizing the story. For example, characters are always screeching about how Kane gets everything and then loses it, but we seldom see him doing either—just looking energetic or grim or doomed in response to it having happened off-camera. In a narrative, the viewer (or reader) asks, What will happen next? and hopes to be surprised; but in Kane you can see the trajectory well in advance. The surprises are all in the camera work.

Which brings me to this question: Is a museum exhibition a work of narrative art, or is it more immediate, atemporal, like a painting or a candlestick?

In Set Pieces, Virgil has certainly arranged the objects to take us on a journey. After the Waterworks, we move past a ceramic coffee pot painted to look like wood, a cabinet with faux books made of inlay, a little scene of three sculptures arranged in an apparent vignette (two heads and a Claes Oldenburg soft drum set, all the same size). Then we come upon the back of an enormous Renaissance bench, which we move around to admire the grand painted angels on its front. Maybe the relation of the images is more associative than narrative—more like poetry than like a novel—but one can feel those images accumulate, feel themes emerging and see changes played on them: objects which are disguised as something they are not (the coffee pot that’s not really wood, the cabinet that’s not really books); matched sets that don’t really match (the three sculptures); objects viewed from unusual angles (the bench). You might speculate that this last trope—objects viewed from unusual angles—is something Marti gleaned from Welles.
Miranda: Kane image

Citizen Kane. Courtesy of Mercury Productions and RKO Radio Pictures.

Much of Set Pieces is dark and shadowy, a la Welles’s vast shadowy spaces. But the last room is different. The dark carpeting has been taken up to reveal the white concrete floor, and the walls are white (except for the one that’s pink), and an arrangement of white fluffy poufs holds an assortment of mostly white marble busts. In this room too the familiar themes recur: objects in disguise, matched sets that don’t quite match, objects presented at unconventional angles (there’s a lovely bust lying on its side in here). But instead of shadows, we have emerged into light.

On earlier viewings of the exhibition I had wondered why Virgil made this choice. But after watching Citizen Kane, I feel he understood that the exhibition had to take us somewhere, had to enact some change, had to offer the viewer a surprise.

This, of course, is my lesson. I’m not suggesting that Virgil organized his installation in conscious contrast to the film’s treatment of narrative. His interests were elsewhere. Still: on Wednesday, February 2, International House will screen the last film in the exhibition series, Virgil Marti’s favorite movie, Robert Altman’s 1975 classic Nashville. I wonder what more about Set Pieces I’ll understand after seeing that.

Set Pieces is on view at ICA until Sunday, February 13. The exhibition was made possible by support from the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program.