Stepping off the streets of an ever-changing New York into the (also ever-changing) galleries of MoMA, a neatly compact silver trailer sits waiting for you on the second floor, as if ready to whisk you away from the city to embark on an adventure on the open road.
This is Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Escape Vehicle (1996), one of a series of custom-designed trailers produced by the artist. Rather than sculptural objects, Zittel’s trailers are in fact complete living units, created under the name and logo of her ironically titled company A-Z Administrative Services, which she describes as an “institute of investigative living.” Her trailers are habitats tailored to the whims and needs of their prospective owner, and she conceived the one at MoMA specifically for herself. Peeking inside, there is a grotto-like space with just enough room for a person to stow away. Though it lacks the dining and sleeping quarters of its functional predecessors, this trailer still offers the possibility of escape, in an otherworldly sense. By clambering inside and closing the hatch, the occupant would find themselves transported to an extraterrestrial, prehistoric-like realm, cocooned by the glowing rocky landscape of the interior.
To some, the trailer may be emblematic of a restricted existence, on the fringes of society, while to others it may symbolize a kind of nomadic liberation. Zittel opens up and confuses these tensions, toying with our conceptions of freedom and constriction.
In the same room, and opposite this grotto, hangs another work by Zittel, Sprawl I (2002), displayed with her custom-designed wallpaper, Wall Sprawl (Next to Las Vegas Bay) (2008), plastering the wall behind it.
Wall Sprawl (Next to Las Vegas Bay) is a recently acquired series of satellite photographs of an industrial complex near Las Vegas, mirrored and repeated to create an overarching pattern. The photographs chart the frontiers of urban development, encroaching into the open desert of the West, where Zittel herself grew up. This pattern could be continued infinitely, just as one might imagine that this suburban sprawl continued rapidly progressing even after the photo was taken. By manipulating this image, Zittel offers a commentary on the startling change that humans are able to impose on their surrounding environments. Hanging in the center of this piece, Zittel takes this idea to the next level in Sprawl I.
Based on a configuration of similarly repeated satellite photographs, the work condenses the resultant pattern in a series of 16 lithographs, reducing the implied forms of the originals to their graphic equivalents. The destruction of natural habitat is transformed into a beautiful graphic design; the aggression of urban expansion subsumed into a mesmeric configuration of swelling shapes, lines, and colors. To me, Zittel’s work offers the possibility of different ways of inhabiting and viewing the world around us. We are forced to question how we live, re-evaluate the systems we customarily accept, and interrogate the way we understand our role in our perpetually evolving surroundings. Her works are a sort of coded monument to human development, never prescribing a definitive perspective. It seems that with Zittel’s art, there is never any one answer, and the questions she asks are always left open to the viewer. As I stand in front of her work, Zittel’s own words resound in my mind: “I find it is rare to look at an artwork and have a new take on the way that the world works. Good art, I think, creates this kind of experience.”