29 April 2010

Shared impulses/Opposite results: the work of Schütte and Nouvel in Madrid

Jean Nouvel's expansion of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) lacks, not surprisingly, any modesty. As a recent visitor to the museum several years after its completion, giving it time to have found its own "pace" among Madrid's 52 other museums, its own exhibition rotation, and as a former employee of the Pritzker-Prize architect, I expected two things of this visit, neither of which came about: some degree of awe - the feeling of something completely appropriate but totally unexpected- just right for this context; and secondly some unease, a provocation that he, the architect, had again surprised me with something less than neutral, disarming, yet just right for this program, that is to say for the museum spectator.

In the case of his latest museum, those feelings were displaced altogether. The grandiose entrance courtyard created by the expansion, was exactly as the renderings: lifeless, with an impression of a nighttime scene while in broad daylight (thanks to his red and reflective surfaces, now his trademarks); and purely formalistic with a razor-edge overhanging roof spanning the full site and blocking the Madrid sky.

In this way Nouvel's huge expansion has imposed itself on the site, on a context that needed far more modesty and a much better sense of scale and detailing; all it is, is a device of the architect’s own making, his own signature. The original Reina Sofia building is now rendered invisible, by the new facades and the floating roof, literally shielded from view. The circulation between the new and old galleries is left painfully unresolved.

The irony of it, or at least a saving grace for my visit, was the retrospective exhibit in the old galleries dedicated to the German artist Thomas Schütte. What could be more appropriate, then to be confronted by an artist that similarly has been driven by contradictory impulses: to be absolutely modern, as Nouvel advocates for, while eluding any “confinement” within current practice.

As one critic describes the avant-garde, it is a wish to avoid being superceded by any step in a historical progression, and this seems to be the one link between Schülte’s artistic approach, as well as Nouvel's. In Schütte's case - where the long white-washed galleries were a perfect stage for his series of hand-crafted models of Bauhaus styled-factories or museums as mausoleums - it is a reassuring provocation. We don't have to live in these mausoleums and the device he applies is one of "disarming" us, the visitor. Schütte succeeds, then, where Nouvel fails.

Somehow these models become quaint and we appreciate their handmade-ness, over their overt coldness and rigidity; even if there is in fact nothing quaint here at all. The lack of irony in Schülte’s work takes hold in this museum setting, and we are free to move on to the irony of a Pierre Huyghes drawing around the corner – or best of all to the even more literal “Guernica” accosted by huge crowds in it's own gallery as in a Thomas Struth photograph. From there we move to another corner gallery that leads to a dead-end, so that once again we, the visitors, are foiled in trying to navigate the link between the Nouvel and Sabatini wings of the museum. Physically and worse, subjectively, we are left pained by this experience.

"At the center of Schülte’s work is not an artistic genius but a certain void, an absence - an inner space presented in a way similar to the neutral space of a modern museum, not an eruptive space, as found in the work of many of his colleagues. He ironically demonstrates his subjectivity by demonstrating a loss of subjectivity".

The new architectural expansion delivers what this museum did not need: a far too heavy dose of contemporary subjectivity and architect-as-genius authorship. Schütte’s models appear subtle and magnificent in the "Retrospección" exhibit, where they would normally conjure loss and distance anywhere else. This may have to do with the generous space, the form of the old vaulted galleries, with beautiful natural daylight. Yet it may also have to do with how they act as a welcome antidote to the adjacent Nouvel galleries that are seen first by the visitor and for opposite reasons then one might think: the understatement of the sculpture models, the artisanal approach to their making is reactionary when seen against Nouvel’s love of machined materials, his preference for seemingly effortless structure or unexpressed cantilevers.

In this respect, the Schütte 's models make the ultimate sacrifice – appearing superfluous, when in fact it is the context, the museum itself, that has become superfluous to the art here at the ‘Nouvel’Reina Sofia.

Italics: See Boris Groys “The Case of Thomas Schütte”, Dia Art Foundation, Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, No.3 and Thomas Schütte, Retrospección, Reina Sophia, February-May 2010.