Installation View, NL Sunset 1, 2012, aluminum, plastic, photo

“The Bambi [Airstream model of 1960] is a machine for living and traveling, the sort of industrialized, rationalized vessel that had long been the dream object of modernist architects, from Le Corbusier to Buckminster Fuller.” – Christian Larsen, curatorial assistant, MOMA. [1]

The aluminum-clad Airstream travel trailer conjures up a virtual cavalcade of nostalgic American archetypes, like some sort of space age prairie schooner, wheeling leisurely westward in a modernist recreational take on the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”. It had, and still has, a kind of “On the Road” vogue of retro-stylishness and comfort. Nowadays, a geriatric Dean Moriarity, if he were mortal, could be found curled up napping in a corner of an “Eddie Bauer” limited edition, like a kitty fallen into a Viagra stupor, tired after a day spent “appropriating” a favorite model just for you. As I continue to age on the coattails of a similarly profligate life, I often ask myself if we can, or should even try and hold such disparate ideas as say “Comfort” and “Wanderlust” in our minds at once? Are such things mutually exclusive or just frustrating, even frightening, signs of an inevitable domestication? Can we really commune with travel if we’re literally bringing along the kitchen sink in a bubble, eating the menu and not the meal? Living abroad sort of accomplishes this conflation of home and continual travel, but ultimately it seems we are either pulled in one direction or the other, or the two eventually cancel each other out. “Abroad” becomes home. Expatriates patriate. Even for a gypsy Diaspora, they are most likely in a home away from an ancestral home, finding one in motion, not in space.


Peter Haberkorn’s current solo exhibition asks us to hold many such “Heraclitean” concepts in both hemispheres, not only those of our brain, but also those of our world’s geography, even typography. The success of his show at Prairie depends on a sort of willing suspension of disbelief surrounding a kind of shared memory we, the viewer, are asked to grasp at in photos framed by the passenger window of our common existence. The photos seem to ask one to view them as if they were right there, riding along the aerodynamics of this magical mystery trailer, just beyond the reach of our outstretched hands where the wind is passing wistfully through our fingers. It’s a type of archetypal exercise, a communal travelogue telescoped from the very personal, framed through the physically deconstructed windows of an Airstream, the “eyes wide open” of the vehicle. This is somewhat of a streamlined departure not only for Haberkorn’s work, in installation at least, but also for us his audience. For this reason, before we climb on board, a short art and design specific contextualization of the Airstream travel trailer might serve us well.


“Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald The Crack-Up.



The original streamlined and riveted version of the Airstream, manufactured by the sole travel trailer company to survive the Great Depression [2], still lives on the road not only because a company continues to manufacture an updated version right here in Ohio [3]. The vehicle, especially its vintage model, has also managed to take on something of the gleaming idol status. A seemingly unassailable and stainless symbol, a totem of our well-healed progress, rolling headlong toward its designated campground somewhere out on the wild and windswept netherlands of the collective United States’ unconscious, in some cases known as a museum.

It just so happens that this shiny spectacle was codified as art and artifact through the appropriation of a vintage mid-century model in March of 2007 by MOMA’s Architecture and Design Department [4]. This may be a nod to the fact that, in spite of its look of indestructibility, time has made the early iterations of the vehicle itself, relative to a ubiquitous heyday, something of a semi-precious collector’s item largely absent from 21st Century highways. The ultimate pioneering symbol of the rugged self-reliant 20th Century U.S. auto-mobile trailer has been made an anthropological im-mobile. If pushed on the point, even Rene Magritte himself might have to admit that this is not a trailer. [5]

Like many such popular contemporary icons, (i.e. iPods/ Pads), their almost instantaneous im-mortalization, even canonization, through marketing, design and public sentiment, and in some cases Art, (i.e. Campbell’s’ soup cans, Brillo boxes) clashes with the nagging feeling that their obsolescent by-products continue to pile ever higher and higher up in our communal garbage dump: a kind of “consumer subconscious” made physical. Some artists have made it their life’s work to mine such obsolescence, this “present absence”, to create iconic works with found objects or “readymades”, as Marcel Duchamp coined them and rarely discussed:

“The word ‘art’ etymologically speaking means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of the blue, the quality of the red, and always choosing the place to put it on the canvas, it’s always choosing. So in order to choose, you can use tubes of paint, you can use brushes, but you can use a ready-made thing, made either mechanically or by the hand of another man, even, if you want, and appropriate it, since it’s you who choose it. Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting.” [6]

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” [7] also come to mind, especially those with taxidermied animals, a seemingly strong influence on a good number of Haberkorn’s previous works. (I have to admit that I’m sort of partial to those embalmed animals, at least their abject quality, as I currently have two aging housecats). Rauschenberg though, like Warhol, later gravitated more toward image appropriation through screen print. Symbols and icons seem to eventually settle to the portability of flatness and text, especially when reproduced photographically for posterity in art history books, online or exhibition catalogs. Image, whether still or in motion, seems somehow most closely partnered to, even overwhelming visual memory, especially in our simulacra saturated society.

Come to think of it, I’ve actually seen practically none of the above-mentioned icons in person, only in digitized photos or in art history books.  Is there really a “Treachery of Images” in this? I mean when you’re hungry, the occasional can of Campbell’s soup, easily found at the local supermarket, tastes pretty OK. This processed cultural staple, also apotheosized as Art, I can see, even touch often. Now I can also say that I have in fact seen at least the symbolic window bits of the iconic Airstream travel trailer in Peter Haberkorn’s exhibition. The rest of the vehicle was resonantly absent, although much else is conceptually present.

The deconstruction of this “present absence”, whether in a fleeting memory captured in photo, or the objects we try and to sometimes haphazardly memorialize them with, also seem central to what Haberkorn self-describes as his “3D Collages”. In this case, deconstruction is taken to its literal and logical conclusion by the artist having appropriated a physically cut up Airstream [8] and presenting only the rough hewn aluminum and plastic windows from the vehicle to adorn the gallery walls as frames for a series of what at first glance appear to be merely travelogue photographs.

On closer inspection, these assemblages are more than personal travelogues or novel ways of framing an image. They’re strong conundrums that start puzzling one upon first entry to the gallery, even more so, in some cases, because of the Gallery statement posted alongside them in both the front and back rooms of Prairie:

“The Airstream trailer itself represents the pinnacle of family luxury in the post-World War II population boom and subsequent suburban expansion in America. In this context, Haberkorn’s images represent adventure, luxury, possibility and optimism; the American dream.” [9]

This portion is posted in close proximity to the first assemblage: “En Route to LAX” which seems to tell us that we’re probably not going to be in Kansas anymore, LA or maybe even America for that matter. This seems a bit odd, as the statement says we are dealing with the “American Dream”. In some ways though the American Dream is stronger and in clearer focus outside the States, or for freshly minted immigrants, since you’re not entirely mired in trying to live its reality.

“En Route to LAX” will be, for most, the first piece encountered and, in some ways, the most successful of the Airstream assemblages in the show. Its conundrums are self-contained and broad enough to appeal to the archetypal and not yet circumscribed too much by the personal, as the pieces further on in the show seem to become. It captures best the essence of the light speed of time and memory transfixed by the “alchemy” of creation that seems to pervade the show.

The found frame window in this initial piece is closed, possibly because of something as practical as the narrow passage it’s in. Also, as opposed to pieces later on, the edges here are clean cut, framing an image of traffic taillights abstracted by a long exposure blur. This not only evokes a playful readymade take on the “hole in the wall” perspective and framing of much of classical painting, but also encapsulates its inverse in Modernist Art: Abstraction. We peer inside the caravan window only to see that we are peering “outside” at a nearly unrecognizable motion-blurred photo of traffic lights on the open road, mottling our own reflection. These are, as it were, the  “eyes wide open” of the Airstream whose discarded hull seems, especially because of the singularly clean edges of this particular piece, to lurk architecturally encapsulated somewhere just behind the wall. It’s the kind of conceptual, almost engineered alchemy Haberkorn seems to aspire to in much of his work. (

Haberkorn confirmed these outside/ inside conflations in a recent interview about his work with found windows: “I like positioning the viewer in an out-of-body experience, meaning the viewer is looking at the window from the outside, but what they are viewing is an external picture.” [10]

En route to LAX, aluminum, plastic, photograph
En route to LAX, aluminum, plastic, photograph

As we enter the main space of the gallery, this recontextualization of interiority/ exteriority continues, yet now this trope is given some breathing room, as pieces are sparingly mounted here and the windows of the Airstream frames are open to reveal the photos directly: photos from the Netherlands nonetheless.

“NL Sunset 1, 2012” had me doing a double take at first, as I was expecting maybe “NV” for Nevada, as this is the “American Dream”. Having spent over a decade in Europe, I did recognize the designation for Holland and the rest of the kingdom. I hitchhiked to Amsterdam, (the “capital of gedogen“) [9], from my place in Prague (the home of Alchemical Enlightenment) [10] a few times. I often waited impatiently for hours in gas stations along the Autobahn in order to see if just such an “NL” on the yellow Dutch license plate would slow down for me.

NL Sunset 1, 2012, aluminum, plastic, photograph
NL Sunset 1, 2012, aluminum, plastic, photograph

This “not-being” in America was also confirmed by moving directly across the room to “NL Sunset 2, 2012”, where I then and there looked up Haberkorn’s biography on my Smartphone, and after a little searching, found out he had lived in the Netherlands from 2001 to 2006. [11] Things seemed to have gotten personal (an ambiguous word in the age of the internet) and expanded in place all at once.

This expansion of place in the front room of Prairie is also helped by the coupling closely together of two sets of the Airstream frames, windows opened, at the same height, exactly opposite one another on their respective walls. This at once  “airy” and accurate placement, does lend a certain jouissance to the overall experience, similar to when you open the windows in early spring for the first time after a long winter’s claustrophobia. The ambient sound filtering in the from the main street running outside Prairie’s second story only helps this effect of shifting realities and departure from the here and now.

The frames we encounter here are also a departure from the initial “En Route to LAX” piece. They are more rough-cut, which ultimately makes them feel less integrated into the architecture of the gallery space. They do elicit more of an emotional response though, as if they are hard won memories culled from a life’s journey. Seeing the physicality of the photo without the reflections of the closed window also makes them seem more of a memento than an ethereal memory barely glimpsed behind a glare of tinted Plexiglas. These “Sunset” photos, also motion-blurred, open-road shots, are more easily inspected and recognized here with the windows open, and do gradate nicely from orange tinted atmosphere to darkened road to lower pane of tinted Plexiglas in the Airstream frames’ bottom halves of “NL Sunset 2, 2012”. The roominess of the space may have required the windows to be opened, as these two pieces, alone on their respective walls, might have felt dwarfed otherwise. This openness seems to come at a cost though, as they lose the “suspension of disbelief” held by the closed window assemblage of  “En Route to LAX”.

It’s worth repeating that there is nothing else directly alongside the respective walls holding the centered works of  “NL Sunset 1, 2012” and “NL Sunset 2, 2012”. This leaves plenty of pregnant negative space in the front gallery. It would have been a significant risk to have left these two pieces alone there, but Haberkorn chose to incorporate two other works, one older and one more recent.

“Oars” is an excellent mounted assemblage piece from 2010, and the objects of its namesake resonate with the overarching theme of travel and the nearly inescapable and wistful “campground” feel of this show. Horizontal and vertical lines lend a meditative symmetry to what is an economic use of what appear to be window shutters and the front end of a tractor combine. Although it is an older piece, it doesn’t have the same feel of an afterthought that wants to fill up “too much space” as has its partner piece.

Opposite “Oars”, both physically and formally is “Two Vents, 2012”, an assemblage of two window vents mounted upright with trash bag cinches to a dishwasher rack on a traditional pedestal. This piece seems to want to call attention to the general architectonics of the gallery, albeit heavy-handedly pointing skyward. Unfortunately this disrupts our uninterrupted sightline and visceral associations with the portals of Airstream frames, real gallery windows and even the skylights and doorways therein.

NL Sunset 2, 2012, aluminum, plastic, photo (detail)
NL Sunset 2, 2012, aluminum, plastic, photo (detail)

As we pass through one such doorway to the rear section of Prairie, the luster and relative success of most of the installation in the front room does fade a bit as we encounter further 3D Collages of found window (in this case from a school bus) and photo, and a third assemblage. The harsh rectilinear lines here don’t seem to expand “frameness” [12] as much as the rounded rectangles et al. of the previous Airstream works. Their strict rectangles have too much of a sameness to traditional frames. In the two compositions incorporating photos from 2012 entitled “Dusseldorf Steelworks” 1 & 2, I do feel more importantly that we are being usefully “schooled” in Haberkorn’s interests in industrial architecture and design, as the photos seem to be a direct homage to Bernd and Hilla Becher whose iconic pictures of factory structures drew attention to these “eyesores” not only as cultural markers, but also as semiotic and formal investigations of typology [12]. Haberkorn does curiously depart from the Becher photos’ nearly unflinching use of flattened black and white and centered/ ground framing of subject, trading them in for color and mostly aerial perspective views. An updated and more direct appropriation would have followed better from the overtures of the front room.

Overall, Airstream, despite a few minor missteps, seems to be, much like its namesake, a streamlined departure from Haberkorn’s previous work, one well worth your stepping on board. It’s mostly a safe trip though, one that won’t send you careening off the well marked trailblazing of his predecessors in mixed-media appropriation and assemblage Art. Still, you may feel a certain headiness related to these investigations of Memory at light speed, transfixed in photo, found frame and object.

–Regan Brown

Regan Brown ( has advanced degrees in both Creative Writing/ Journalism (B.A. Miami Oxford, 1991) and Fine Arts (MFA, Electronic Arts, DAAP 2009). That noticeable gap is not a typo, but represents a long stint spent living and working in Post-Soviet Central Europe as a journalist, woodwind multi-instrumentalist, professor and audio/ video producer. He currently teaches New Media Art at NKU and has several in progress projects.

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