What Destroys What catalogue essay

"What Destroys What" by Jaime Tsai

…the mixing of genres. Good God, haven’t you ever… seen a house on fire.1

That the image of fire, the terrifying and compelling destroyer of architecture, could be Aragon’s response to the perversion of genres and by extension disciplines, is a telling reminder of how recently aesthetic purity was a dominant paradigm. In one of the earliest transgressions of this disciplinary purity, Marcel Duchamp transformed the interior of the Whitlaw Reid building on Madison Avenue in New York into a labyrinth of twine. The building responded immediately as if animated by the monstrosity of the artist’s “installation:” the string caught fire in proximity to the electric chandeliers and turned to dust.

Historically art and architecture have enjoyed an unproblematic relationship, one of sceptical distance. For architects, art was a feckless and incidental (if not aesthetically pleasing) filler for newly erected interiors. For artists, architecture was a matter of economy and function sullied by purpose and patronage. Although there were exceptions to this rule, most conspicuously in communist states, one could be an architect or an artist, but never both. What changed so dramatically in the twentieth century that could result today in an exhibition of coerced frottage between art/\architecture?

As divided as art and architecture have been, they have always had the ideological construction of space in common. Premodern space was characterised by separation, homogeneity and quantification. Architecture took form in response to this order, and painting translated it with Euclidean geometry into its perfect illusion on a two dimensional surface. In contrast, modern space was conceived of as fluid, qualitative and heterogeneous; architecture responded with glass and open planning, and artists with multiple viewpoints, the interpenetration of planes and the abandonment of linear perspective. Despite the innovative practice of Lissitzky, Schwitters and Duchamp, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the boundary between art and architecture was transgressed as art entered the expanded field. The abandonment of medium specificity for the performative and interactive qualities of art coincided with the reception of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Translated to English in 1962, it influenced American artists and historians alike. Following the example of Bergson, Merleau-Ponty challenged the rationalist view of space as objective and external:

Visible and mobile, my body is a thing amongst things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body. The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees the ‘other side’ of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. 2

Merleau-Ponty’s fusion of vision and mobility challenged the construction of the spectator as an enucleated ‘disinterested’ eye, undoing the division between the spectator and the (framed) art object and it is at this point that art and architecture meet: the mutual interest in embodied space. Space is shared by both art and architecture in this exhibition, where differences are explored at the liminal point of contact. As such, each artist/architect is concerned with a particular spatial dialectic that highlights this inbetweeness of states and the slippage of disciplines.

By abstracting standard architectural materials from their application in a total structure, David Burns explores the dialectic between whole/fragment. A decontextualised mirrored window film is used as an interstitial fragment, a perversion of both the wholeness of vision and the purity of space. It recalls the modernist project defended by Le Corbusier: “The spirit of order, a unity of intention.” 3 But this is not simply a critique of the modernist whole; Burns preserves the continuity of vision and space by emphasising the transparent and porous qualities of the film. Embodiment in space occurs at that instantaneous moment of seeing through/seeing ourselves.

Justine Varga considers what is lost in the transition from celluloid to code in photographic practice. By heightening the sculptural and indexical qualities of the photograph in its promiscuous relationship with the residue of everyday life, she examines the dialectic of surface/depth. It is significant that Varga chooses to experiment in the domestic interior, a heavily codified space which, like photography, has metamorphosed from authenticity/depth to simulacrum/surface. Walter Benjamin describes the nineteenth century interior as “a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtenances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case, where the instrument with all its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet.” 4 In contrast, Baudrillard characterises modern architects and designers as cyberneticians obsessed with the transparent and perfect circulation of messages in space. 5 Suspended somewhere between reproduction/original and surface/depth, Varga’s photographs retain a presence otherwise lost in the digital photograph.

Nadia Wagner expresses the limits of materiality/immateriality by using an intangible scent that confronts the artist/architects unspoken obsession with the object. The sheer endurance of Wagner’s chosen fragrance, Evernyl, is a reminder that even when things disappear they never cease to exist; they transmute into gas, are reborn in an organic or manmade compound or are frozen forever in geological stratum. Wagner’s scent is given the description “dusty.” What this means precisely at the moment of reception is deeply subjective. Take for instance those with olfactory disorders: anosmia – I can’t smell anything; phantosmia – am I imagining this smell?; or parosmia – it smells like shit. Dust itself exists in the liminal space between materiality/immateriality. It is the near imperceptible excess of destruction and labour, or conversely, laziness. There is a delicious irony about the longevity of Evernyl: although we can smell the dust, we cannot clean it. The clinical white cube gallery is defiled, and Bataille would rejoice in its occupation by “obsessions, phantoms, [and] spectres that the decayed odour of old dust nourishes and intoxicates.” 6

Frank Minnaërt is not interested in architecture or ruin, but in the intersection of these states. Between form/formlessness is immeasurable excess: the outcome of space altered. Whether this is an infinitesimal vibration of slow decay and entropy, or the violent pulse of destruction, Minnaërt suggests that an unfamiliar, even volatile, zone of contact is formed in its wake. With this intervention, he not only détourns the capitalist logic of display common to exhibition spaces but creates a new site of encounter, a space understood only in its undetermined potential.

Ms&Mr test the boundary between art/architecture by distorting the functional/useless value of architecture, reconstituting it as a formal object for contemplation. The architectural fragment is not, however, simply a readymade: an ordinary object given new meaning by its reconstitution in a museological framework. It is instead what Duchamp would have called a readymade-aided. Ms&Mr made alterations to their installation in order to redirect the mode of encounter. And yet we can’t help but be seduced by the material clues of its original function. This mediated experience can be described as a Rimbaudean dérèglement de tous les sens: a ‘derangement of the senses,’ a disorganising encounter in space that defamiliarises the world of appearances. This ceiling/sculpture is a delirious double-fetish; it is both a commodity fetish (in its abstraction into an art object) and a sexual fetish (in its original function as an S&M dungeon ceiling).

By juxtaposing the isolated body of Jacques Cousteau against an infinite sky, Todd McMillan explores the spatial dialectic of intimacy/expanse. McMillan subverts Eisenstein’s original conception of montage by layering film on top of film, rather than side-by-side. In effect, the dynamism of film is suppressed with the removal of multiple shots and editing, and time (symbolised by the sky) is protracted. The evocative effect of montage nonetheless remains; the suspension of complex emotions legible on Cousteau’s face prior to his disembarkation into the unknown become intertwined with formal values, that is, the brooding chiaroscuro of clouds. Mondrian tried to achieve something similar in his simplification of form in painting: “If I aimed to express vastness and extension, the subject was chosen with this in mind… flowers conveyed something more intimate, while the sea… spoke more directly of ‘space.’” 7 While Mondrian reduced spatial values to abstract forms, McMillan invests spatial qualities with feelings, and vice versa.

Under one roof, What Destroys What sets the stage for these complex and often fraught negotiations of space. Given the continued success of art/architectural collaborations, however, perhaps only strict adherents to discipline specificity will be tempted to set this roof on fire.


  1. Louis Aragon, Treatise on Style, 116 ↩︎

  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind,’ The Primacy of Perception: and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964) 162-163 ↩︎

  3. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. and intro. Frederick Etchells (New York: Dover Publications, 1986) 5 ↩︎

  4. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass., London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) 220 ↩︎

  5. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (London, New York: Verso, 1996) 29 ↩︎

  6. Georges Bataille, Encyclopaedia Acephalia, ed. Robert Lebel and Isabelle Waldberg, trans. Iain White (London, Atlas Press, 1995) 43 ↩︎

  7. Piet Mondrian, ‘Dialogue on the New Plastic,’ Art in Theory: 1900-1990, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) 283 ↩︎