Black Maria I: Likeness

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It is part of the internal necessity of Hiroshi Nakao’s Black Maria (1994) that it is likened to something. It is like a dancer’s legs, a severed brushstroke, a wolf, a paddy wagon. One half of Black Maria tapers, the other bifurcates. When the two halves are folded together they form a maw with fishbones stuck vertically, a basking shark on wheels grazing in a Japanese park, through the gills of which it is possible to slip out. When the two halves are spread, it is an elongated splinter, a shallow stage, two carriages of a train.

None of these likenesses are preserved for long. They flicker and appear, sometimes simultaneously, and then they slip quietly away in favour of another. Likeness is an often-derided architectural mechanism. It is a well-rehearsed method of critical derogation to liken an unfavoured work to something facetious. Likeness is taken to indicate shallowness. Equally, likeness is sometimes considered to be a weak form of criticism. A weak critic can do no more than say this is like that. Likeness might even be shameful.

Black Maria could be seen as a mechanism for producing likenesses. A likeness is not a representation in the simple sense. Not all representations are likenesses (the word ‘dog’ does not need to be like a dog in any way to represent a dog) Nor are all likenesses representations. Incidental likenesses are possible (Black Maria does not represent a basking shark, but it is like one in certain ways). Likeness opens the philosophical problem of correspondence. When we say something corresponds, are we identifying an objective relationship, or merely observing something about our own correspondence-finding mechanisms? The later Wittgenstein argues that correspondence is just another rule in a language-game. Others have argued that correspondence is a basic principle of logic (certainly symbolic logic). To account for likeness, we need to expand our view of architecture as a representational system beyond a simple one-to-one correspondence (a naive theory of picturing or signifying).

In Black Maria, likeness flickers. But how does it produce this flickering? Is it simply that it is given to us as an ‘exhibit’ and we understand that exhibits are meant to be read like this? Is it the fact that Black Maria is exhibited in a particular way that prompts the flickering of likenesses? Possibly. Probably. But for a little, I want to speak for the idea that the work is somehow constructed in such a way as to produce this flickering.

[ Part II ]

[ Part III ]

[ Refs. ]

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