An Architect's Nightmare
Demented Architecture doesn’t profess that all architecture is demented, writes Mark Amery, yet it doesn’t really explore why dementia might be setting in.
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“Artists despair when architects exhibit inside galleries, architects rise up when artists design buildings.” So run the exhibition notes for the group show Demented Architecture at City Gallery Wellington.
Aside from a beautiful morphing tableau of forms constantly being constructed and reconstructed by the public out of white Lego blocks (Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project), paired with Edgar Roy Brewster’s eccentric visions for hexagonal beehive shaped buildings, this is not an exhibition of architecture. It’s a show by artists about architects and architecture. A series of revenge fantasies, you could say.
Do artists really despair when architects exhibit inside galleries? More pointedly, do artists really have it in for the architectural profession? I hadn’t noticed. Rather, what I despair of here is an oppositional premise that simplifies the relationship between art and architecture into a series of archetypes (the architect a lofty bow-tied male prat).
Rather than considering how the relationship between art and architecture is changing - how fundamentally our need on this planet from architects and artists in terms of the built environment is shifting beyond Lego block towers and sculptural broaches - the focus is on the modernist folly.
It’s a kicking of the tyres of all those shows celebrating our postwar modernist heritage. Never mind the need to discuss the social needs of buildings to put a roof over people’s heads. Perhaps it is adequate that the exhibition is a firestarter: leaving me hot and bothered longing to talk about these questions.
Other than Eliasson’s effective, popular kitset action the key work and a highlight is Slovenian artist Jasmina Cibic’s two video works and ‘beetle’ wallpaper that represented Slovenia at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It suffers a litltle from not being given more context in terms of understanding the fractured history of Yugoslavia, or relationship to other cases of architecture, visual identity and state power international and local (take Mladen Busumic’s Aipotu from the Te Papa collection for example, or even Bronwyn Holloway Smith’s recent National Contemporary Art award winning flag work).
Cibic’s work provides powerful consideration of how the artist gets toyed with in the discussion between state architecture and power. Self-consciously aloof, haughty and stagey in a way that amplifies these qualities in state architecture, Cibic’s films are cool and luscious, highly stylized and meticulously made as cinema. The sense of subtle separation between the actors and their scripts, the melodramatic artifice, keeps you thinking about our disconnect from the visions of the state.
Fruits of Our Land is strangely riveting. It portrays a seemingly unending bureaucratic discussion between a group in a lecture theatre about the placement and merits of artwork for insertion a People’s Assembly. I’ve been in such interminable meetings before, where the egos of the characters in stating a view get in the way more than assist the intentions of the art. The dialogue it turns out is directly taken from a transcript of a 1957 parliamentary debate held to discuss the appropriateness of artworks proposed for the newly built People’s Assembly. On another screen they silently shift around the architectural model.
The work is housed in a room wallpapered with illustrations of a rare Slovenian beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri. Named after the Führer in 1933 it is now almost completely extinct as it is much sought after by Hitler memorabilia collectors. The connections conceptuallty to the films feel slim to me – I’m clearly missing something.
In Scottish artist Henry Coombes' black and white film ‘I am the Architect, this is not Happening, this is Unacceptable’ the frustrated architect disappears into his iPad as if it were Alice’s rabbit hole, terrorized in a 3D cardboard model world of surreal hammy slapstick mythology. It lacked coherency, and really offered nothing for me beyond its heavy-handed curdled dream of the artist’s paint pots spilling over the architect’s miniature roofs and ramps. The duality explored of architectural order and rationality versus artistic impulse feels simplistic.
The rest of the show presents interesting scraps from New Zealand that don’t quite gel for me. I like formally Kirsty Lillico’s soft wall sculpture integrating art and architecture, through cutting the floor plans from modernist buildings into pieces of dirty old carpet, which hang limply. Yet again it seems unsupported by the work that surrounds it.
There are group exhibitions where individual works come highly recommended and make a visit really worthwhile. Yet at the same time the whole that makes up the parts is more problematic. This is one of them.
Demented Architecture doesn’t profess that all architecture is demented, yet it doesn’t really explore why dementia - memory disorder, impaired reasoning and personality changes - might be setting in. The exhibition signals the desultory, fragmented end of a modernist era, rather than contributing to how we might build a better future.
- Demented Architecture, City Gallery Wellington, until 8 November 2015