Through the Looking Glass: Seven Reflections on the Maritime Plaza Hotel / by Matthew-Robin Nye

This essay charts the production Canadian painter Cameron Forbes’ in situ paintings of the rotunda of the Maritime Plaza Hotel in Montreal from objects in the plein air tradition to processual motors and events with their own volition. The paper introduces Forbes’ practice as one which depicts the affective tonality of architecturally framed environments, complicating the idea that just light and texture are captured in the plein air tradition. It focuses on her recent installation The Maritime Plaza Hotel: A Circular Formation of Windows at Concordia University’s MFA Gallery in November, 2016, citing the work as exemplary for its multiple reflections on meaning, subject/object relationships, and architectural site-specificity.

The paper was re-published as a supplemental text for her exhibition "The Maritime Plaza Hotel" at aceartinc., Winnipeg, from the 18th of May to the 22nd of June, 2018. An earlier version of this piece was produced in Architecture|Concordia journal, Issue 3


Ask any Montreal-based artist practicing in the vicinity of the intersection of Guy and Rene-Levesque if they know about the hotel with the saucer – the Maritime Plaza – and they will often gain a momentary, wistful expression as they reflect on the many times that they have imagined what secrets the nearly derelict building might hold. Nearly, because the main floor of the hotel is still occupied by a car rental company, but the rest of the late modernist building morosely lays dormant, with visible doorways ajar, blinds bent and tousled, windows unwashed. What heavy drapery is left is bleached by sun and lightened by dust.

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Despite its disrepair, there is an allure to the building, not in its primary L-shaped volume, an uninspired example of the international style in white brick, concrete and royal blue paneling; but in the former hotel’s rotunda, a single story pavilion perched several meters in the air on a column about a sixth of its diameter, nestled between the two wings of rooms and services. Its circular façade is composed of floor-to-ceiling windows capped with a half-moon crescent. The rises and dips from one crescent to the next form a scalloped roof, which undulates around the pavillion’s circumference. This pavilion has fantastic architectural qualities: it is elaborate, expressive and mysterious, opaquely hinting at the banquets, disco parties, late night cocktails and mediocre dinners it might have once hosted. Built in 1964, at the height of Montreal’s aspirations to growth, it is easy to imagine the pedestal being one of many conceived both here in Montreal, and also in a broader developing world of the late modernist movement, possessive of the naïve egalitarianism available only to a particular class of the international jet set.

It was with this wistful dreaming that I approached the work of Cameron Forbes. Her painting installation, The Maritime Plaza Hotel: A Circular Formation of Windows, was first presented as her graduating thesis exhibition from Concordia’s MFA program this November in the university’s dedicated MFA gallery, itself a short distance from the hotel. Forbes, a Saskatchewan-born painter, has been recognized for her evocative plein air studies of landscapes, domestic scenography, and architecture, most recently by the Royal Bank of Canada as a finalist in its national painting award of emerging and mid-career artistic talent. Along with my desire to see a work responding to such a strong architectural lure, I was also cognizant of my own apprehension at the medium used to encounter the work: It is hard not to bring doubt to a work which addresses a subject with which one sees creative potential, handled by other hands in different ways.

Forbes’ paintings are loose, colourful, expressive; they are quick studies of environments, painterly snapshots constructed to remember a place, affect, or landed feeling. There is an innocence in their brashness: at first glance this looseness might be mistaken for naivety or simple aesthetic enjoyment of a time or place. This deceptively simple form, however, begins to tremble with complexity over further time spent. Forbes hints to this in her artist statements: in her series ‘Bathroom Retreat’ (2014-15), a series of paintings from the privacy of her home’s bathroom after the birth of her daughter, she writes that shadows are not absences of light, but informational, “coming to (me) as sensations when I close my eyes”, a source of feeling. For Forbes, a space like a bathroom may contain many modes of being at the same time. A bathroom:

“…has its own hermetic landscape. Sometimes very humid and wet, sometimes warm, other times cold. The clothes dryer, soap, diapers all add to its atmosphere. The light changes, it shifts the room. Candles for relaxation, fluorescents for shaving. I can close the door.”

A bathroom, then, is a site of relaxation, maintenance, relief, protection, reflection… it is also both atemporal and multi-temporal at different instances: a place of lost time and stolen time, ritual and habitus, a folding of many automatic events repeated from day to day. Her studies in this series, often from the bathtub, highlight different states that the bathroom inhabits: a black and white sketch of square tiles and bathtub faucets soberly reflects on the formal composition of the bathroom environment, perhaps indicating exhaustion in their depletion of colour. Another riotously hued portrait of water, tub, shadows and knobs violently stakes out a moment of privacy, an outburst of creativity in stolen time from the duties of motherhood. Both are composed from the same perspectival point, but the vast difference in the affect that they communicate demonstrates that the paintings are not merely a representation of space or specific location, but a co-composition between human and non-human environmental forces, as well as objects and surface textures (the aforementioned tiles, faucets, and bathtubs). The variance between the images of the same subject - the in between meaning created by the relational composition of the two images in the same series - opens a way to read the works that looks to the meaning made outside of the picture plane, acting like a snag external to a woven textile.

This meaning draws in all that is felt from the images, but also what the images might be felt by. A study of a closed, controlled space becomes a broader enquiry into how that space is composed at the moment of composition. The artist brings her interior world with her, texturing the space, infusing it with her own subjectivity. The bathroom environment forfeits some of its sovereignty and begins to search for new, temporary, identity: What is a Cameron-Forbes tile? What is a bathtub Cameron Forbes? What is a bathroom-Cameron Forbes-bathroom?

Speaking specifically to the body’s relationship to space and the built environment, Arakawa and Gins state that the body is a “complex organism that is always in the process of reading surroundings,” and it “needs to be defined together with that within which it moves; peering at it from the other way around, the surroundings need to be defined together with bodies moving within them” (xx). The Maritime Plaza Hotel: A Circular Formation of Windows promises this complication of temporality, time, and movement. Environments long dormant are activated by Forbes’ entering into their surrounds; in turn, they, “pose questions to the body” (ibid.). The processes which comprise of the Cameron-Forbes -as-person and the Maritime-Plaza-Hotel-as-body begin to in-form. “Place” is further engaged by the “originary” architecture’s  transposition to the gallery. Critically, a question of landing site - the event, that where perception (followed closely by subjectivity) lands - is raised: beyond the formal lure of the exhibition’s subject matter, what relationship might the viewer have to the world the artist proposes, her subject matter (the feeling’s feeling of another event), her reflection of herself through this subject matter (the call and response of the original site of perception to that which has now been called forth)? In this relational milieu, what role does the viewer play, dancing in a live field of relations? The mirroring of the viewer’s own continuing eventing enters into and alights upon this milieu, troubling the idea that as viewer, one can remain unentangled by the work’s propositional nature.

(The proposition of entangling the viewer in the artwork’s worlding has always already been unfolding; it has always been reaching towards the viewer upon entering the gallery space).

Around the perimeter of the gallery’s interior, Forbes has set small assemblies of the plein air studies which were the start of the work’s production: watercolour sketches of grates, nearby hotel rooms, the exterior of the rotunda as seen from a high vantage point, (perhaps on the 12th, the highest floor). A white maquette of the rotunda placed on a plinth sits between the walls and the room’s centre, inching towards the real event of the work: six life-size replicas of the outward-facing windows of the rotunda dominate the room, reaching towards the ceiling, calling for attention. Five stand in a semicircle, creating an architectural simulacrum of the hotel’s pavilion, while a sixth is placed to the side, acting as sentry to that which is not present: The remaining unmaterialized windows which, if present, would complete the banquet hall’s circular layout. The large panels are constructed out of wood and particle board from several smaller pieces, with joints faintly visible. The boards, each capped with the same semicircle as the rotunda windows, are washed with white primer, the image created on top. Curtains frame each piece, painted in hues ranging from a washed, watery blood red to a faded, burnt orange. Some are tied and some draped akimbo, and each image opens to a view of that windows ‘outside’, a picture plane doubling itself, the tradition of painting in plein air troubled by an acknowledgement of architecture and interiority. They depict, respectively, a patch of carpet, a field, nearby windows, the lawn of the building across the street, a sky without a ground, and sheer white curtains, all in Forbes’ loose, faded, polychromatic palette. These washes of colour speak more of impressions than factual detail, time shifting to the rhythm of dreams, somewhat out of place, unfocused, imprecise.

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1st Mirroring: Painting and Reality

Painting en plein air, a technique popularized by the impressionists in the 19th century, is inherently a relational activity, as well as a depiction of relations emphasizing the capture of a direct interaction with the world and the exchange between the artist and their subject. The conditions of light and imperceptible movements in the artist’s field of perception are captured in intensities of colour. Painting, in our age of high resolution image capture, maintains a deep lure for the more-than of perception, catching the subject and artist in a complex field of interactive entanglements. The informational qualities of the work present multiple  interpretable meanings; each agitating at the edges of the directly perceived the seen and unseen, that which has made up the image and that which has been subtracted out. Painting en plein air opens up a democracy of the unknown. The landscape, place, and affective environment that Forbes encountered over her four days spent in the former Maritime Plaza Hotel add informational qualities to the windows (and their mirrored panels) that a higher-resolution image would have difficulty capturing.

Forbes says that her works “stem from the plein air tradition, with an interest in questioning my relationship with nature and place. They all begin with what the body can see; a human-scaled perspective.” Painting in situ represents a being-with that both exceeds and circumvents language; instead, it is a language of bodily interpretation. The body responds to environment, interprets it with all of its senses, capturing the world in its continual unfolding (alongside). Forbes acknowledges that her paintings attempt to capture a relationship that is “immaterial, always changing”, “the space that is created between two figures.” (ibid) Figure-ground and back-ground, the architectural frame a point of mediation between the two. In fact, Forbes’ work is a complex endeavour of mirroring in seven stages: The artist’s body to her subject represents the first stage of reflection in a whirlpool of refracting relations, the prismatic unveiling of meaning through interpretive painting practice in the style of plein air.

2nd Mirroring: Landscape and Perception

Proposing a bodily relation to enviro-architectural surrounds, Arakawa and Gins posit that environments are populated, inhabited, in mutual co-composition. Perception lands in a particular surrounds and actualizes the environment of the perceiver for the duration of its (momentary) habitation:

Thick with one’s breathing.

Thick with one’s landing-site configurations.

They carry landing sites with them,

heuristically for a direct mapping.

They expel, exude, and disperse landing-site configurations/

They go through their ubiquitous sites,

i.e., the sum of all landing sites of each moment.

Their ubiquitous sites go through them.

- Arakawa and Gins, excerpt from ‘Humansnails', Architectural Body, 31-32

The landscape that Forbes has depicted, the subject contained within her paintings, performs itself once again for the benefit of its perception, and again for its reenactment as image-within-image. Its re-performance in the exhibition is a form of Deleuze’s refrain to its first presentation; in other words, two blocks away from the referent landing site, the site of initial production, six landscapes-from-the-perspectival-point-of-rotunda repeat themselves, while divorced of their local relations, they nonetheless become active again. A landing site, that where perception grabs hold and begins to assemble meaning, is not only populated by what meets human perception, but also its non-human environmental composition, how the world encounters the narrowing apparatus of perception.

Elsewhere, I have argued that a landscape is “the just before act of landing, the topological in transition to the perspectival. Once perception lands, it takes up a landing site” (Refugia 4); landscaping then becomes the active transition to perceiving and turning form into meaning, the landing site the final result of a concrescence of landscapes landing. In the refrain, the landscape takes up another landing site, meaning is renewed, and the site is re-politicized by the artist’s gaze.

3rd Mirroring: Social Space

“Power can be eroded,” Forbes states in her exhibition essay. Following the work of Henri Lefebvre and his theory of social space, she argues that the actualization of non-hegemonically produced space - for example, unofficial pathways or ‘desire lines’ created between geographical points of interest - can produce an alternate social space. “Through painting my physical environment and finding patterns in space, I reflect on social space. And by working in a space I also contribute to its creation.” (Forbes 2) If the original hotel site was a production of capital and modernist ideology, The Maritime Plaza Hotel is a production of a different kind of desire: while the allure of the space is bound up with the unknown - what is in that rotunda? - perhaps the unknowability (divorced from class adventurism so often coupled with desire - the desire to know) is close to the allure of the dreamscape, a co-composition with the imagination and the ineffable. The third mirroring, that of social value, is the counter-production of space that runs as a shadow alongside the use-value of space, a reproduction of the Maritime Plaza Hotel rotunda for its own enjoyment.

Social space is an articulation of forms of knowing a place through its inhabitance. Deleuze, reading Foucault, states that power-relations are “simultaneously local, unstable and diffuse, (but) do not emanate from a central point or unique locus of sovereignty, but at each moment move ‘from one point to another’ in a field of forces, marking inflections, resistances, twists and turns.’ (Deleuze 1988: 62) Power, according to Deleuze and Foucault, is a force, not a form; the form it takes is in a knowledge-container; an inhabiting of the Maritime Plaza Hotel through its duplication is a gesture of shifting the power-in-knowing from one environment to the next; this is not necessarily a form of capture, but of grabbing hold of the force of mystery and unknowability, capturing its feeling and making it knowable; not the opposite of knowing, but one of knowing’s tactics of evasion.

4th Mirroring: Desire

Foucault developed the concept “heterotopia” in order to describe the place where non-normative processes of living which nonetheless support the general aim of normatively functioning society could take place, (often) out of frame. The Maritime Plaza Hotel is a reflection of desire, an aspirational gesture towards an ideal form (the international-style hotel, a heterotopia of remarkable resilience in its time). When it opens its doors, and is fully operational and fully booked, it comes closest to achieving a form resembling the ideals of its builders, financiers, occupants, and its contemporaneous societal drive towards modernity. One might say that this freshly opened version of the Maritime Plaza Hotel is the closest the hotel ever came to a representation of itself as an ideal form - a parity with the pure human ideals that conceived it. Perhaps one of the stark allures of modernity’s built environment is its dissociation with the visible elements of the natural world; instead, the modernist building occupies itself with light, imperceptible thresholds moving from interior to exterior, air, and the transformation of raw materials into rigid, controlled forms. As the hotel ages, maybe switches owners, it begins to assert its own formal notions, independent of the ideals that shaped it, gaining a form of autonomy; a desire of a kind, but a wild desire - where the processes of time, material plasticity and the anarchic share of any actual occasion assert themselves independent of any normative desire. The hotel starts to become a structure with its own self-knowledge.

As the ideals of modernity began to release the Maritime Plaza Hotel from their grasp, agents of creativity, productivity and corruption entered the frame: The hotel became a lure for feeling, looking for modes of expression outside of its original intent. Forbes approached the employees of the car rental agency on the main floor, promising several copies of her paintings in exchange for four days of access to the abandoned hotel, introducing a form of fugitive desire, a system of barter, hinting at what might come after modernity’s collapse.


5th Mirroring: Breaks

“Windows are breaks, and the neglected state of the hotel allows for further breaks - water and light flow through the space” (Forbes 7). The demise of the hotel begins to accelerate as Forbes, planning on spending more time in the space, is on the fourth day told it must be her last as the building has been purchased - a new owner plans to renovate.

Renovations commenced for a time, and then they stopped. Forbes was in the hotel at the end of 2015; the building remains remote, empty.

Bernard Cache defined the way we see the world in three paradigms: the inflection, the vector, and the frame. Of these, he believed that “it is possible to define architecture as the manipulation of one of these elementary images, namely, the frame” (Cache 1). The image, however, is not that which is graspable by human perception; it is a near-blind reaching towards of the world which selects itself out in concert with our ability to see that which is in front of us. “Our brain is not the seat of a neuronal cinema that represents the world; rather our perceptions are inscribed on the surface of things, as images amongst themselves” (Cache  2) How long will the image of the Maritime Plaza Hotel last?

6th Mirroring: Submersions

If the actual is dissolving, what takes its place? The rotunda has 20 windows marching around its perimeter; the work, in progress, has six completed. Slowly, the hotel is materializing again, in new form. The sixth mirroring, however, is the sixth panel: that which is off to the left of the exhibition, almost placed in the logical space for a Fibonacci sequence to be mapped, in plan, onto its location. The sixth panel is perhaps the most striking: red curtains frame a white haze, which could either represent a sheer curtain, an incomplete painting, or a cloudy horizon. The ambiguity is evocative, troubling. The lone panel, and the grouped five, struggle to make sense of one another; but the lone panel prevails, presents an opening. While to this point, I have put forward a diagram that illustrates a relationship between the objects in an exhibition and a hotel two blocks away, another diagram emerges: that which is present, and that which is unseen in the space of an exhibition. The completion of further panels as Forbes continues to work on The Maritime Plaza Hotel will not replicate the original, but create something else.

“As the painting develops, I find that once inanimate objects take on sentient characteristics. Even their colours become human. They bleed.” (Forbes 11) As a viewer, my interest in the original hotel begins to wane, as my attention towards the work grows. I am implicated in the production of a new sociality, a reinscription of Forbes’ body’s initial engagement with the architectural site, inscribing me in the event. I am now implicated  in the dissemination of The Maritime Plaza Hotel along with Cameron Forbes and other viewers of the work.

7th Mirroring: Inflections, reflections

Windows, in the six panels, are also walls and doors. Their subject matter is uneasy, has an undecidability to it, and it is not only the sixth panel which is ambiguous in its curtain-framed depiction. Viewers walk in and around the panels, inhabiting a space that is physically incomplete. Movement is still directed, subtly, by the arc in their arrangement. A virtual relationship to a site is actualized. The viewer performs The Maritime Plaza Hotel.

Mathematically, an inflection is the coordinate on a continuing line where the line shifts from being concave to convex, or vice versa. This is relational, elastic, and shifting. It is for Cache, an “open surface in the pure light of weightlessness” (Deleuze 1993:17); for Deleuze, it is “ideality par excellance” (Deleuze 1993:15); a shift in the world preceding the production of a new event in the world; a worlding. For Deleuze, inflection is creativity, forever writhing and expanding, both creating and inspiring further turbulences. This spiral of activity “follows a fractal mode by which new turbulences are inserted between the initial ones. Growing from other turbulences, in the erasure of contour, turbulence ends only in watery froth or in a flowing mane” (Deleuze 1993:17); part of a larger system of activity masked by the diminishing scale of its activity.

The Maritime Plaza Hotel’s construction in 1964 could be thought of as the culmination of a long series of events, both historical and ahistorical. The windows, at different junctures, were and will be again walls and doors. I have argued that in its beginning, when the building came alive, it was at its closest to its own ideal form - at least, that form which is based on a series of specific images and ideals. At that moment, processually, the building was at its most dead: potentiality was harnessed in order to maintain productivity, the structure’s aims were fulfilling, to the best of their ability, the architectural body’s form.

The further the structure moved from the date of its inception, the wilder the assemblage of harnessed processes holding it together became. Forces both external and internal to its bodies - architectural, fleshy, processual, environmental - have buffeted it with the relentless onslaught of time. Inflections, in a spiralling processual becoming, mark each passing occasion with an increased frequency. This frequency calls for the satisfaction of action: actualization! “There exists thus a series of curves that not only imply constant parameters for each and every curve, but the reduction of variables to a “single and unique variability” of the touching or tangent curve: the fold” (Deleuze 1993:19).

While some processes come to rest, others accelerate towards actualization. This paper introduced as the subject of Cameron Forbes’ work to be the Maritime Plaza Hotel, making, in this initial formulation, the work the object. The work has been in movement for some time; it can now take on the term of the ‘objectile’, for, following Cache and Deleuze, “the object here is manneristic, not essentializing: it becomes an event.” (ibid.)

Forbes concludes her thesis text on the work as follows: “In Maritime Plaza Hotel you will see an accumulation of observational moments; of paintings, sketches, models, and studies. A searching more than a statement. This is a dialogue that occurs both inside and outside the painted frame. Rather than a re-creation of a hotel space, it is a space for looking, a theatre of the everyday. I hope that you can feel you are behind the scenes.” Indeed it has, and more. If the work The Maritime Plaza Hotel starts at the frame, and is a springboard for meaning, what does the frame enclose, and what does it exclude?

Afterword

Since the writing of this piece in late 2016, the Maritime Plaza Hotel has seen renewed activity – renovations in its taller tower and within the rotunda; the shorter tower demolished, to be replaced with a soaring condominium. Forbes’ work has evolved, as well – an arch compliments the six panels. Both work and site continue to shift, evolve, and produce new worlds.

 

Matthew-Robin Nye is a visual artist, cultural producer, and Joseph-Armand Bombardier PhD student at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University in Montreal.

 

Works Cited

-Arakawa, and Madeline Gins. Architectural Body. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2002.

-Cache, Bernard, and Michael Speaks. Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995.

-Deleuze, Gilles, and Sean Hand. Foucault. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1988.

-Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993.

-Forbes, Cameron. "About." Cam Forbes. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2016. www.cam-forbes.ca

-Forbes, Cameron. The Maritime Plaza Hotel: A Circular Formation of Windows, Exhibition Catalogue, 11 November 2017, Concordia University MFA Gallery

-Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1978.