20 April 2009

1979-2009: From Group Material to Material Connexion (sic)

Since 1979 at the founding of Group Material - the artist collaborative based in New York - we have seen the practice of art installations as a medium of the artist slowly dissipate as a valid practice. At times chaotic, exhilarating or alternatively subversive, the "activist installations" as they were known have been forfeited for a deliberate gentrification of the gallery and museum space. As a consequence the art we see more and more of, at arms length from Felix Gonzales Torres early political art and what now fills this installation void today, is a combination of art as "personal disclosure"1 and art as "full disclosure" (as in narrative-based exhibits and retrospectives). History has shown us that the material of art can't be legislated into such limited boundaries. And yet the practice we see today seems to say otherwise. Fortunately there are refreshingly new(dis)courses being taken - and gallery formats - that fall outside this common dichotomy of private and public practice (from Magasin 3 in Stocklom to e-flux on the Lower East Side).

Material Connexion (sic)2 is a noted resource library for designers of all fields that display thousands of physical samples of innovative materials. The PhD-trained staff serve to jury a selective review of new materials to enter the library (few make it) and provide those interested with the background on a material's performance and sustainable attributes. The downside to this is that access to the resource library is highly controlled and on invitation only for a rather expensive individual or corporate membership. This format of grouping new and technologically advanced materials for the perusal of a very narrow segment of the community is a far cry from Group Materials' mandate for collective education and open social exchanges in their practice. This should come as no surprise: the late 70's utopia having since been sidelined for more practical agendas.

As designers, it is a slippery slope to raise issues of societal ethics with a client (how accessible their resources might be), so we used the design to address these as best we could. The offices opened earlier this spring in conjunction with ICFF. The working staff are more then contented with their new spaces, a wholly different organizational layout then they had anticipated. One example is the conference room at center of their 12,000sq.ft office, resolutely unplayful, which acts both as a closed space and a circulation link between the public and fee paying sectors. This was not asked for in the Material Connexion brief, but with our creative - and oppositional streak - we provided them with a less then neutral space where they least expected it.

Gonzales Torres art, once he left the confines of Group Material, forged an aesthetic that uniquely merged the personal discourse with social content. It is as if the apparent neutrality in his later art were an attempt to re-create the political commentary that was never able to effectively transcend the early installation work themselves. This was Gonzales Torres' predominant mode of artistic practice - and his best work - where the environment of the gallery embodied a a wide political statement veiled in the neutrality of the white-walled gallery.
The design for Material Connexion, and not the least importantly the client's final choices in the build-out, never met that ambition. We will have to try better next time.

1 On Felix Gonzales Torres, see Nancy Spector's fine piece in the Guggenheim Museum Catalog, 2007 and Lewis Kochur on Displaying the Marvelous, MIT Press, 2000. 2 Material Connexion, founded by George Belaryian, has branches in Seoul, Milan, Cologne and Bangkok.

14 April 2009

Transactional Space - or En - in a house for artist Doug Starn

The Guggenheim Museum's current exhibit Third Mind covers all art forms except architecture - even dance and written music are included, a rarefied experience in any exhibit. More exceptional, is not this absence, but the inclusion of such a wide range of artists, a feat of curatorial stamina but also of pure effort matching in costs what the curator Alexandra Munroe has brought in ideas.
Noted for her exhibits that looks at the "cross-currents" between Asian art - or reverse-influences as opposed to the standard text-book art chronologies - Munroe does much the same here at the Guggenheim demonstrating the importance of the East in an impressive culling of American Artists.

It would have well served this enterprise to touch on design - but perhaps the installation of the show within Frank Lloyd Wright's building was enough, taking up all 6 floors and the adjacent galleries to much effect.

What link might one find in Munroe's show and Wright beyond this short term exhibit, where architecture is all but absent? Not much and this is not the reason for this extended text. Yet I should mention our role in the design of 12 Japanese art exhibitions for Munroe during her tenure as director of the Japan Society (her projects included Zen Buddhist Art to Yoko Ono; Photography by Daido Moriyama to Takashi Murakami) and notably an exhibit that focused solely on Wright's work and his relationship with Japan (which included tampering and selling old scroll paintings). Munroe had also called upon us to be her critic in laying out The Third Mind exhibit, working along side her team to locate groupings of art reproductions on vintage models of Wright's spiraling galleries. To suggest including architecture, for whatever it is worth, would have overstepped our modest role on this show and added nothing. But more to the point, for this posting, what might Munroe, Wright and my small practice, have to do with the artist Doug Starn (of the twin brother duo, Mike & Doug Starn), who was considered for The Third Mind exhibit, but who's work falls largely after the cut-off year, of the exhibit's time-line (1890 to 1989), who is in the title of my text?

The linkage is this one: All of them share an affinity with the concept of "En" (in Japanese) - or Transactional Space - in much of their work, in our work for them, and/or the influences they have had on us.

Gunter Nitschke defines "En" as three distinct actions in Buddhist and Karmic traditions: a bridge between cause and effect; a bond between different individuals; and in architecture, the transition from inside to outside, or building to nature.

The Starns' work, seem to me to use the first definition of "En" as a device in the early and later stages of their projects, where the focus on highly specialized and intuitive process is key to their art: a bridge between two forms of art production; for Munroe, it would be safe to say, there are few people as predisposed as her to be fill the second denotation of "En": in social situations the effort to bond different individuals (e.g. en-musubi); for Wright (and for myself) it is the rather self-evident use of transitions in architecture - transactional space - from inside to outside, from private to public, or "En-gawa". It important to be clear, here, as Nitschke was: these definitions are not either/or conditions, but simultaneous and interdependent actions or experiences.

This is what makes the Starn's work visually elusive: there is the impression of ambivalence as to how the works are to be seen or experienced - as in their recent Bambu project at the Talix Factory in Beacon in the photo above; what makes Munroe's curatorial project's aesthetically and theoretically complex: sharing and opposing artistic practices rather then synthesizing them under one banner; what makes Wright's houses still worth visiting (as the few remaining projects by Antonin Raymond, one of this associates who later set-up a modernist practice in post-war Japan) and so approachable to the general public while remaining a right-of-passage to many architects: to me it is the consistent use of the en-gawa design approach in defining a buildings siting and relationship to it's ground. His structures are "neither simply independent of nor dependent upon, but are interdependent among each other, i.e. part of each other. GN". Wright, as Raymond, and as in the Starn's modest house expansion which we just completed, all share a feature a transactional space. This might be the layering effect of the exterior edges of a dwelling, functionally creating a "grey-zone" between inside and out. The "En" in architecture, is nothing more then an architectural device, sometimes as little as 60 centimeters deep that function as either a shield or frame to the outside, with various degrees of permeability. Able to reinforce spatial qualities of a building, depending on lighting and time of day, "En-gawa" is a key feature in most residential architecture in Japan, from the Machiya merchant housse of Kyoto, to the Sukiya Temples of the Edo Period; it is more an exception today, from Tadao Ando's early houses, to the modest Asama house by Atelier Bow-Wow.

The Starn house in Connecticut - a gut renovation and expansion of an existing Tudor styled clubhouse from the early 1900's - modestly resurrects the "En-gawa" approach, wrapping the main body of the building with a circumferential veranda with its own roof, and creating an ambiguity of "spatial belonging": the inside is pulled in, and not solely framed; the extended balcony lowered from view and the overhanging roof, draws one out visually into the garden. "It is as if you are floating on top of the ground".

The rest of the design, shares spatial layouts, materials and details with Japanese Sukiya buildings and our interpretation of them in a contemporary way, in this house as well as in a much early project we did for........ Alexandra Munroe. She was our first private client 10 years ago, and the Starn's our most recent.

Credit to the research and writings of Gunter Nitschke; the quotes are from his work, From Shinto to Ando, Academy Editions, 1993.