Credit: Courtesy Gregor Sailer/Kehrer Galerie
The haunting artifice of fake villages around the world
Linde B. Lehtinen is assistant curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). This is an edited excerpt from "The Potemkin Village," a book of photography by Gregor Sailer.
Gregor Sailer makes work that challenges our understanding of what it means to encounter authenticity and illusion within photography. Starting in June 2015, he traveled to Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, England, the United States, and China to search for "fake towns" or, as he refers to them, "Potemkin Villages," which pretend to be something they are not.
These are places of deception, designed to hide their true condition. They replicate reality in ways that are disturbing, enigmatic, and captivating. In many cases, it is difficult to separate the real from the copy, and the status of truth within these images is in constant flux.
Sailer's investigations into these secret sites took him to dark places both mentally and physically, as he attempted to make visible the seemingly imperceptible edges and traces of human experience.
The original term "Potemkin Village" derives from a story dating back to 18th-century Russia, suggesting that an artificial place can be built to disguise or conceal the true -- and often less desirable -- identity of the original.
During a visit by Empress Catherine II to Crimea in 1787, Russian governor Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin supposedly constructed fake settlements to conceal the dilapidated conditions of the town.
Sailer first became aware of the contemporary version of this phenomenon when he traveled to Russia and realized that in Suzdal, northeast of Moscow, there were deteriorated buildings covered up with printed canvases of idealized, polished buildings used to impress Vladimir Putin during his visit. The unusual, colorful coverings on the buildings resemble whimsical dollhouses rather than solid structures.
Sailer is careful to capture the edges of the canvas that peel away, revealing the actual building underneath. These ruptures in the fabric produce a trompe l'oeil effect by reducing the flatness of the building and adding dimension.
At first glance, the coverings appear to be a cheap form of illusion, but each break creates another level of reality that is simultaneously unsettling and intriguing. The obvious artifice of these buildings provides a tangible entry point into this practice of copying that is so pervasive in contemporary society.
Sailer then traveled to Sweden to visit the vehicle test areas AstaZero and Carson City which recreate full-scale test environments for future road safety. Each site pretends to operate as a real street with traffic lights, but the cars travel at extreme speeds, hit fake pedestrians, and come to screeching halts. The buildings on either side of the road imitate the Harlem neighborhood in New York City with the use of fake backdrops of stores and restaurants, including vivid signs and display windows.
Sailer also exposes more of the deceit by photographing the structures from all sides to reveal the bare boards and planks propping up the walls. They are stripped down for the viewer to absorb the very mechanics and constructions that support the simulated world on display.
Similar to the architectural interventions of Gordon Matta-Clark, or the typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, these "buildings" possess a strange aura in their divergence from straightforward edifices. They each have their own character and personality through vibrant colors, sloping lines and dramatic black squares to represent windows. The structures are isolated and overtly staged and propped up within the wintry landscape.
This form of copying is more of an expressive gesture than a straightforward attempt at mimicking the buildings' structures. These are transitory structures that shift in front of the viewer and give the impression of stage sets that could collapse at any moment. The delicate surfaces, stark lines and vacant elements of Sailer's photographs provide an introduction to this process of crafting an illusory environment, a theater of perceived reality.
The impulse to copy
Theorist Jean Baudrillard posited that hyperreal worlds such as the ones that Sailer explores make the distinction between reality and simulacra less distinct, and that "illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible."
According to this logic, these fake sites present a threat to authenticity and the ultimate demise of a society's original identity. The idea of the copy also triggers a psychological disturbance because it will always be compared to its referent. The copy is unnatural, but at the same time it is superior to the original that is left vulnerable and limited in its capacity.
Sailer maneuvers through many of these tensions by capturing each of these places in a neutral manner and constantly shifting perspectives. These pictures are not necessarily critical of the phenomenon of copying, but more probing and exploratory. He is interested in pursuing the tenuous line between reality and illusion, and allowing the viewer to hover between both realms.
As writer David La Rocca contends, this type of photographic imagery can be called a "simulated index" which is a "representation that pretends to be something it is not while it portends to be what it is."
When we view the images within Sailer's "Potemkin Village," they appear to be buildings and cities at first, but we also comprehend that they are not originals. The potency and significance of these photographs relies on that very contradiction and knowledge of artifice.
Sailer's photographs not only reference the false qualities of the architecture, but also pertain to the question of photography's ability to record reality. This epistemological tension underlies all of the images in Sailer's series, engaging with a range of discourse surrounding photography and the issue of reproduction.
Walter Benjamin wrote that with a technological reproduction such as photography, the original aura of the work of art is diminished. As the photograph itself is a reproduction, there are two layers of replication taking place as we view Sailer's body of work: the copying of the original site and the documentation of it. Rosalind Kraus notes that the process of reproducibility is bound up in the very act of photographing, which destabilizes the distinction between original and copy.
Even though other contemporary photographers such as Thomas Demand have embraced the technique of highlighting the artificiality of an image's construction, Sailer insists on maintaining a consistent connection to the real in the materiality of his photographs even while capturing subjects that are all about illusion. From military operation sites to tourist attractions to vehicle test cities, these places operate as unique environments that have their own systems and networks. As Sailer says: "I was interested in showing a new world ... and a new atmosphere to outsiders."
These artificial sites allow Sailer to survey the hermetic, uncanny qualities of fake cities while interrogating the very meaning of truth behind the photographic image. The opposition between real and unreal is made tangible and inextricably linked.