Documentation of an Artist’s Collection
Can one collect air? Can one collect stars? Can one collect land? The answers to these questions is of course yes, yes, and yes. Marcel Duchamp collected 50 cc of Paris air and cell phone companies are buying it from over our heads, the naming rights for stars is for sale on starnamer.net, and certainly land is bought and sold as “property” all the time. Collecting intangibles like “land,” objectifying and possessing it as property, is probably the cornerstone tenet in our democratic/capitalist society. In young America, property not only had functional value, but political as well. Land gave freedom for a white male to participate in government, to cast a vote as a “landowner”.
Land is one of the most one of the most sought after objects to own, everyone wants a “piece of the pie.” The playground question I remember from childhood was: do you own just the skin of the crust or the diminishing slice all the way to the molten core? Is land a surface or volume, a painting or sculpture? Perhaps owning land, you are just purchasing the right to use it until you and all your descendents die. The functionality seems paramount, a farmer buys arable land, an hotel developer buys land on the beach. But what if the land is unusable?
Gordon Matta-Clark, most famous for his work cutting large voids into disused buildings, observed these oddities of American land ownership and went about collecting parcels of land that were as close to unusable as can be. His collection consisted of 15 extremely marginal pieces of the New York City pie, fourteen in Queens and one in Staten Island. The land, sold at city auctions as “gutterspace,” was often behind or in-between buildings, utterly inaccessible, extremely small and oddly shaped, or quite literally a gutter. Formed by the quixotic jousts of municipal intervention – strange zoning arrangements, cast-offs from public works projects, and left-over slices from surveys – these lots became metaphors for the fracturing of space and the inherent strangeness of property ownership. The fact that Matta-Clark purchased the parcels (instead of simply collecting photos of them or circling them on a map) speaks volumes to the absurdity of the commercialization of something so physical and yet so ephemeral. It also speaks to the nature of collecting, where an object is stripped of its intended function to become a singular possession. The nature of the possession of land becomes even more intriguing when the land is functionless, such that the only purpose is to be the “property” of a collector.
The final manifestation of the project, which was to be called Fake Estates, was never realized due to Matta-Clark’s untimely death in 1978. The cycle of landownership redoubled, and the city reclaimed the sites due to unpaid taxes. Luckily, a physical manifestation of the piece is still possible due to the artist’s collection of buerocratic ephemera surrounding the sales of the estates. Matta-Clark not only collected unusable (and often unseeable) bits of land, but also the documentation surrounding its existence. His archived collections – the deed of sale, tax-assessors maps, photographs and films of the sites, and writings – now form the material representation that documents his immaterial collection of former possessions: land that had no function but to exist.
Video stills from a 1975 video by Jaime Davidovick with Gordon Matta-Clark shot on site during Matta-Clark’s Reality Properties: Fake Estates project