Architects: it isn’t always about you

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Andreas Gursky’s work at the Venice Art Biennale



The shortlisting of the architecture collective Assemble for the Turner Prize has been a surprise to most commentators in the architectural world. Largely because their story seems rather familiar. Here are a group of young trainee architects and their friends in other fields who came together to turn a former petrol station into a cinema in Clerkenwell in the summer of 2010. There project was architectural in purpose and ambitious in its wider intention. Let’s not just turn this petrol station into a cinema but all the other 4,000 odd abandoned ones across the country. It was executed well. The choice of materials was ingenious, particularly the luxurious ‘ruched’ curtain made from a metallic vapour control layer normally inserted in a buildings envelope. It was in a rich vein of temporary, self-initiated work brought to London by the Paris based collective Exyzt and the Berlin-based group Raumlabor.

We have become used in architecture to this type of practice; typifying what is known as social entrepreneurship, the model of which owes a lot to Raumlabor. The pioneering German group’ s practice of using temporary, self-built structures as a catalyst to discussed permanent changes to public space with the public that would use it and their influence has been immense. Indeed the late Matthias Rick and his cohorts set the purpose and direction to a very key strain of contemporary architectural production, channeling Cedric Price’s later understanding of temporary structures as catalysts and propositions to further more permanent structures. Assemble have used this tactic to good effect in their work around the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as well as the street in Liverpool for which they were nominated.

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Tetsuya Ishida at the Venice Art Biennale

So it is very tempting to see the Turner Prize nomination for Assemble as having something to say about architecture, even if the award comes from the art world. But whilst the nomination does shine a light on the development of a particular kind of approach to architects self-initiating and building structures, sometimes architects, it’s not really about you. Yes, the development of pavilions from being a pedagogical endeavour – the pavilions that get erected out front of the Architectural Association every summer are an example – to being an end goal is a sign of our times. It has also been the foundation on which practices like Studio Weave or Carmody Groarke have cut their teeth. We have moved from a culture prevalent in the 1980s when architects who were not yet working created extravagant, apparently unbuildable projects on paper to a different world in which they actually build projects; albeit infinitesimally smaller, temporary structures.

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Madhusudhanan at the Venice Art Biennale

But this award – one must remember – comes from the art world and, if an overview of the central exhibitions at the core of the recently opened Venice Art Biennale is any indication, it is representative of a very particular crisis within that world. The nomination for Assemble for an art prize is symptomatic of a part of the art world reaching out for significance in a rather dishonest way; appropriating a practice that ultimately shares little of its concerns. The Turner Prize committee have adopted a strategy that attempts to address the same crisis at the heart of the The Venice Art Biennales central exhibition All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor. The key exhibitions in the Giardini and Arsenale, curated by Enwezor are typified by a rootless search for an idea of political engagement. The exhibition’s global reach making this phenomena even more endemic to current art world production.

The readings of Marx’s Das Kapital are just the beginning. (The whole thing is being read in half hour chunks between now and the end of November.) Madhusudhanan’s series Logic of Disappearance, A Marx Archive is a series of charcoal drawings on paper, which repositions a bust of Marx with no apparent end. There are endless drawings of riots on the opposite wall by another artist. Some old Andreas Gursky’s of trading floors. Some of Tetsuya Ishida’s teenage manga pieces. In another room in the former Italian pavilion in the Giardini, the works of the photographer Walker Evans look down in judgement on the sorry proceedings: essays in composition, mastery of technique and humility, they do not say anything, they just record what is there, unflinchingly.

Not that this is the only strategy that the artist must follow, merely that they reveal a hidden truth about the practice of art that is unable to do anything other than criticise itself. As JJ Charlesworth, Associate Editor of Art Review has very elegantly suggested, this particular Biennale has “a bad case of disavowal – of not wanting to admit that you’re part of a system that is the problem, not the solution”.  There is very little consideration of the historical relationship between the particular institution of the Biennale to the world which it purports to critique. There is very little sense of a world beyond the trade of art.

I think this reading could be very well applied to the appropriation of Assemble’s work into the world of art practice. The Turner Prize has reached out to a practice whose work denotes the activist potential of art. It is in many ways a more dramatic move than the endless naval gazing of so-called “political art” but whilst I think that Assemble’s work is well-meaning and I certainly wouldn’t wish to do them out of the much needed support, I do think this is mainly about an ongoing crisis in the art establishment which wishes to break out beyond itself. Ironically they may very well have given a leg-up to a bunch of budding creative entrepreneurs.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Art and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Architects: it isn’t always about you

  1. Good piece – how true. Also interesting that much of the art, architecture and general media coverage avoids any real mention of the role of the local Liverpool people and their community land trust – the driving force behind the project and Assemble’s client.

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