Altering our architectures in ways that make us change
The museums we so proudly build and put into the service of art have a strange habit of shaping the ongoing production of that art. “Temporary Structures: Performing Architecture in Contemporary Art’’ is an exhibition that seems acutely alive, and engagingly resistant, to this phenomenon.
Organized by Dina Deitsch, the show was more than five years in the making. It features work by 13 artists who recruit the premises and freedoms of performance art in order to play various kinds of havoc with architecture.
The result is a show that’s as rambling, ad hoc, and unexpectedly exciting as its venue: the six-level, nook-and-cranny-harboring main building of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’’ That was said by Winston Churchill after the House of Commons had been bombed by the Germans. But it might just as easily have been said by any halfway observant artist after the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or for that matter Norman Foster’s Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Deitsch starts with Churchill’s line as her premise, but then lets her artists - many of whom were commissioned to make, or perform, new work specifically for this show - veer off into some pretty un-Churchillian territory.
Who knows, though? Perhaps, as the leader of a dwindling empire, the pug-faced old warrior might have related to “Grow or Die,’’ a more than weeklong performance by Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson. The duo spent eight days in the deCordova engaged in a building game: Starting with two wooden brackets, some hanging ropes, and caches of food, water, clean clothing, and building materials, they set themselves the task of constructing a suspended structure that would take them from the museum’s entrance level up three floors to the corridor outside the cafe, without touching the floor.
The structure they built - a sort of hanging catwalk - remains in place, and it’s a wonder to behold. Like a redundant spine, it runs along the side wall of the massive main staircase, then winds across a mezzanine before climbing alongside more stairs.
A series of small monitors connected to the structure at various points shows footage of the two artists in action, including uncomfortable footage of a bad cut Paulson sustained on the first day.
The title, “Grow or Die,’’ sounds reassuringly figurative. But you wonder, looking at the aftermath, whether the work’s injunction didn’t once or twice come perilously close to ending in actual death. At any rate, the work struck me as richly suggestive - a reminder of the nerve-racking and uncomfortable beauty of our human habit of making things up as we go along.
If “Grow or Die’’ is the backbone of “Temporary Structures,’’ its nervous system is a series of three films by Gordon Matta-Clark screening in the Marnie Wengren Gallery on level one.
Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell University and French literature at the Sorbonne. (He was in Paris during the upheavals of 1968.) A tremendously generative figure in avant-garde art circles in New York in the 1970s, he brought an anarchist’s instincts, a poet’s delight, and a sculptor’s sense of latent form to preexisting architecture. He died in 1978, at 35.
He is best known for making targeted interventions in abandoned buildings. In “Splitting,’’ for instance, one of the films shown here, he cut two parallel vertical lines through all the structural surfaces of a one-family home in Englewood, N.J.
A sliver of light, like one of Barnett Newman’s painted “zips,’’ thus shone through the house, lending ruptured architecture a rapturous glow. (Matta-Clark’s hand-held camera work gives the film, at this point, the hallowed flavor of a reenacted near-death experience.)
Alterations to the house’s masonry at one end then caused the structure to tip open. The split house was left like that for three months before it was, according to the film, “demolished for urban ‘renewal.’ ’’
That detail matters, and is in the spirit of the whole show, which is intent on reminding us that everything has its lifespan, and that renewal and demolition are relative, perhaps even interchangeable terms.
Matta-Clark’s “Clockshower’’ - the artist audaciously showering, brushing his teeth, and shaving before a clockface atop a 13-story building in New York - brings his contribution more squarely into the realm of performance. It’s a hoot, perfectly blending the deadpan of Andy Warhol with the bravado of Buster Keaton.
You see Matta-Clark’s work echoed throughout the show. “Splitting,’’ and a related film, “Bingo/Ninths,’’ seem to feed into works such as Sarah Oppenheimer’s “P-010200,’’ a specially commissioned shard-like configuration of planes of glass that cuts through one of the gallery walls.
One can see through it to the building’s exterior glass wall and the park beyond. But one’s vision is also skewed and confounded by the system of transparent and mirrored planes. From some vantage points it’s possible to see several views at once. The experience is like standing inside a cubist painting.
Matta-Clark’s anarchic refusal to take things as given is there, too, in Kate Gilmore’s video of herself breaking into - and then out of - a tall, thin box made of plasterboard. Gilmore films herself from above. The combination of claustrophobia and frenetic response gives the piece real bite.
And then there is Mary Ellen Carroll’s “prototype 180.’’ The work is a video and text installation, but at the center of it is Carroll’s 180-degree rotation of an actual house. The text installation - a list of various political decisions and economic incidents over several decades - suggests that Carroll wants us to read Matta-Clark’s poetic gestures in a more socially savvy context (no zoning laws in Houston; the crisis in housing, etc.). But she goes about it with too much earnest zeal for me.
I liked better some of the work exploring movement, including a series of videos of choreographed movements filmed in the deCordova’s galleries and library by robbinschilds, a collaborative made up of Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs. Also, Vito Acconci’s delightful “Instant House,’’ made in 1980: You sit on a wooden swing, and, by the action of pulleys, your weight pulls up from the floor four walls. American flags are painted on the inside of the walls (all you can see from your perch on the swing). Soviet flags are on the outside.
Droll. Dated. A bit goofy. But fun.
All in all, it’s really a perfect exhibition for the deCordova, with all its crazy, hidden spaces, to stage. And perhaps no piece better exemplifies my deliberate use of that word “stage’’ than robbinschilds’s set of instructions to audience members, telling them, in the voice of a ruthless yoga instructor, how to move around one of the smallest of the museum’s galleries.
Watch other people do it. Do it yourself. Shape the architecture. Let it shape you.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.