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Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss Artangel / London

An Occupation of Loss, artist Taryn Simon’s first performance work, was commissioned by Park Avenue Armory New York and Artangel London. The work unfolded in two chapters: the first in New York in September 2016, and the second in an unfinished London theater located beneath a luxurious yet kitsch residential glass/concrete block on the corner of Islington Green, which felt both urban and unfamiliar. Its three-balustrade circular form, excavated underground, created a somewhat sci-fi setting for mourning rituals acted out by professional mourners, or collaborating artists, suggesting an imaginary bridge between past and future amid uncertainties in our age of individualism.

The Park Avenue Armory is itself a historic brick building of monumental proportions on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, the choice to work with Shohei Shigematsu and OMA resulted in a very imposing display, with eleven massive forty-eight-foot-tall concrete pipes displayed in a semicircle, each endowed with a boardwalk aimed at a center point and marked by a passage of light defined by two thin neon columns. The live performance, which lasted around forty-five minutes in both cities, connected each pipe to a mourner, staging what felt like a funeral inside a Brutalist chapel. The mourning ground in London was instead nestled within the existing architecture of the theater with two central light passages — a choice that could be seen as a doubling of the original semi-circular space, and also evocative of the light shafts organized as a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks in New York, the artist’s hometown.

Simon’s work always allows for an open-ended reading, framed by the painstaking methodology of an anthropologist. In fact, her practice — mostly photographic until An Occupation of Loss — requires extensive cognitive work and research embodied in a carefully designed form. She draws upon found images and their inherent stories, which often have profound implications — cultural, political, economic — as is the case of A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I – XVIII (2008–11) and Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015).

However, Simon’s subjects are openly decontextualized, a feature that in her transition from photography to performance can suggest dehumanization and displacement. This intent seems affirmed by the featured book on display at the show, which is a collection of paperwork and visa requests for the performers to travel. Each book is site-specific to the two venues, implying the governmental authorship of the artwork based on their approval or refusal of the mourner’s visas. The performance felt at once choreographed and cacophonic, an upside down Tower of Babel with a fragmented humanity gathering to express an insatiable need for belonging during the paying of last respects. Singers and musicians from Greece, Azerbaijan, Armenia, China, Cambodia, and other countries expressed a wide range of laments and exhortations; Ghanaians sobbed while a blind Ecuadorian accordionist set the rhythm. Each of them filled the space with a dense sense of what is inevitability shared across borders and civilizations.

The event felt mysterious and solemn, with a silent crowd of spectators moving from one group of performers to another and lingering between the two neon columns. The artist’s appropriation of ancient and mostly non-Western mourning practices — a recurring trope — is thorny. However, Simon disallows speculation by keeping everything under a rigorous discipline fed by scientific collaborators such as linguists, musicologists, anthropologists, and field workers over an eleven-year time span.

There is currently no archive of collective mourning practices worldwide, which made preparation of the performance arduous but also led Simon toward an unprecedented attempt at creating new taxonomies. Beneath this straightforward framework, An Occupation of Loss calls for an examination into the legacy of a seemingly vanished humanism in post-capitalist society — a missing piece that has been addressed by a number of academics, and more specifically referred to as a “community” — in contrast to rising individuality — by Zygmunt Bauman in Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (2001), and as a “center of gravity” by Charles A. Kupchan in No One’s World: The West, The Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (2012).

by Sara Dolfi Agostini

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Cruising Pavilion Spazio Punch / Venice Architecture Biennale

The inaugural Cruising Pavilion sits an additional boat ride away from the main happenings of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, and a canal down from the notorious Garden of Eden cruising ground, visited by Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Jean Cocteau between the Belle Époque and Second World War.

What architectural considerations make for ample cruising conditions? The repurposing of neglected spaces proposed by Studio Karhard’s Boiler Club Extension (2015) elaborates on the traditional vernacular of ’70s and ’80s cruising and urban gay cultural tropes with brushed metal, pipes, factory lights, and bricks conveyed in plans and photographs. Trevor Yeung’s infrared heat lamp, Dark Sun (twins) (2018), and eucalyptus oil humidifier, The Helping Hand (2018), charge the display with sauna-level sensuality and the same dim red lighting that permeates the entire pavilion. Popper diffusers intoxicate visitors as they weave through chicken wire and peep-holed walls before arriving in the garden.

Wooden slats enable voyeurism and frame two narrow, three-story wooden structures within the Spazio Punch warehouse, remnants of Egill Sæbjörnsson’s troll installation for the Icelandic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2017. Visitors crack and tread between the two structures, stepping on throw-downs, “used” condoms, and silk scarves in Lili Reynaud Dewar’s piece: My Epidemic (a series of scarves printed with texts on prophylaxis, sex, love and vulnerability) (2015). Upstairs, Ian Wooldridge’s three urinal supports, shooting with a shallow depth of field three ways: serviced / lone stranger / from the suburbs (2018), employ cock ring–like enclosures to turn normally invisible bathroom infrastructure into caricatured fetish objects.

Gym mats and a blow-up mattress emulating something close to my current bedroom interior recall the noxious resources commonly found in dark rooms and sex clubs, colloquialized by DYKE_ON’s 2017 apparel collection, which seeks to set street semiotics of lesbian culture with slogans like “Make dykes great again.” A projected mash up of Le navire Night (1979) refines the leap from phone relationship to physical meet-up, which explodes in Dawson’s 20-Load Weekend (2004), the famous pornographic portrayal of bareback sex after the AIDS crisis, an emancipation from LGBTI+ collective trauma and stigmatization.

It might be too reductive to characterize the architectural traits of a good cruising zone with labyrinths, nooks, curvatures, glory holes, and red lights without considering its intrinsic socio-political history. Beyond the aestheticization of cruising culture, here meticulous, one is lead to question the need for sexual discretion to begin with. If homosexuality is entering the same social strata as heterosexuality, why are spatial conclusions about the future of cruising being drawn from its oppressive past? The space enables visitors to co-exist surrounded by inextricably erotic subtext without feeling any obligation to actually cruise or subvert its inherent guilt, enhancing collectivity in a way that seemed refreshingly post-Grindr. Cruising has its own desirable framework for spatial arrangement, but darkness and privacy are still measures taken to escape violence and persecution in some countries, and not simply characteristics of what might render cruising so deviantly pleasurable for others.

by Claudio Santoro

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Adriana Ramić and Micah Schippa Hotel Art Pavilion / New York

For Belgian-born literary theorist Paul de Man, semiotics freed literary theory from not just an obligation to portray truth, but also its capacity to. Signs described other signs, and language, reduced to meta-language, could only describe itself. While New Critics saw semiotics as a crisis, de Man, foreshadowing post-structuralists like Deleuze, argued that theory was meant to be an ouroboros: self-referential and asymptotic, munching its own tail, theory existed to show off its limits. “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory,” wrote de Man. “Theory ‘is’ itself this resistance.”

A “resistance to theory” links de Man with “Touch is a Bridge,” Adriana Ramić and Micah Schippa’s two-person show at Hotel Art Pavilion, as does, circuitously, Nazism. In 1941, de Man became the official book reviewer for Le Soir, a viciously anti-Semitic publication, ceasing only when his uncle, a Nazi-controlled puppet minister, was targeted by the Belgian Resistance. In 2014, Ramić visited Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, which houses, among other things, the Museum of Evolution. Stalin gifted the building in 1952, as the city struggled to repair itself from the Nazis’ 1944 razing. Ramić photographed the Museum’s fossil collection, then fed the photos into IBM Watson’s visual recognition software. Physical iterations of Watson’s bloopers — a doorbell, a bread roll — are pinned to the gallery wall, while a taxonomy of dehydrated-looking found objects, assembled by Schippa, rest on the gallery floor. A preserved mushroom lies next to a vertebra, itself perpendicular to a butter knife, black with rust. Making use of Hotel Art Pavilion’s location (a shed in the curators’ backyard), Schippa also dug a square sized to the dimensions of the gallery. Titled, aptly, “Excavation at the dimensions of the gallery,” the piece sits in front of the shed like an earthy doormat.

Much like de Man and the post-structuralists, Ramić and Schippa use formalism as their raw material. For Schippa, classificatory hubris is undercut by nature: during the opening it rained, and worms wiggled up through the dirt square. Ramić uses apophenia — or a propensity for seeing meaningful links in unrelated phenomena — to foreground the information age’s approach to data. Data miners, like post-structuralist theorists, study the conditions of knowledge production: stable frameworks are deconstructed into more and finer units of data to reveal, if not truth, then the closest simulation of it. Post-structuralist analysis can of course be used to critique the way data is framed as objective evidence. As Ramić points out, the “connections” between data points are often meaningless and biased, even though “data as truth” claims are used to justify surveillance and extraction. Yet “Touch is a Bridge” felt exhausted with post-structuralism as well. White cube aesthetics critiqued but also replicated: the exhibit is an admittedly scrambled white box with things neatly displayed inside.

by Charlie Markbreiter

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Armature Globale: Unapt Environments / Milan

Young architects seeking to work against architecture’s stagnancy seem to be more engaged with producing exhibitions and publications than buildings. Most clients rarely venture into the risky, experimental side of architecture and the profession seems sclerosed by its own past heroes and bypassed global techno-corporate systems.

If this is a rather common observation, at least the Milan-based architecture office Armature Globale is trying to tackle the issue head-on. Founded and directed by architect and curator Luigi Alberto Cippini in 2016, the practice is committed to remedying architecture’s malaise by “forgetting radicality and focusing on aggression,” as its founder says. Its design methodology is to openly adopt conflict, violence, force, and assault in the production of buildings, in direct opposition to those architects who typically deploy their creativity in resistance to architecture’s inherent violence and the surrounding forces of capitalism — often to the point of being in denial of their own inescapable complicity. It is essential to understand this unique position in order to appreciate the work of Armature Globale, which tends to be as ambitious and obscure as the reality it wishes to expose.

Their latest exhibition, “Unapt Environments,” took place over two days at the end of March in Milan, inside the active construction site of an old chemical paint factory that was in the process of being decontaminated, a few streets away from Fondazione Prada. The show was installed in a large rectangular room exposed to the outside with bare concrete walls, floors, and ceilings. Inside, placed between three hydraulic pile-driver trucks, four architecture models, a series of posters with computer-generated images and portraits, and an exhibition publication were the sole means of unpacking the show’s divergent themes.

Armature Globale: Unapt Environments stress model (detail). Courtesy of Armature Globale.

The two smaller models were precarious assemblages of composite plastics, glass pieces, Kevlar, and carbon-fiber fabrics haphazardly taped together. The other two were 250kg stress models, more appealing and recognizable as the skeleton of a building. Each of the four were developed by Armature Globale with engineering firms DDR and GR10K, as prototypes and proof-of-concept models for a hyper-safe, hyper-structural system for their current commissions. The posters on the walls were all images of either computer screens showing pixelated screenshots of 3-D models inside BIM (Building Information Modeling) software applications or flash photographs of dirty screens through which viewers could discern the black-and-white portraits of four dead twentieth-century architects: Otto Ernst Schweizer, Walter Christaller, Jean Dubuisson, and Xavier Arsène-Henry. This cryptic combination of elements in an already dark and hostile construction site culminated in a catalogue written in a dense strikethrough font, which contained a series of texts by various authors on the models on display and the lives of the figures in the portraits, including a novella titled Eurothriller, set in Swedish energy producer Vatenfall’s administration center in Hamburg City Nord.

“Unapt Environments” is frustratingly indigestible on purpose, which is what makes it worthy of interest. Armature Globale dives deep into the illegible technics of modern power to better reveal their inhuman and deadly grammar. Everything is reframed as part of a totalizing techno-fascistic project: the most important architects of the last century didn’t design buildings, but construction systems that laid the foundation for today’s BIM software, responsible for the erosion of the superficial pseudo-humanism that persists in architecture.

Armature Globale dares to look into the ruthless logic of new construction processes by showing them raw, unedited, and freed from their veneer. And, rather expectedly, the results flirt with an ambiguity that makes their politicization unclear. In fact, at no point does Armature Globale convey any intention or hope that the prevailing power in question can or should be countered, channeled, or bypassed, instead remaining suspiciously silent on the political motives behind their fetish. Are they advancing or resisting a crypto-fascist agenda? Exposing architectural processes is certainly an incisive first step toward intent, but the second needs to be an architectural exploit.

This being said, the work of Armature Globale is still in early stages of development, raising more questions than answers; but their dynamism and aggression must be duly praised for refreshing the discourse of architecture and, hopefully soon, its practice.

by Octave Perrault

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Harmony Hammond Alexander Gray / New York

John Everett Millais’s Autumn Leaves, displayed at the Royal Academy in 1856, was understood as a radical departure from normative modes of narrativity in Pre-Raphaelite art. No discernable story emerges. Instead, there is only the melancholic or joyful cascade of dying flora accompanied by young, rural girls, who are loosely engaged in the labor of burning leaves. Rather than adhering to the expectation for storytelling, Autumn Leaves appeals to light, color, and nostalgia. Leaves were for Millais and many other artists a way to mark time, to evoke a mood without resorting to obvious denotation, to remind us that spring will come again. 

Perhaps the comparison to Harmony Hammond’s Inappropriate Longings (1992) is too obvious, but sometimes meanings line up so tidily as to be astonishing. Hammond’s assemblage of a trough full of fall leaves, a canvas marred with the words “Goddamn Dyke,” and an affixed storm drain could not be more different from Autumn Leaves. It would be easier to make the comparison to Meret Oppenheim, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, or Sheila Pepe, or to wax eloquent about the debates surrounding the relationship between materialism and queer feminism. All of these connections would be true, but to trot them out again would be a critical and historiographic cliché.

Harmony Hammond, Untitled, 1995
Harmony Hammond, Untitled, 1995. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York
© Harmony Hammond/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Instead, I suggest that leaves represent the necessary cyclicality of feminist history, or what historian Joan Scott has called the “fantasy echo” of feminist history. We speak of feminism as having waves, but why not seasons, spells of time that flow into each other unpredictably? Consider, for example, Hammond’s Small Erasures, in which letters from artists declining permission to use their work in Hammond’s landmark book Lesbian Art in America become memento mori, encased in amber. Small Erasures brings the continuing difficulties of lesbian feminism to mind, even as we might consider that tension to be long behind us. Or we might see Untitled (1995) with its beautifully vulvic slit as being evocative of a moment when feminist core imagery was key to changing the conversation around the apolitical masculinity of Minimalism.

This is not to say that any version of feminism is outdated — quite the opposite. What I mean to suggest is that feminism, especially queer feminism, carries with it remnants of everything that has come before, like the hot and humid days that might crop up in the crisp fall. Queer feminism is a cumulative effort that constantly returns to itself, touches itself, articulates itself. 

by William J. Simmons

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Manuel Mathieu Kavi Gupta / Chicago

In what is the artist’s stateside debut, staged at Kavi Gupta, painter Manuel Mathieu presents a new body of work that expands upon his ongoing multilayered research into trauma and memory, and by extension solitude and vulnerability. These poignant and emotionally confrontational paintings leave a piercing impression.

The exhibition, titled “Nobody is Watching,” comprises seven large-scale paintings and a triptych of three smaller drawings that subtly balance the line between figure and abstraction. They recall the work of the late Francis Bacon, from whom Mathieu draws influence. Forms resembling the human figure seemingly suffer in isolation (Selfish Thinking, 2017) or in dark, ominous compositions (Study on Vulnerability, 2018). These paintings are the product of a labor-intensive process known as frottage, in which paint is first applied to the canvas before the artist methodically alternates between scraping off existing layers and adding fresh coats.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1986, Mathieu is naturally influenced by his home country’s complicated political and social history. Thus, while the show at Kavi Gupta does not explicitly focus on Haiti itself, one can sense how the intense environment in which Mathieu grew up manifests itself in his work: the acutely human experiences of memory and trauma, and the raw vulnerability inherent within them.

Installation view of Nobody is Watching by Manuel Mathieu
Installation view of Nobody is Watching by Manuel Mathieu. Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta.

The delicate subtext is intensified by the artist’s brush with death when struck by a speeding motorbike while studying in London at the Goldsmiths MFA program (from which he graduated in 2016). The accident severely impacted Mathieu’s memory, leading to a four-month hiatus from painting while in recovery, providing ample time for contemplation preceding his comeback.

“Nobody is Watching” refers to this period of introspection and recuperation in which Mathieu felt isolated amid his own thoughts. As such, the exhibition is a highly personal meditation upon the concepts of trauma and memory, which ultimately translates into a cathartic exercise in self-reflection. Because the questions raised in his practice are so intimate, ingesting the works is a highly affective undertaking in which images linger in one’s memory long after exiting the gallery space.

by Caroline Elbaor

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