Shown as a looped projection in a darkened room, Empire 2002 is a silent 16 mm film that is divided into six distinct sections: four sequences of varying lengths that explore objects and shapes, and two longer parts (each of around seven minutes) focusing on individual rooms. The first section features a grainy black and white image of a grasshopper on a leaf, with the exposure of the image gradually altering so that the insect changes from being a glowing form to almost merging with the dark background. In the second section the camera slowly moves through the organic forms of a plaster sculpture, before the film cuts to the third and briefest section (lasting less than a minute) featuring images, occasionally blurred as the camera lens shifts, of a geometric structure made up of a thin black framework. The fourth section of Empire is the film’s only colour sequence, with the images mostly appearing in an orange tint, although some brief parts are tinted either blue, purple or green. This section begins with a close-up of two dark vertical lines on a lighter background, an image that slowly dissolves into a frontal view of a living room containing furniture and paintings. This interior is subsequently presented from different angles – including upside down – in rhythmic panning sequences. The fifth section contains images of a three-dimensional spinning crystalline structure that seems to be travelling closer to the viewer until its edges move beyond the pictorial frame. The sixth and final section features shots of an octagonal Rococo-style room, with the camera paying close attention to various architectural elements such as the chandelier, mirrors and wall panelling. Tate’s copy of Empire is number seven in an edition of seven plus two artist’s proofs.
Empire was made in Hollywood, Los Angeles, between 1998 and 2002 by the American artist Paul Sietsema. He began by creating a model of the interior seen in the fourth section of Empire. This was closely based on a photograph that appeared in Vogue magazine in January 1964 of the living room in the art critic Clement Greenberg’s (1909–1994) New York apartment, and has been exhibited as C.G. Room 2002 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). The images of this model that feature in Empire were shot using a clear orange film negative. Sietsema also made models and objects for the other sequences in Empire. The ornate interior depicted in the last section of the film is a scale model of the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise, Paris, a room designed in 1732 by the French architect Germain Boffrand. Sietsema’s model of this interior has been exhibited as Rococo Room 2002 (private collection). The grasshopper in Empire’s opening section was constructed by the artist from wood, plastic, paint and wire, while the organic sculpture in the second section was inspired by Louise Bourgeois’s Fée Couturière (Fairy Dressmaker) 1963 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). The structures that appear in sections three and five in the film are not physical models: rather, the images of them were created inside Sietsema’s 16mm Bolex camera, using small black sticks scanned into the film (for section three) and transparent film gels superimposed upon each other (for section five).
Empire brings together a range of references from art and culture, engaging with the histories of architecture, sculpture, painting and photography, as well as film. In 2008 Sietsema said that he considered Empire ‘a kind of hard-edged sculpture, appropriating a number of avant-garde aesthetics steeped in different materials’ (Paul Sietsema, ‘1000 Words: Paul Sietsema Talks about Figure 3, 2008’, Artforum, vol.46, no.7, March 2008, p.339). Furthermore, in 2011 Sietsema explained that Greenberg was ‘the iconic center’ of Empire, as the presence in the work of this critic, who was renowned for his advocacy of abstract expressionism in post-war America, raised associations with ‘ideas of information, power and capital’ (Sietsema in Latimer 2012, p.18). In recreating Greenberg’s apartment, in which hung Barnett Newman’s The Promise 1949 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), a painting featuring two vertical lines that receives sustained attention in Empire, Sietsema could be seen to be reflecting on the continued influence of the critic and the movements he promoted.
The critic Saul Anton has suggested that with its emphasis on architecture ‘Empire seems to be interested in what empires are built on: the occupation of space’ (Anton 2003, p.183). The title of Sietsema’s work can also be seen as a reference to Andy Warhol’s Empire 1964, which consists of more than eight hours of continuous slow-motion black and white footage of the Empire State Building in New York. Like many of the other cultural references underpinning Sietsema’s film (including the image of Greenberg’s apartment and Bourgeois’s sculpture), Warhol’s Empire was produced in the mid-1960s – a historical moment in which one artistic ‘empire’, built around the work of abstract expressionists such as Newman and propounded by critics like Greenberg, was beginning to give way to other developments in painting, sculpture and film. Empire can be related to the work of avant-garde film-makers such as the American artist Stan Brakhage and the Canadian artist Michael Snow, both of whom began in the 1950s to make experimental films without clear narratives and which explored the formal movements and structures of the camera. Indeed, Sietsema has claimed that ‘Empire was partially meant to be “in memorium” of all the avant-garde aesthetics I was using’ (Latimer 2012, p.22).
Saul Anton, ‘Paul Sietsema’, Artforum, vol.41, no.10, Summer 2003, p.183.
Paul Sietsema: Empire, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2003.
Quinn Latimer (ed.), Paul Sietsema: Interviews on Films and Works, Berlin 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.