Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts.
Recasting our conception of interior architecture and décor, Question the Wall Itself explores artistic practices and artworks that inhabit and articulate the spaces between artwork, prop, and set or stage. From the evocation of an anteroom or entryway to such unlikely interiors as a prison cell or commode, to a library, a showroom, and even a winter garden, the exhibition hosts a series of psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered interiors hailing from a truly international array of cultural contexts, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, the United States, and beyond. Exploring how we trace, embellish, and disentangle social conventions, habits, and cultural codes, the exhibition reveals a public and critical dimension of artists’ engagement with interiors since the 1970s. Serving as a platform for what can at first glance appear to be intimate, hermetic, and even personal modes and moods of artistic address, décor reveals itself to be a resilient and persuasive minor key for artistic criticality and questioning the contemporary.
Suggesting a new hybridity that emerges from contemporary rather than modernist aesthetics, social and historical commentary is embedded within presentations that recall the performative staging of a film set or a showroom, with styles borrowed from house and history museum displays and even social clubs. Through artistic procedures of defamiliarization, fragmentary contextualization, and the use of provisional personae and storyboard-like plot development, the viewer passes through a series of interiors in which the active construction of identity holds uneasy sway over the place of exhibition making itself, with the viewer implicated in an unfolding drama, whether as protagonist or mere passerby. This staging is cinematic but not cinema, house museum but not museum.
One of the exhibition’s guides and tutelary spirits is the Belgian artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers, who turned the phrase esprit “décor” in reference to his late series of mostly room-scale interior artworks known as the Décors. In 1975 he explained, “I have attempted to articulate differently the objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating to the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself.”1 Beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, Broodthaers deployed décor as critical stagecraft and an approach to mise-en-scène, creating a series of highly designed and convention-altering spaces that prompted questions, among them: Am I looking at art, product, or an image-language mix from an advertorial or political campaign? What is this mix of nationalistic emblems, comic props, and poetry? Why does this feel globalized and nostalgic at the same time? Broodthaers offered up a mixed-up sociopolitical space and framework in between private and public, commercial and intimate, outward facing and by invitation, status revealing and eccentric, a more resilient border space, an interior within critique. The format of the interior that emerges here is a space of choice and decision making, a space of the artist-curator but also of the display of taste, a portrait of sensibility and identity constructed.
With Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014), the feel of nonintegration and epochal slippage extends to the future of Arab art as his speculative museum fiction unfolds in a sequence of eleven partitioned or excerpted wall fragments purportedly taken from displays at new museums of modern Arab art around the world. Raad’s speculative panels, painted in varying colors and tones, each contain a different laser-cut shadow-like form embedded in the center, accented by a different style of applied marquetry along the base, suggesting parquet floor patterns sampled from different museums. Letters to the Reader is itself part of an ongoing larger project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun by Raad in 2007, that inquires into and critically engages the emergence of new platforms for framing and valuing modern and contemporary Arab art. By addressing and questioning an accelerated present in which some of the largest and most expensive new contemporary art museums are being built in the Arab world, Raad’s museum fiction cuts into the walls themselves of the speculative museum futures for modern and contemporary art.
In Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012), an uncooperative design traces onto the wall itself the second thoughts and provocative manifesto-like stances of two radical architectural thinkers active in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Taking as his point of departure a photograph of the entryway of an exemplary modernist two-family house built in the 1960s in his home city of Recife, de Andrade mimics the geometric pattern of the tiled entryway connecting the two dwellings and linking them to the street. The ideological aspirations of this private and public modernist foyer become touchstones for de Andrade’s room-scale installation in which the patterns formed by 340 red, yellow, blue, and black fiberglass tiles both reveal and obscure vinyl wall text with quotations from the artist and architect Flávio de Carvalho and the architect Marcos Vasconcellos. Creating an antistyle that combines competing designs, the artist lays bare the cultural aspirations and social fissures that continue to ripple through Brazilian city life, captured in a passageway.
Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013), modeled on the dimensions of the salon or living room of the architect Adolf Loos’s 1930 Villa Müller in Prague, is a makeshift, scaled-down version of Loos’s original footprint. McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil rendering mimes Loos’s signature use of green Cipollino marble within the villa’s living room to outline and frame the primary social space in one of his signature buildings. But here the approximation is unfaithful and knowingly awkward. Rather than homage, Loos House is an uneasy quotation of Loos’s concept of Raumplan, or spatial plan, wherein interiors look down, up, and askance into the next room and there are constant shifts in volume and level as you cross over a given threshold in the interconnected complex of rooms.2 McKenzie appears to approach architecture, and here a pinnacle of interior architecture, with exactly the confidence of occupying a caesura in that her work posits and frames the empty volume of the Loos House Raumplan as yet open to questioning and repurposing. The use of décor as decoy reveals McKenzie’s interest in the unfaithful copy as a form of critique, and questions the reverence within the reference, framing an uneasy time and place, with family dysfunction and sexual subcurrents suddenly visible and readily traced.
For Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Here and There (1978/2016), an anteroom was pitted against its counterpart, the neutral gallery space, disrupting viewers’ expectations as they turned the corner in what was sequenced as a domestic entryway. A series of overlapping panels leaned against the gallery walls, each picturing a provisional character captured in different domestic scenes and poses. A back is turned, hands reach for a teacup, a shadow is elongated by the setting sun coming in through a window: the effect is like that of a storyboard held in reserve and only partially revealed. Making a distinctive style of the chaptered sequencing familiar from showrooms, Chaimowicz offers us a showroom of the uncanny in his décor, the familiar yet “violated, modified” returns continually and is done with incredible élan. Playing off the familiar consumerist behavior of flipping through a magazine for the bits and pieces you might fancy or passing quickly from one display to another that catches the eye, Chaimowicz is a master of inverting consumerist taste. He achieves a disorienting feeling of recall yet dislocation.
Existing as the index for an unrealized novel titled Crocodile Tears, Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) weaves a complex network of associations and seductive pairings simply through the proximity and promiscuity of the index. The absence of the body, in this case the novel itself, is substituted for by an index of artistic, literary, and theoretical references that speak symptomatically and playfully to one another, detailing aspirations, influences, fears, and even pretensions while inviting readers to imagine their way through the architecture of the unwritten yet mapped-out labyrinth. For his most in-depth index to date, Cesarco has made a sequence of indexes to imaginary books dating back more than fifteen years, tracing a form of self-portrait and, more to the point, a compressed interior portrait of artistic sensibility. As he has described it, the column-like infrastructure of the index allows for a “text that is a half-way biographical and half-way theory text; it is extremely personal, at times even hermetic, yet full of clichés.”3 Cesarco’s Index traces and makes present the objective construction of sensibility, laying out an interior architecture within the subjective.
Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) gives spectral presence and overlapping temporality to the disappearance of the sex industry from Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood at the time. As part of a gentrification campaign engineered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the peep shows, sex clubs, and gay theaters that populated Midtown were shuttered in an effort to make Times Square a homogenized tourist destination. A corner of the gallery demarcated by gray paint and a string of blue lights that conjure the abrupt turn of an entryway into a sex shop, Wall marks the outline of a threshold to a sexual interior, a boundary to the illicit. The installation at the Walker is accompanied by a nonarchival sequence of Polaroids taken by Burr in preparation for this exhibition as bare décor. Shown more than twenty years after they were taken, the photographs serve as a faded, quivering index and archive of an economy and subculture cleansed from the center of Manhattan.
Wall is paired here with a newly commissioned sculpture, Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016), which finds Burr responding to and echoing the zigzag design of the architect Philip Johnson’s IDS Center building in downtown Minneapolis. The signature element of the building is what Johnson called the “zog,” a distinctive step-back design that effectively creates a series of corner offices, and thereby spaces of power and validation, on several floors of the skyscraper. Transposing the overlapping sequence into a large-scale sculpture in which photographic images are embedded in the “interior,” Burr surfaces the contradictory nature of the unfolding stack, or zog. By repeating the previously singular gesture of the zog and populating it with an eros-laden yet interrupted sequence of images, Burr ruptures the idealized space of power.
Paul Sietsema’s film installation Empire (2002) pivots on the questioning of representation and value as it presents a layered depiction of the interior of the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s Manhattan living room. Having created a model of the critic’s space as it was shot and glamorized in the pages of Vogue in 1964, Empire quickly begins to layer in on itself, demonstrating a formal principle of comparison and contrast that inducing a tension between incident and acutely planful correlation that is characteristic of much of his work.
Prior to the reveal of Greenberg’s art-filled living room, Empire holes its way through a space reminiscent of the grotto-like cavities and interiors within the architect and artist Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–1960). Sietsema intercuts and layers spiraling shots that pass through perforated cave-like passages of a kindred model constructed by the artist to echo what appears as a primal and impossible interior. Providing episodic counterpoint are two further model interiors, also constructed by Sietsema: the interior of Greenberg’s Manhattan living room, based on the magazine spread, and a rendering of the ultimate period room, the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The latter is an eighteenth-century Rococo oval salon that is pristinely preserved, with gilded carvings and embedded mirror panels, within the now state-owned complex that also houses part of France’s national archives. While the former represents a zenith of a particular moment in American abstract painting asserting its vanguard status—including the implicit economics and power dynamics of the era’s signature art critic trumpeting his impressive private collection of representative works from the moment—the latter salon stands in for the unchanged, unaltered, historicizing period room emblematic of an aesthetic era synonymous with national style. The meticulous comparative nature of Empire approaches an ethnographic aesthetic in Sietsema’s film as epochal time becomes prismatic.
In her ongoing body of work China, Nina Beier pairs hand-painted porcelain vases with hand-painted porcelain dogs ordered from separate custom companies in Italy but chosen to be roughly the same size. Beier cuts jagged holes into each, creating a highly artificial effect that mimics “a form of logic from cartoons, where there is no difference between the abilities of dogs and vases,” as the artist has described the purebred face-off. Cultivated style and pedigree variation are brought into comic adjacency and punched through with a cartoon-like immediacy. The aesthetic of ornamentation achieves a new pop criticality as the hole punched into the dog reveals it to be an empty decorative surface, while the vase loses its function as a vessel and flattens into nothing more than pattern. As Beier has stated, “Both of them disclose their empty inner anatomy and somehow meet, in between image and object.”4
Temporal distancing meets formal device in the mirror panel paintings of Nick Mauss, whose deportations and refractions of viewing were initially conceived as framing devices for a mini-exhibition organized by the artist within a retrospective otherwise devoted to the American painter, poet, and stage designer Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). Embedded within the 2014 exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Mauss became surrogate and positioned his paintings as “intervals” alongside a selection of archival material devoted to Stettheimer’s poetry. Opening up the room to reflection and projection by a viewer, Mauss’s mirror paintings elaborated a consistent motif within Stettheimer’s paintings, that of still-life compositions of flowers. Mauss elaborates on Stettheimer’s idiosyncratic view of still-life paintings becoming like portraits of people in one’s life just as people take up floral attributes, whether individuals, lovers, groups of friends, or professional associates. The resulting composition, F.S. Interval II (2014), is a multipanel door-scale mirror painting reminiscent of the folds in a dressing room mirror. Allowing for a multiperspective reflection of the viewing body, it is both refracted homage to Stettheimer and an extension of the exhibition space. The painting depicts bodies and abstract marks but also the spectator’s reflection in a prismatic embrace, an effect that the artist has described as “a chamber full of disconnected individuals and affects still somehow being together.”5
Regularly hemming a performing body into an interior, Shahryar Nashat’s moving image works fragment the body into an at times claustrophobic frame, revealing context and task only through a repetitive emphasis on highly choreographed micro-gestures and heightened Foley sound. Nashat’s survey of a highly functioning yet partial body prompts a new awareness of a common experience, the newly prosthetic digital augmentation of contemporary life, in the installation Present Sore (2016). As the view of Present Sore moves incrementally upward, a detail image of Paul Thek’s sculpture Hippopotamus (1965), from the Technological Reliquaries series, interrupts. Seemingly throbbing behind Plexiglas, the body is put twice at remove—walled off and fragmentary—yet maintaining the wounded technology of its time, the violent trace. The screen multiplies and divides as the emphasis and focus on heel, wrist, knee, hip, neck, or shoulder—places where movement is most implicit in classical figurative sculpture—become newly cosmetic, motorized, and wounded, and thereby a composite body emerges, one fit for a high-definition time.
The pedestal or base that would hold such an exemplary figure in classical or figurative sculpture—think the erotic writhing and athletic twists and turns of Rodin—is retired by Nashat in favor of a digital composite of the virtual body. Giving the support structure of the plinth a newly decorative role as bystander to the augmented screen representation, he refers to the pedestals as having been laid off until further notice, titling his work Chômage Technique (2016), which indicates a workforce now redundant. With a playful correspondence made between pedestal and foot, the support structures that keep things upright, Nashat leans his pedestals into a nearly supine position, in which they become the figurative work rather than the armature. The masquerade is heightened via faux-marble finishes and bright coloration as Nashat’s benches and columns dress up, playing the parts of voyeur and passerby.
Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009–) parcels out the ultimate resting place and décor, the grave. A black marble tombstone is placed in the gallery (according to the artist’s instructions) and adorned and incised with gold lettering bearing the phrase “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” the chosen epitaph of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Promised in the exhibition narrative and deed (and thereby within Question the Wall Itself) to serve as the gravestone for the artist’s father, Phung Vo, on his death, all your deeds will be transferred to Copenhagen at that time but remain in the Walker’s permanent collection until then. At the close of the exhibition, all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble will be transferred to the upper garden of the Walker’s campus within a copse of trees, waiting in the hold, in reserve, for its ultimate transfer to Copenhagen, while inside the museum the empty vitrine is its dialogue partner, content at present to question the wall itself.
- Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.
- The theatrical impulse within Loos’s Raumplan can be investigated as one in which the interior is a space of persuasion and orchestrated seduction: “The very notion of shifting floor levels finds some Viennese precedent in theatrical scenography, of the nineteenth century but also the twentieth.” Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 142. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s Raumbuhne, or “spatial stage,” was contemporaneous with Loos’s Rufer House and has connections to Arnold Schoenberg’s investigation of spatial music.
- Alejandro Cesarco, quoted in announcement for exhibition at Artpace San Antonio, 2010.
- Nina Beier, in “Nina Beier, Cash for Gold, at Kunstverein Hamburg, July 11, 2015” (interview with Chris Fitzpatrick conducted on June 1–2, 2005), Mousse.
- Nick Mauss, “Quivers in Time and Place,” in Florine Stettheimer, ed. Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller (Munich: Lenbachhaus and Hirmer, 2014).