Andy Merrifield, architecture, art, British Library, exhibition, Henri Lefebvre, Laura Oldfield-Ford, Lea Valley, London, New York City, Owen Hatherley, Owen Jones, place, psychogeography, Sarah Sze, Space, urbanism, Victoria Miro Gallery, words
An exhibition of work by the American artist Sarah Sze at Victoria Miro Gallery in London got me thinking again about space and place. She creates strange worlds in space using everyday objects, slightly reminiscent of Heath Robinson or Jean Tingueley. They all have names ‘Model for …’ reinforcing their link to architectural models and giving clues to what they may represent.
‘Model for a Print’ appears to me to represent an artist’s studio. All the spaces created are permeable and not enclosed though, which emphasises their sculptural quality but also their interaction with their environment. Outside flows into inside and vice versa. I think interpenetrable is the architectural terminology. There has been a move towards actual architectural models created in a similar way over the past few years. These would not look out of place in an architectural degree show or even the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition which I visited recently. The ways we represent space are interesting. Architects have no difficulty visualising buildings from plans whereas laypeople generally need an elevation or even better a three dimensional representation whether drawn or as a traditional model.
‘Model for a Weather Vane’ is perhaps the most conventional, more reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, although apparently static. This also looks more like Sze’s Bird House project which came down earlier this year after a popular year displayed on New York’s High Line urban park. Perhaps the public success of that led to her being chosen to represent the USA at the next Venice Biennale.
Sarah said in an interview for the Guardian “The pieces in this show appear to measure space, or time, and now that I have two children, time is more significant. It has more weight.” The piece that particularly deals with time is Pendulum, shown in a darkened upstairs space. This unusually is based on a geometric form, a circle drawn on the floor. The structure is more enclosed than the other pieces but still permeable. I was very aware of wanting to go inside this space though, to be able to see ‘inside’ more closely. It clearly has an edge or boundary and an inside and outside.
The motorised pendulum swings mesmerisingly across the centre from one side to another, in changing arcs, always looking in danger of displacing something from the carefully constructed layers of items. These include an electric fan which stirs pieces of paper creating another moving element. There are paper cups and plastic bottles part filled with mysterious liquids, various types of measuring instruments, sets of plastic mice, paper fish, the whole creation like an elaborate experimental laboratory. The semi darkness and the star or pentagon symbol within the circle suggest magic rituals.
According to the gallery leaflet “Preoccupied with conceptions of how we continually locate ourselves witihn space, Sze’s works unfold as investigations of the psychological, and even emotional , understandings of our environment. We are always finding ourselves in space, oscillating between orientation and disorientation and with each location we experience an evolving history.”
I was thinking about how we experience space, enclosed and unenclosed. Open space always has a liberating emotional effect on me, particularly when moving from an enclosed space into the open. The sea, heaths and moors are extreme examples as distance in a flat space is more evident, but playing fields or a bridge over a river can have the same effect. The Millennium Bridge over the Thames is a good example. It is also a good example of an interpenetrable structure.
Increasingly open space is being controlled, tidied up and often privatised, not a new phenomenon of course, with the 18th century enclosures of common land one of the first politically explosive examples. Shopping malls have been discussed as a recent example. The Olympic Park is a current controversy. This was debated at another Writing Britain event at the British Library which I attended last week. The theme was ‘Journeys Through Urban Britain’ and the panel were Owen Hatherley, author of A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain; Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and Laura Oldfield-Ford, creator of polemical fanzine Savage Messiah, now published as a book. They all record recent changes in urban spaces whether in writing or drawing. Other issues discussed were increasing economic inequality, dystopia, the current lack of government ideas on what we want from our urban spaces, the disappearance of mixed communities and municipal pride and initiatives to reflect that, how to avoid nostalgia and commodification and the effects of this on our urban spaces. They were articulate, angry, radical but in spite of everything ultimately more optimistic now about the future than they were a few years ago, mainly because there is increasing resistance to what is happening and positive action (such as Occupy) being taken to demonstrate this and bring debate into the public eye. It seems appropriate to be writing this on Bastille day and it does remind me of 1968 also.
I followed this with some reading from architectural theory books. With a partner who is an architect I have some good sources to hand! Dialectical Urbanism – Social Struggles in the Capitalist City by Andy Merrifield seemed a good place to start, “exploring the collision between abstract capitalist space and concrete human place” according to a review by Marshall Berman. With examples from New York and Baltimore to Liverpool it makes fascinating reading. The chapter on ‘Disorder and Zero Tolerance: The Dialectics of Dystopia’ is particularly appropriate in this context, which uses the clean up of Times Square in New York and the 1999 Reclaim the Street Festival of Resistance as an example.
Merrifield also quotes Henri Lefebvre from The Production of Space: “Spaces conceal their contents by means of meanings, by means of an absence of meanings or by means of an overload of meaning…spaces sometimes lie just as things lie, even though they are not themselves things.”
Another relevant issue discussed at the Journeys in Urban Britain event is that of tidying everything up – to excess in many people’s eyes. The title essay in the book Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless – Theory and Criticism in Architecture by Robert Maxwell, discusses our reactions to order and disorder. “Order is also something we count on, so long as we can choose it , and not be too subject to it. An excess of order can be just as disagreeable as subjection to disorder.” He discusses this in relation to aesthetics and our reactions to innovation in art and architecture, although using the English landscape garden as a primary example of the ‘carefully careless’. There is also an argument to be made for leaving some spaces alone altogether and not subjugating them to any meaning imposed from outside, although the concept of the ruin and the wild is also criticised as nostalgia. Surely not all space should be subject to control in the name of progress whether through art, leisure or commerce?
- Sarah Sze: ‘I want people to stop and look at my art’ (guardian.co.uk)
- A New Kind of Bleak by Owen Hatherley – review (guardian.co.uk)
- A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, By Owen Hatherley (independent.co.uk)
- On the white bus to Wythenshawe – council housing by design | Owen Hatherley (guardian.co.uk)
- Appropriation of public space on and offline (yrancken.wordpress.com)
- Andrea K. Scott: Sarah Sze’s sculpture from everyday objects. (newyorker.com)
- The White Building/ Lea River Park – review (guardian.co.uk)