A recent group exhibition at Momenta Art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn entitled Weak Foundations posited the premise that the twentieth-century “built environment” suffers from a “bankruptcy of its ethical rationale wherein all reason beyond that in the service of self-interest is eclipsed.” The exhibition viewed the built environment broadly as architecture, neighbourhood, and most damningly, as real estate. The primary mediums were photographs and videos with a penchant for documenting neglect, disrepair, and change. Gentrification was detailed as a destructive force with the face of prosperity. These urban decay chroniclers of the past and the “revitalized” present had a singular message: the majority of what we build is teardown.
It has become popular of late for young artists to explore architecture and lived-in environments. Most of these artists seem especially interested in how we experience space and the politics of space. Emerging out of a legacy of minimalism—with its fascination with hard-edge industrial materials—many artists have deconstructed the places we live using the same materials and language of builders and demolition crews. This current resurgence of artistic interest in buildings seems to often preclude the bodies and people that inhabit them.
Alex Schweder received a Rome Prize fellow in 2006 and studied architecture at Princeton. His built environments are more like body art, with structures mimicking buildings and playing stand-ins for people. The language Schweder employs to discuss his work is as likely to be anatomical or sexual as architectural. His artworks are stunt bodies.
The permeable relationship between bodies and buildings is central to all of Schweder’s work. For A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day (2006), Schweder created a bungalow-sized, transparent vinyl envelope that measures 6.4 × 8.5 × 2.75 meters and contains four smaller forms alluding to rooms with windows, doors, and interior walls. This site-specific installation happens three times a day (9 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.) with each inflation/deflation lasting forty minutes. It’s an activation of space and material presence that re-energizes the historical feints between a hard-edged formalist minimalism and an aberrant organicist post-Surrealism. Schweder’s ductile building manages to hash the distinction in contemporary sculpture that can be traced back to a postwar duel of solid against sprawl; A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day manages to be both.
Schweder calls it an “architectural performance.” This is a bit like the old “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” quote, except the dance is the form in this case, and talking about music is also integral to the work. Schweder has collaborated twice with composer Yann Novak. Previously, Schweder presented Sick Building Sequence (2006) at Howard House in Seattle with Novak’s accompanying sound composition. The large, clear-vinyl room-within-a-room was filled with swirling, fan-propelled clouds of feathers with black-and-white animation projected onto them. The projection was a movement, taking the viewer down a corridor, up a flight of stairs, and back down again. Novak uses sound not just as a sonic bed (the piece for A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day plays while the house lies deflated), but as an enhancement. He uses samples of ambient sound (in this case the sound of the fans used to inflate the piece) as the soundtrack; captured, layered, enhanced, and edited, the white noise of fans play along.
The house in A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day rises up slowly until it dominates Suyama Space’s exhibition room. At the opening, revelers and well-wishers were crowded out into the strip of uncolonized floor space. It was a tight fit. Taking over like urban sprawl, the piece had created an intimate holding pen of art world types, literally rubbing shoulders. Throughout the night, and in its regular run since, the piece inflates and deflates like real estate speculations. It’s a slow process. The feeling is somehow closer to endurance body art: nothing happens, nothing happens, then a little something, and then something more. The result is a building with inflated rooms that squeeze and rub against one another.
In past works, Schweder has taken on the body and objects. He has built a car wash that leaks (drawing the plans for the building with an X-ray machine), porcelain diptych of his-and-hers urinals, gaudy scratch-and-sniff wallpaper that smells of cheese steak, and a video installation featuring colonoscopy footage of Jell-O. Utility and dysfunction have commingled in all of these works. The whiff of entropy—waste, leakage, and appetite—emits from each work. In his latest projects, Schweder has taken this idea even further. The drollery is gone, replaced with vulnerability. It embodies what his other work has often underscored.
The other recent work that at first may seem like a departure from his inflatable “architectural performances” was shown at Howard House. It was a collaborative piece by Schweder, Richard Barnes, and Charles Mason, created during their tenure as Rome Prize winners. Using photography, video, and sound, the three artists approached the yearly congregation of hundreds of thousands of starlings that swarm to EUR, a suburb of Rome, in the winter months, from varying degrees of proximity. The collaboration—Barnes’ photography, Schweder’s video installation, and Mason’s sound piece—was successful because the artists followed their own obsessions while intersecting into a vision that, if not unified, was very much refractory, sailing off like the starlings themselves, a mass breaking at the edges.
Barnes photographed the birds from afar. The photographs were printed on watercolour paper and look almost like charcoal drawings, something imagined, both beautiful and fearsome. They swarm above buildings like sinister smoke pouring from a bombsite. Mason got closer, creating a sound installation of the starlings, calling, crowing, and flying. He recorded an individual bird and an entire flock, splitting the sound between three channels and playing it in different areas of the gallery.
The mid-distance that Schweder chose for his part of the collaboration is typical of the intimacy and disorientation that imbues all of his best work. Using a stationary zoom lens, he recorded the starlings at the edge of illegibility. Only at certain angled moments do they take on discernible form.
While Barnes captures the birds against recognizable markers such as a street lamp or a building, Schweder creates movement through the use of a four-screen installation that forms a floating room without a ceiling or floor. His four-channel video is one image folded into quarters and projected onto a cube. The viewer can walk around and track the movements of the birds from one screen to the next. There is a grey wooden platform that viewers are invited to stand or lie on and watch the projections. It’s an extension of the “performance” of his inflatables, using the movement of the birds to create an architectural space that is both self-contained––the piece stands on its own––and interactive––it plays off of his collaborators’ work while also capturing a sense of freedom. The birds are flying over EUR, a suburb created by Mussolini as an homage to fascism.
The EUR landmarks from Barnes’s photographs, as seen in the front room of the gallery, are always out of frame in Schweder’s footage, but the sensation of their presence mimics the absence from A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day. As Schweder’s inflatables are substitutes for bodies, the birds in Murmurs (2006) are stand-ins for the bodies of people. Here, the bodies are trapped on a screen built like suspended walls. The structure suggests the EUR buildings while acting as a sky for the action of the creatures. Standing in the centre of the screens, one feels the same unease and slight awe experienced watching Schweder’s inflatables “perform.” It is a more pure and open-ended response to how we experience space and aesthetics in space.
About the Author
Nate Lippens is a contributing art critic to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and former visual arts editor of The Stranger. He was the 2006 recipient of the Hopgood Prize for Fiction and has just completed a novel.