Paradise Lost?

This piece was published in Piktogram in 2005.

The Art of Home

In 1956 a member of the British art police set up home. Jim Eade, a former curator at the Tate Gallery, decided to turn his picturesque house, Kettle’s Yard, in the university city of Cambridge into a gallery for the defence of modern art. Displaying his own collection of art by Miro, Brancusi, Moore and others in a carefully stage-managed setting, this gendarme set out to demonstrate the transcendental qualities of Art. Each week small groups of Cambridge students were invited to his home to train their eyes. Amongst these guests were future director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota. A well-placed canvas hanging above an antique cabinet dressed with a bowl of lemons or a spiral of pebbles, was a complete course in aesthetics. Eade was so certain of his taste that when he left his collection to the University, he laid down strict instructions on its future face: the lemons were to remain, replaced each week by all subsequent custodians of his gallery-home. Although antipathetic to Conceptual Art, Eade’s demand strangely echoed the transformation of the artwork into processes, events and words. Nothing, however, could have been further from his mind.

Whilst art and domestic furniture and furnishings in Eade’s home were united, this would-be tastemaker did not regard art and design as the same thing. Like many members of the art police including the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, and Serota today, Eade was only really interested in design when it could be made to behave like art. It had to be beautiful and uplifting. Interest in materials, function and fashion, with its tawdry associations with commerce, was beyond the pale. An elegant Italian lamp on a plinth in MOMA’s Architecture and Design gallery or Donald Judd’s severe benches in his recent Tate retrospective could, however, pass the art test and become objects of aesthetic contemplation.

Kettle’s Yard would surely disturb Eade today, were he able to make a spectral return. Like so many galleries, biennales and museums, it has been swept up in art’s fascination with modern design and is currently home to an exhibition dedicated to ‘Ways of Living’.[1] Work by four design stars in the contemporary art world – Andrea Zittel, Jorge Pardo, Tobias Rehberger and Marjetica Potrč – is represented in this exhibition. Pardo’s contribution, for instance, takes the form of low-hanging lighting with colourful hand-blown glass shades set in a complicated die-cut frames, reminiscent of biomorphic designs favoured by György Kepes or Frederick Kiesler in the 1950s. Critic Alex Coles claims that Pardo’s art objects result from auto-ethnographic research: the artist examines his own lifestyle and reproduces it in the gallery. These lamps are a synecdoche of ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ in Mount Washington near Los Angeles, his best known work (1998). Commissioned by the LA Museum of Contemporary Art to make his own home art, Pardo fitted out a chic timber-clad villa, sometimes modifying mass produced items and sometimes commissioning bespoke items. The presence of signs, barriers and security guards ensured that visitors to ‘4166 Sea View Lane’ offered an authentic Museum experience. The furnishings and fittings of this magnum opus have since become the basis of Pardo’s artistic output. The curator of the Kettle’s Yard exhibition comments: ‘His ongoing production of lamps, furniture, paintings and prints for people to exhibit in galleries and install in their homes extends the unsettling reflexivity of his practice to our own lives and homes,’[2] But hold on. Does that mean Pardo designs things which are made, sold and consumed? Surely that’s what designers do too. And what is so unsettling about that anyway?

What distinguishes art’s fascination with design over the last decade is not its domesticity but its interest in modernity. After all, artists from Max Ernst to Gregor Schneider have long examined the psychopathology of unheimlich homes, finding symptoms of repression in their Victorian ornaments and dingy basements. By contrast, these neo-modernist domestic dreamscapes seem entirely different; so much more appealing, so much more designed. In Kettle’s Yard, Andrea Zittel, for instance has displayed one of her trademark ‘Living Units’, a walled bed made from a steel frame and plywood served by four appliances which can be wheeled close to the reclining occupant. One appliance is for dining whilst another is a portable office. Like the domestic capsules designed by the anti-designers like the Italian Superstudio group or Gaetano Pesce in the late 1960s, the ‘A-Z Comfort Unit’, as its name suggests, supplies everything that one might need for an easy life. The critical edge for this piece was claimed by the gently ironic associations which Zittel lent all her products in the 1990s. In her early statements, she described her work with a corporate vocabulary. Her ‘A-Z’ ‘brand’ was applied to diverse ‘products’ and ‘services’ and targeted at ‘clients’.[3]

Zittel and Pardo have been taste makers in this fashion for design. It is so pervasive that this vogue already has its own brand identity, ‘DesignArt’, a label adapted and promoted by Alex Coles.[4] This London-based critic takes a rather upbeat view of the phenomenon, describing it as ‘the type of art you can look at while you are sitting on it’. Coles gives DesignArt a rich and well-mannered genealogy: its mother is Sonia Delaunay, indulging pleasures for colour and pattern, and its father Mies van der Rohe, the master of modernist platonism. But is Cole right? Is this really a singular phenomenon or, in fact, many different things? And why is its focus so strongly on late-modernist architecture and design of the 1950s and 1960s? Is art’s interest in design as benign as Coles suggests?

Design Classics?

Some answers to these questions are suggested by the work of Pia Rönicke. In December 2004 the Danish artist had her first solo show at GB Agency in Paris. She presented a mystery in the form of a paper trail tracing the career of a Danish lamp designer and retailer called Le Klint between the 1940s and 1960s. Books, archival photographs, clippings from newspapers and design instructions encouraged the viewer to become a historian or a detective by reconstructing the life and work of a forgotten designer. Hanging from the ceiling were Rönicke’s attempts to recreate the lamps from Le Klint’s DIY patterns. At the same time, melancholic extracts from Le Klint’s autobiography Erindringstrade (Memory Threads) were thrown on the walls by a 35mm projector. A woman’s life is, it seems, entirely subsumed into the brand and the chain of shops which carried her name. Despite all these acts of nomination, the exhibition was entitled ‘Without a Name’. The weight of all this ‘evidence’ notwithstanding, the viewer was left uncertain: who was this woman? Did she really exist? Is she a product of Rönicke’s imagination? Or perhaps even our collective desires?

Both Pardo and Rönicke present chic neo-modernist lamps to their viewers, but the impulse behind their work is rather different. The approach of the Danish artist is deconstructive: it asks the viewer to investigate the materials of the promotional apparatus that consumed Le Klint. It points to something darker than the blushing light which emanates from Pardo’s beautiful lamps. In this, she is not alone. Martin Boyce’s work over recent years has pointed to the uneasy commodification of utopia. In a landmark piece of 1999, ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’, Boyce reworked a celebrated piece of modernist design, the Eames Storage Unit (1950). The original had secured its position in the history of twentieth century furniture after being exhibited in prototype at MOMA in the late 1940s. With its emphasis on furniture as tool (hence the masculine designation ‘unit’ rather than ‘cupboard’ or ‘dresser’) and on the names of its renowned Ameican designers, Charles and Ray Eames, the original design illustrates one of the paradoxes of the Modern Movement; that it was a commonwealth of celebrity egos committed to anonymous design (a theme of Rönicke’s ‘Without a Name’ too). Originally manufactured by the Herman Miller Furniture Company, the Eames Storage Unit is now available – in the curious form of a hand assembled ‘reproduction’ of an object first designed for mass production. In ‘Now I’ve Got Real Worry’ Boyce has, however, ‘damaged’ the object. One of the ‘L bars’ which held the unit together has been straightened and stands upright, propped at some distance from the Storage Unit. The modular character of the original design which allowed the sliding panels, drawers and shelves to be combined has been denied. White and brightly coloured panels are fixed rigid within the chrome steel frame. The sealed unit cannot divulge what is stored within it. Useless, it becomes, however, more ‘perfect’, more desirable. ‘Possession cannot apply to an implement’, Jean Baudrillard once remarked, ‘since the object I utilise always directs me back to the world. Rather it applies to that object once it is divested of its function and made relative to a subject.’[5] The object / subject relations invoked by Boyce’s piece are surely that of design ‘classic’ and its connoisseurial collector. Denied function and isolated on the floor of the gallery, this modified storage unit is evidently a fetish, an object which socially endowed with a ‘power’ that is unrelated to its ‘true worth’. This concept, as elusive as the vanishing point in perspective, was at the heart of the modernist utopia. Boris Arvatov, Proletkult theorist in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, imagined a world in which the true worth of things would be found in their capacity to meet genuine needs rather stimulate false desires.[6] ‘Socialist things’ could be active agents in the production of a new consciousness (such an object would be, in his term, a ‘co-worker’). But, of course, the Eames were not Marxist utopians: they represent a moment in the history of design and architecture when ascetic modernism was embraced by commercial America.

Utopia Lost … and Regained?

There is, in fact, much to be said about the diversity of post-war modernist architecture and design. For all the talk of homogenising effects of the ‘International Style’ expressed by postmodernist conservatives in the 1980s, modernist architecture and design underwent a kind of fragmentation during the Cold War. Behind its common aesthetic façade, there were important differences in the way that it was shaped in what were once called the First, Second and Third worlds. Like a number of the neo-modernists, Marjetice Potrč’s interest seems to be shaped by her Eastern European background, in her case Slovenia. Her modernism is not just any old variety: it is ‘sotsmodernism.’ During the late 1950s the communist states of the Eastern Bloc states sought to modernise at breakneck speed. To shake off associations of violence and irrationality, Stalin’s successors recast themselves as rational technocrats. The world was to be made anew in concrete, glass and steel. Socialist realist painting was rejected as kitsch and regressive: the form of the future would be abstract and brightly coloured. Over the course of the 1960s, Eastern Bloc cities vied to produce high architectural drama in the form of inter-stellar tv towers, colossal megastructures as well as monumental high-rise housing schemes. In a series of graphic works entitled ‘The Puzzle of Königsberg’ (1999), Potrč explores the meaning of Kaliningrad, the former German city which is now an ‘island’ city populated by Russians detached from the motherland. In this series, the trophy city is saturated with water. Its chief landmark today, the Palace of Soviets – a colossus with massive cantilevered multi-story concrete bays – is slowly sinking back into marshland. In ruins, it is largely ignored by its citizens. It is a symbol of the future now firmly locked in the past. Yet it is also a strange trigger for nostalgia. It is, Potrč tells us, ‘for those who travel there, strangely reminiscent of other places. … Together with the existing ruins of Königsberg, the city is the perfect showcase of urban disaster.’[7] But how can a ruin be perfect? Of course the ruin was adopted by Benjamin as an allegorical form which could narrate death and catastrophe in the midst of the phantasmagoric city.[8] Here however, the ruin suggests something else; a lost drive towards the perfect unity of technology and society.

Nostalgia for sotsmodernism is not the same thing as ostalgie, the sicky sweet yearning for the symbols and everyday comforts of the communist past which has been so widely reported in East Germany and other places once part of the Bloc.[9] Ostalgie is a new film to see, a bar decked out with Soviet propaganda or a new antique to buy. It is a form of commodification that halts at things that cannot be bought like, of course, the sinking hulk of the Palace of Soviets in Kaliningrad. In fact, sotsmodernist buildings like Berlin’s Palast Der Republik on Schlossplatz (once Marx Engelsplatz) – often stand in the way of capitalism by occupying valuable city-centre land. Their future lies in the past. And this is important. The attraction to socmodernism is, perhaps, a symptom of a desire to keep the possibility of utopia open. It is not the expression of some kind of communist revanchist fantasy (an expression what of Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia calls ‘restorative nostalgia’[10]), but a sublimated form of idealism.

It is worth noting that Eastern Europeans are not the only ones captivated by socmodernism. Tacita Dean has, for instance, made a series of beautiful, melancholic films in Berlin focusing on its sotsmodern landmarks (‘Palast’, 2004 and ‘Fernsehturm’, 2001). And Toby Paterson, a Scottish artist, has been drawn further East. His large-scale wall paintings, sculptural assemblages and paintings on Perspex reproduce smooth and abstract spatial volumes of overlooked works of post-war architecture. His imagined cities include a seminary and schools designed by minor Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia; reconstruction schemes for the bombed-out city of Rotterdam; and suburban railway stations from Warsaw of designed in the late 1950s with dramatically cantilevered canopies and walls glazed with coloured tiles.

Toby Paterson’s 2002 painting of the entrance suburban railway station in Warsaw.

By suggesting the effortless flow of architectural forms liberated from the effects of gravity, Paterson reminds the viewer of the social and architectural vision of an age within memory. We are invited to glide freely over and through these volumes, much in the spirit of Kasimir Malevich’s suprematism. Time’s arrow has been reversed, and these structures – as images – have not fallen into decay. On the contrary, they have become perfect, even utopian. There seems to a political point being made by Paterson here, albeit one without the anchor of ideology. After all, he seems to be saying Western European states had their socmodernist moments in the post-war years too.

Utopia may now seem to be locked in the past, but it has not been abandoned. In fact, this discredited concept appears to be enjoying a glossy revival, as the ‘Utopia Station’ initiated at the Venice Biennale in 2003 made clear. Conceived in the spirit of Nicolas Bourriaud’s conception of relational aesthetics, this first ‘station’ was formed from a diverse set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers. The garden at the Arsenale, furnished with shacks and tent-like structures, was the site of high-brow readings, lively discussions and ludic performances. Wrapped in a rosy rhetoric of democracy and emancipation, this chain of events had much in common with a 1960s ‘be-in’ or happening. In their attempt at a definition of ‘US’, curators Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija offer the following statement: ‘It is simple. We use utopia as a catalyst, a concept most useful as fuel. We leave the complete definition of utopia to others. We meet to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape outside and inside, a need to think, a need to integrate the work of the artist, the intellectual and manual laborers that we are into a larger kind of community, another kind of economy, a bigger conversation, another state of being.’[11] The artists most closely associated with Utopia Station have been accused of self-delusion and self-indulgence: their altruistic rhetoric is described as self-serving.[12] (Although its should be said that its orbit became somewhat wider with Utopia Station II, a poster project organised with the International Child Art Foundation in 2004.) With this criticism in mind, it is worth revisiting Marjetice Potrč’s work.

Interested in the way that individuals can take control of their environment, modernist architecture and design forms both the backdrop for and a medium in many of Potrč’s works. Her work is not confined to the gallery (though this space is important because, in her words, it provides a ‘breathing space’). She has developed schemes, for instance, that extend the definition of ‘shelter’ on the streets of Shenzhen, Istanbul and, most recently, Liverpool.[13] In this northern city once fringed by dozens of high rise housing slabs, Potrč attached a ‘clip-on’ balcony with wind turbine to an apartment to provide cheap and clean electricity for the residents. Produced under the auspices of the 2004 Liverpool Art Biennale, this piece pointed out the possibilities of recuperating a disparaged housing form, the tower block. (Today only two stand in a city where once seventy-two had been built such is the spectacular appeal of their destruction to local politicians).

In her 2003 installation, ‘Next stop Kiosk’, at the Moderna Gallery in Ljubljana, she exhibited a K-67 kiosk, originally designed by a prominent Slovenian designer and architect Sasha J. Mächtig (and, in 1971, also included in MOMA’s collection of architecture and design.)[14] This small, plastic and modular building – widely employed throughout the Eastern Bloc – was once claimed as a universal structure, meeting universal needs. Mobile and temporary, it could be function as an office, a retail outlet and even, on occasion, as a home. In Potrč’s artwork, a kiosk becomes a foundation for upper-tier made of a pine logs and discarded printing plates forming the walls of an ad hoc shelter. These additions refer to the Brazilian palafita, a ‘walking’ hut on stilts, as well as the unregulated shantytowns on the edges of cities in Latin America. They suggest creativity in impoverished conditions. Transposed into a European gallery, this work – like her other hybrid structures– brings two conceptions of utopia into sharp contrast. Her shelters counterpose the dream of a world that satisfies every need through modern technology with that in which an individual is able to organise the world according to his or her own desires and needs, in other words the utopia of self-action. Potrč sets out not to create a creole architecture, but a dialectical one. Moreover, Modernism is, as her work demonstrates, an ‘incomplete project’, to borrow Habermas’s famous phrase.[15] To make this point clear, in a 2005 series of drawings displayed in Kettle’s Yard under the title ‘Future of Now’, she captioned one sketch of housing blocks with these words: ‘Never completed, always fragmented, Modernism is easy to add on to, to pull in, to empty, to build upon, to Balkanize …’. This is surely evidenced by its return over the last decade – reworked by artists– as commodity critique, as nostalgia for utopia and as urban intervention.

[1] ‘Ways of Living’, Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge 1 October – 20 November 2005.

[2] Elizabeth Fisher ‘Ways of Living’, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge, 2005) 8.

[3] See Rainald Schumacher, ed. Andrea Zittel (Munich, 2003).

[4] Alex Coles DesignArt (London, 2005) 8.

[5] Jean Baudrillard Le Systeme des Objets (Paris, 1968).

[6] See Christina Kaier ‘Boris Arvatov’s Socialist Objects’ in October (summer 1997) 105-118.

[8] Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project, edited by H. Eiland (Boston, MA., 2002).

[9] Paul Betts, ‘Remembrance of Things Past: Nostalgia in West and East Germany, 1980-2000’ in Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering 20th Century German History, P. Betts and G. Eghigian, eds. (Palo Alto, 2003), pp. 179-207.

[10] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2002).

[12] See, for instance, Claire Bishop ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October (Fall, 2004) 51-59.

[13] See Marjetica Potrč Urgent Architecture (Palm Beach, 2004).

[14] See Marjetica Potrč Non Stop Kiosk, (Ljubljana, 2003).

[15] Jürgen Habermas ‘Modernity-An Incomplete Project’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-aesthetic (Port Townsend, WA. 1983): 3-15.


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