Posted by: Justin Hopper | October 14, 2008

Peter Reder’s Guided Tour


Angel of History

Angel of History


Looking over her shoulder, standing on a pedestrian bridge somewhere in suburban London, the Angel of History sees mile after mile of wreckage and ruin: The motorway, the ring-road around London, the highways and overpasses that run like history’s scars across the face of England and the Western World.

This is Peter Reder’s Angel of History, portrayed in the film which ends his Guided Tour, by his own mother, wings and all – a stated allusion to Walter Benjamin’s concept of such an Angel, which sees history not as a “chain of events [but] one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble…”

On his Guided Tour, a performance-art walk through the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, British artist Reder’s goal is not to illuminate the pieces of that rubble accumulated by the museum, as tokens and totems of our collective past. Rather, he seems interested in taking us on a stroll through our own ideas of history, memory, culture and – most of all, the very current and loaded word – “heritage.”

The conceit of Guided Tour is that it is – well, just that: A tour, led by Reder, of the Carnegie. And, much to their chagrin, at least a handful of people on last night’s tour only discovered at performance’s end that this is not what they’d signed up for. (“I thought it was going to be a real tour of all the off-limits parts of the museum,” one woman whispered to me during the final film. Well, I asked, did you like it anyway? “Hated it,” she said, and again, louder, “hated it.”)

At times the Tour played right into that conceit. Twenty-some-odd adults in sport jackets and jewelry gathered in the corridors of the Museum of Art. Like all tour guides, Reder – unassuming, quiet, and small – tried to break the ice with a few jokes; audience members chuckled, building the fast rapport of the artsy mob. But it soon became apparent that Reder had little intention of discussing the Museum’s architecture or contents, but rather the very concept of retaining our history in the form of the so-called “heritage industry.”

To Reder, history has become the province of entertainment, making it unknowable in any real sense. Like “living-history” reenactors, which Reder compares to Marie Antoinette’s petit hameau, the working farm the Queen kept to escape to, dressing as a farm worker to relax by partaking in idyllic rural work. “Work we once did is now a performance to watch,” Reder points out, because we now have no other connection to our history other than as entertainment. (“Heritage,” I imagine Reder thinking, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”)

Likewise, Reder poked fun at the guarded worship with which we treat objects imbued with historicity – flashing photos “of Andrew Carnegie” that are “so old, so rare, it’s sensitive to the light” that he claimed to have been leant by Scottish museum connections. It’s a hard anti-elitist argument to make on a tour that, over five performances, just over 100 people will ever see. (And on last night’s tour, at least half of the audience was media- or Festival-related.)

The point at which Guided Tour became interesting was when Reder’s “I’s” and “Me’s” took over, taking us into a tour not of the Carnegie or even Pittsburgh, but of the history of Peter Reder.

Whereas the Situationists would swap maps, taking a walk in, say, Paris guided only by a map of London, Reder assumes a self-centered psychogeography to the Carnegie, and led the Tour around its hallways in what eventually became a tour of his own personal history. A slideshow of his suburban London upbringing; photos of the East End streets in which his father grew up; the door to the building he imagines was his grandfather’s furrier business in the once-haunted, now-hip, area around Spitalfields.

Reder evokes a need to reestablish the personal, real connection to our own history – a connection that has been led astray by the materialistic approach of the “heritage industry”: By costume drama and reenactments; by the vogue for making that which is new appear distressed and old, creating a final setting that, to Reder, “looks Botoxed.” It leads Reder to remember a photo of his childhood, his father’s hand on his shoulder in a stance which he catches himself replicating with his own son, and wonder, “Is there another kind of heritage that’s more delicate?”

Guided Tour is a difficult proposition – particularly in America, where the “heritage industry” isn’t nearly as developed, nor as culturally critiqued, as it is in the U.K. The idea of criticizing the ways in which we capture and display our past is not one that, I think, would come naturally to most American Tour-goers. In the end of Reder’s Tour-ending film, his “Angel of History” bemoans, “there’s so much history now” –  more than ever, and not just by definition – and determines to capture more of the present, glancing up at the clouds and the sky rather than back at history’s wreckage. But it’s arguable that America is a nation that really does think of itself in the present tense; a place for which the past is a lump sum of presents, all of which have conspired to create The Now. History as a nightmare from which we have awoken, to find that it’s morning in America.

But as a glimpse into our own views of our culture – rather than a look at that culture itself – Guided Tour succeeds in provoking endless thought thanks to Reder’s unassuming character; his ability to balance what is essentially an embarrassingly self-centered premise and performance form with his own unassuming, self-deprecating nature. It seems pointless to say that Guided Tour won’t “work” for everyone – there are more, I imagine, for whom it will fail than for whom it will succeed. But to those predisposed to this sort of reexamination of the way our culture views its past – and, through that lens, its present and future – this is a tour that stumbles and crawls around such subjects with such an almost too-subtle tact as to be beautiful in its delicate gaze.



  1. […] scent of those roses and the taste of that candy, like Proust’s Madeleines (as referenced by Peter Reder), prove transportive to this day. With an impressionistic set of sensual experiences – none either […]

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