Thursday, July 31, 2008

The 1:43 Scale Atrocity Exhibition

"The toy", writes Susan Stewart in On Longing, "is the physical embodiment of fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative". What fantasies are involved in this toy, a replica of the Lincoln Continental Presidential Parade Vehicle in which John F Kennedy was shot? It sits on my mantelpiece, a present from a friend who found it on ebay. They're all there: JFK himself, albeit minus half an arm in my less than pristine version, Jackie O in her pink Chanel, Governor Connelly waving, all forever captured minutes, or maybe just seconds, before the first shot.

It's a strangely macabre object: a miniature that might be used in a Hornby scale re-enactment of the assassination. As the seller on ebay put it, the model has a “…full set of figures recreating the final moments of JFK’s presidency”. Where are the other figures though? I can’t find any corresponding 1:43 scale versions of Lee Harvey Oswald or the book depository or bitter CIA Bay of Pigs veterans lurking mysteriously by the underpass.

For the avid conspiracy theorist, more figures are needed to try out new scenarious, speculate on alternative plots. Maybe it is part of a set along with Diana’s Mercedes (one of a pair with the mysterious 'white Renault'), Princess Grace’s Rover P6 and Pope John Paul 11’s 1981 Popemobile. As Stewart goes on to say: "To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts".

Or perhaps, it’s for a miniature version of J G Ballard’s blackly hilarious short story The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race. But Ballard's story differs from conspiracy theory in an important respect. Although, like them, it uses collage and displacement - the sliding in one of one scenario for another, storylines and characters cut and pasted from alternative worlds* - it works through absurdity, highlighting the seam between the accepted reality and the absurd version he posits in its place. Ballard's story uses collage as an avant garde device of radical disjunction and violent displacement. It is never meant to be true. Unlike this theory, for instance, which links the positions of the various protagonists to the sign of Orion.

Conspiracy theory strives for truth, but one that always slips away. By casting doubt on truth in the first place it inherently unbalances itself. Despite its controversy at the time of writing, Ballard's story is as much a satire on conspiracy theory as it is a tasteless deflation of the importance of the event itself.

Conspiracy theory aims to be closer to the seamless falsehoods of the picturesque, so that you can no longer see the gaps between truth and conjecture. Here, landscape is shifted around to tell a story and reinforce a predetermined narrative. The endless pixellated diagrams of the JFK killing shift the scenery and protagonists around according to specific points of view. The doctored photographs which in turn accuse others of some previous manipulation induce a queasily liquid sense of space, geography and time.

The toy version of JFK's limousine and Ballard's story also differ from the fascination of the 'genuine' relics and souvenirs discussed by Geoff Manaugh in an old BldgBlog post here. The relics, as dubious as some of their claims may be, are all about authenticity. They strive to reinforce or back up the truth, because it in turn validates them. Toys and souvenirs though are all about representation. They are absolutely not the thing they represent, merely a version of it. They have an inherently volatile relationship to the truth. Miniaturisation automatically removes objects from their context. As Stewart says; "There are no miniatures in nature".

Strangely, the real JFK limousine was rebuilt, given a bullet proof roof and repainted from Midnight Blue to black. It was used by subsequent US presidents until its formal retirement in 1977. Today it is in the Henry Ford Musuem where it sits alongside, amongst other things, Rosa Park’s bus, in its own 20th century atrocity exhibition.

* This technique reaches an extreme in the appendix section of The Atrocity Exhibition with Prince's Margaret's Facelift, a 'story' which is actually a genuine doctor's account of a facelift but with Princess Margaret's name substituted throughout for the anonymous Patient X of the original report.

** These manipulations have an odd echo in an intruiging post Archigram project by Mike Webb called Temple Island. In it Webb looked at a stretch of the River Thames near Henley as a conspiracy theorist might, editing photographs and lines of sight according to different points of view to alter the landscape. The project focused on a picturesque folly on Temple Island which sits in the middle of the Thames.


St. Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
St. Anthony said...

Fantastic post - I seriously covet that model. Do you think James Dean's Porche Spyder was available, too?

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