Fallen Empire II

Reviewed by Sarah Bay Williams

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Luca Antonucci was, in the past, in outer space.

 
Dissatisied with a tome on architecture, he has transformed it through elimination and whitewash, “into a book on astrophysics.” Outerspace, during the Space Age, was generally just another playground for the imperial ambitions of the US and the Soviet Union.
 
Antonucci returns from outerspace and back to architecture, another token imperial tinker toy. The urge to express power through design, and the form of this urge repeating itself over and over again is the central matter of Antonucci’s study.
 
His artist book Fallen Empire II in its limited edition form comes in a natty-sharp white box, resealable with Velcro dots, emblazoned in red: FALLEN EMPIRE. It includes a pearl acrylic sheet (that reminds me of certain bowling balls, or countertops from 24-hour diners) and four tiny white plastic columns with which, among other things, one may construct a small platform for the slim book, which is staple-bound in speckled-blue ribbed cardboard. The book itself includes eighteen photographs serigraphed in red, most of (or possibly all of) which are appropriated from internet sources like Wikipedia or Google image search (I found them there myself). The Pantheon in Rome, Los Angeles City Hall, the reflecting pool and courtyard of the Getty Villa in Malibu, an ancient signet ring, the Los Angeles Lakers 2010 NBA Finals Championship ring, the Roman Forum, the currently defunct Los Angeles Forum… You may see a pattern.
 

In reference to a previous project entitled Remnants, a series of photographs of supernovae encased in a shipping container and wrapped in glycine, Antonucci writes on his website: “These images of the remnants of Supernovae represent the gravitational collapse of a star. In this moment of transition, energy from the explosion can either form a black hole or trigger the formation of new stars.” I find overlap between Remnants and Fallen Empire II because I used to have a job where for a week out of every year my office was moved to the former Renaissance Hotel within the Hollywood and Highland mall complex, which is designed after the most lavish and excessive set in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance, complete with grand arch and white elephants on tall pillars, which was, in turn, designed after a researched take on what 6th-century Babylon may have looked like. (Cursorily- or meticulously-researched is up for question—optimistically, maybe?—where did those elephants come from?)

 

There, at H&H, every day all around me—while I was getting lunch at the now-closed sandwich shop, The Dip, owned by the man who played Azamat Bagatov in Borat, or taking a break to marvel at the oceans of polychromatic shadows and glitter mascara in Sephora—were the detritus of some kind of explosion, a supernova in the form of human bodies, sparked by the electricity of television, popular travel, evil concierges, sneaker-shopping, bargain hunting, miscomprehension-of-celebrity, and/or maybe the thought that bowling in a mall was a fun thing to do. It was humanity as heavy element and stellar material, imploding, and then bouncing back off each other, spasmodically eating, spending money, stuffing foot into affordable shoe, hiking short shorts up, blasting the paste of their skin with sunlight.

 

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I’m still deciding if this kind of human supernova is potential black hole material or the formation of new stars—perhaps enough to eventually spur some kind of new behavior—however, I always seemed to be the only one at my job who thought that H&H’s decision to model their mall on Griffith’s set for “Babylon,” must have been some sort of massive corporate oversight blind to some of the not-so-trivial factoids that troubled me about the decision. First of all, Intolerance, about the war between hatred and love throughout the ages, was a sort of mea culpa for Griffith’s glorifying of the Ku Klux Klan in his previous film, Birth of a Nation. Second, even though there is little connection now between sixth-century Mesopotamian Babylon, as depicted in the film, and the word Babylon as it evolved through the Bible to describe a place of hedonism, vice, and corruption (most likely a symbol of the decline of the Roman Empire), I had a hard time shaking the sense that this mall had more in common with the latter definition than the religiously-tolerant culture that fell in the Battle of Opis to King Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C.E.

 

Which brings us back to Antonucci. Fallen Empire II seems simple at first—almost lightweight. It opens with a quote by Edward Gibbon, from chapter 71 of his six-volume tome, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.” Antonucci seems done with black holes versus new stars. He’s dumping it all—all of everything humankind has accomplished—into a “common grave”; we’ve fattened ourselves for the maggots—let them take us all together as one.

 

Fallen Empire II is, in the end, a simple book with a simple conceit. Comparing the ruins of antiquity to contemporary travesties of architecture and design is so simple I managed to complicate it to the fullest extent that I could. The varying degrees of dialogue between images are pretty straightforward. The ancient signet ring and the Los Angeles Lakers 2010 NBA Finals Championship ring. The Pantheon in Rome and the Getty Villa. The Roman Colosseum and an LA Lakers game. Column capitals as illustrated in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and… the Petersen Automotive Museum, maybe? Antonucci found the repetitions that surround us and found images to support his vision.

 

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I became quite attached to the package, however. I assembled the display platform and placed the book on it. I let it sit there all day, at tiny memorial to excess, and found myself glancing over, thinking: That’s pretty good… And over the course of the day, my cat kept knocking into the pearly acrylic sheet and disheveling the arrangement of the tiny white columns with their tiny curly volutes. I pushed them carefully back into place. I kept thinking of a tarot card I had been recently dealt—the wheel of fortune, and its suggestion that “each beginning leads to an ending, and each ending is both the results of one beginning and the freshly planted seeds of another.”

 

Antonucci has said that he worked with astronomy in the past because he’s “not interested in solving anything.” He’s “interested in what knowledge is and the places where our fear of existence, the universe, or everything, compromises those truths.” With Fallen Empire II he may be treading on well-trod ground: a tongue-in-cheek critique resonating a puritanical groove that warns we are excessive—that we are heading for a fall. But what of this “cycle”? Rather than using Fallen Empire II as a sort of memento mori, such as the kind that Roman victors are said to have used—reminders after triumph that failure can be just around the bend—Antonucci, assisted by Gibbon’s wry quip on decline, speaks more to the continuum of cycles rather than beginnings and endings. After several times nudging the tiny columns back into place and setting Fallen Empire II just so I felt like I had made a friend. A simple friend—not too complex, but fun.

 

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Luca Antonucci, Fallen Empire II *LE, (Colpa, 2012)
Images from Fallen Empire II

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