Ersatz archeology and the simalucra of civilizations in the sands of western Tunisia, courtesy of Italian-born artist Rä di Martino's series No More Stars (Star Wars). Which is included in the current Tate Modern exhibition Ruins in Reverse. This portion of di Martino's series (obviously) focusing on abandoned sets intact by George Lucas and company after they completed filming the desert sequences of the movie back in 1976.
One of those more rare incidents when a set is left un-struck, and simply left -- due to the expense and the isolated location -- to have how it will against the landscape and local elements. It might bring to mind other such instances of cinematic abandonata, like the Reata mansion from the film Giant, sitting in an open field on in Marfa, Texas; gradually collapsing to a skeleton of its former self over the years, the slightest of its remnants still present on the site.
Another association coming to mind, prompted not only by vague visual reminders but also due to "empire" theme connected with the film in question: that of certain post-colonial abandonata scattered across the Maghreb, including Mussolini-era Italian architecture in Ethiopia, or the crumbing remains of Kolmanskop and former Nazi outposts in Namibia.
The exhibition title is, naturally, taken from Robert Smithson's text "The Monuments of Passaic." The underlying theme of the show, according to the curator's statement, is to gather and present work of artists which "sets up a central dichotomy between the matter-of-factness of an archaeological site and the fiction of its interpretation." Grouping di Martino's "No More Stars" with projects by artists Pablo Hare, José Carlos Martinat, Haroon Mirza, Eliana Otta and Amalia Pica, curator Flavia Frigeri was aiming to include projects that, "could be read as a form of subtly nuanced contemporary archaeology in which the tenuous line between reality and fiction is blurred."
Both of these themes coalesce in another portion of di Martino’s series, in which she traveled to the desert outside of Ouarzarate, Morocco; on lots previously used by Atlas Studios. The area served as a popular stand-in or substitute location for a number of locations, many of them for films that were epic in scope. Various spots on the landscape having served as a stand-in for Tibet, ancient Greece or Persia or Mecca, for the Biblical Holy Land, or – in one instance – the transplanted Americana of backland New Mexico in the form of a postwar-era gas station, left over from the filming of the remake of The Hills Have Eyes.
Some additional searching reveals that both locations (in Tunisia and Morocco) have become tourist destinations in recent years as well. But di Martino’s photographs don't resemble the usual touristic photograph. Instead, there’s a slightly haunting ambiguity about some of them, something both familiar and uncanny about them in the way they depict ahistoric landscapes in which geographic and epochal distance collapses, converges, overlaps. In the case of the Star Wars portion of di Martino's series, one almost thinks that they are instead looking at stills of establishing or transitional shots from some sort of amply-funded, slick and artsy postcolonial ethnographic film, a la Trinh T. Minh-Ha. This effect is accentuated in "Every World's a Stage (Beggar in the Ruins of the Star Wars)" a 2012 set of black-and-white prints of the same spot, ending with a shot of a local sitting in the center of the "Skywalker homestead"...
But that's the natural landscape.* It's a different matter with urban settings, of course. Los Angeles has always played itself, and probably always will. But in other instances, Sydney can stand in for Chicago, Toronto doubles for New York and many other cities in countless film and television productions. Portions of Cleveland being useful if you need a backdrop that includes a certain type of vintage architecture. As far as the urban or built environment goes, there is – or increasingly has been for some decades – a certain degree of interchangability; an increasing degree of uniformity and erasure of localized historical "depth" or memory. Geographers first started referring to this scenario as a condition of "placelessness," a concept that might (if only slightly) align or dovetail with Rem Koolhaas's notions of the Generic City and architectural "junkspace."
* It goes without saying that there's a long cinematic tradition of farflung natural settings serving as generic backdrops, especially when it comes to specific genres. Be it Italy or southern California, this was especially true when it came to westerns. One ironic twist on this is the one time that Utah doubled as the Volgan steppes for the historical epic The Conqueror, a 1956 film about Genghis Khan. In which America's most iconic Western actor John Wayne (along with a good portion of the accompanying cast and crew) contracted cancer from filming in such close geographic proximity to/downwind from the Yucca Flat nuclear test site in neighboring Nevada.