Outland a curated show
Timed to coincide with the London Festival of Architecture 2010, ‘Outland’ is a curated show that presents works by contemporary artists that engage with notions of alternative colonies, shelter or creating environments and cultures from found, appropriated and manipulated materials. But, it does so from a particular angle.
As any survey of contemporary art tendencies in the past decade will show, architecture in its broadest sense has become highly visible within the work of many contemporary artists. In the hands of artists, architecture as a pivotal intersection for raising discussions and ideas about other topics – whether formal, ideological or social- has become one of the dominant concepts within contemporary art. From key locations for films and photography that explore the affective impact and ideological residues contained within actual buildings through to documentary-like works that explore the social impact of urban design; from installations and sculptures that offer up models or mimic construction techniques for formal reinterpretation to works that replicate architectural vernaculars only to disavow their usual functions, contemporary art is awash with visual languages that directly engage with the discipline commonly conceptualized as ‘architecture’.
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Outland narrows its focus on this broad and sprawling tendency to specifically consider works by a cohort of international artists making work independently of each other. Within these works we find an even more specific intersection between a visual language in which architectural imagery is used specifically in combination with elements that evoke ideas of ‘the outsider’; that human experience that we readily understand as existing –in reality or as fantasy- outside of the normative societal experience.
Perhaps it is not too presumptive to suggest that within the work of the included artists we are also required to understand a certain romantic reading of what it is to be ‘outside’; not limited to – nor unequivocally excluding- Romanticism, but certainly to engage with the romantic potential in what it is to be outside of convention, even if it only turns out to be the romanticism of the gutter and the dissolute.
Within many societies, the meaning and qualities of what it means to be within, to be part of society, is counterbalanced by the potential for what it is to be outside, each of these possibilities codified, modified and, ultimately, reintegrated through the names for them. From outlaw to monk, remittance man to dissident, each term clarifies and locates a series of qualitative expectations. There is, perhaps, a certain irony that the naming of names is enough to reclaim, let alone the act of expressing an experience. In Sartre giving us the identikit and Camus’ giving us a name, the notion of l’etranger, coincidently created a template for desire that makes it impossible for anyone to truly be ‘outside’, except, perhaps, in the inevitable similarity of the individual subjective experience of an existential reality of affective isolation and alienation. In calling oneself ‘a punk’ or ‘an anarchist’ one effectively takes one’s place within society using the very words that profess the opposite.
A bizarre haircut or throwing a bomb. Without such naming terms – the punk and the anarchist- one could, for a fleeting moment, perhaps, remain on the outside. Once named, all comes within, even if it requires a new term to locate a previously undefined set of modalities.
Furthermore, all of these names, these words for creating new conventions, when expressed by the dominant discourse, begin to distill images: the beatnik dresses in a certain style; the hippie favours particular modes of social communication. And, in defining or allowing the distillation of their own visual culture of resistance –and, ironically, creating the means for their own reintegration into the mainstream- architectural language, interior or exterior, becomes an essential component of the fuller picture. Save for that one fleeting, nameless moment in which some kind of autonomous freedom may have been possible, the ontology demands that mainstream society develops an image, right down to a picture of the habitat, of even its most wayward species. The New Age Traveller gravitates to specific aesthetics and structural choices for his or her abode. The revolutionary, even in denying the importance of interior design, makes an identity statement.
But, if language is the restraint by which all those on the outside are ultimately fettered once more to society, visual art operates in a realm in which the theoretical possibilities and desires to truly remain something that is neither ‘self’ nor codified ‘other’ is possible. Language, with its definition-loving penchant for dictionaries and lexicons, can never entirely retain the multiplicity and ambiguities that imagery and visual languages can; at once possibly coherent without being constrained.
Evoking ideas of counter-cultural uses of the physical environment, fantasy Utopias (that might equally prove Dystopian), hippie opt-out societies, recycled material or even alternative realities, ‘Outland’ traces how a number of highly current ideas about resistance architectures and alternative environments have seeped through into contemporary art. And how, in crossing into the realms of art, they are naturally altered to develop new ideas, critiques and discourses.
In the enigmatic paintings of Willem Weismann or the works on paper by Catriona Shaw we do not find the singular statements of language that immediately locate what we are seeing within a particular context that brings their subjects back into the fold. Within the photos of Brigitte Stepputtis or the sprawling maquette-like installation of Angie Reed, we stumble across what might be strange new civilizations defining their own beliefs, edifices and customs without us being able to pin them down with a simple, singular name. Bettina Carl’s deities of the forest may share a certain questionable veracity immediately evident to the viewer with Marnix Kloof/Remote Viewer’s non-existent post-colonial African culture. But, in both cases, the respective habitat’s implied in the works are both anchored to familiar romantic notions of the freedom that lies beyond the familiar quotidian built environment whilst simultaneously acting as a critique of those heavily culturally-defined images of freedom created by inhabitants of Western societies that are, arguably, never able to be free of themselves. And, in Emma Talbot’s ‘The Good Terrorist’ the familiar structure in which the implied narrative of the work plays out only underscores the strength of the ties that bind our ideas of what it is to live outside of normative societal constraints to prescribed maps of a foreign land that probably does not exist.
Fundamentally ‘Outland’ is largely about how text forms an image of architectures that are only really questioned and reconfigured by the immediate image itself; at once engaging with architecture as a concept or discipline and yet, never having the instrumental goal of actually achieving a viable building.