Archive Fever

Archive Fever

Reviews: Exhibits

Archive Fever

Stony Island Arts Bank and Grace of Intention: Photography, Architecture and the Monument

Rebuild Foundation/Theaster Gates, Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
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In an essay entitled “The Body and the Archive,” Alan Sekula defines the archive as both an “abstract paradigmatic entity” and a “concrete institution.” Similarly, Jacques Derrida has written that personal collections, as distinct from archives, mark an institutional passage from private and public. Through a sequence of etymologically rooted statements, Derrida examines the archive within the space of architecture: “there is no archive without a space of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside.” The contents of the archive in Derrida’s construct undergo a process of both de-spatialization and de-temporalization, and yet the archive as building denotes a physical place within a discrete space and time. Similarly, Michel Foucault endows the archive with tectonic metaphors: “statements … are preserved by virtue of a number of supports and material techniques, in accordance with certain types of institutions.” Within this interpretive framework, the exhibition Grace of Intention at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the renovation of the Stony Island Bank on the South Side of Chicago contribute to ongoing narratives on archives, collections, and memorials.

Theaster Gates’s reopening of the bank coincided with the Biennial’s kickoff the first weekend in October and manifests the latest in a series of his interventions on Chicago’s South Side under the aegis of the Rebuild Foundation. A product of two years of surgical restoration, and by far the largest undertaking of its kind by the foundation, the reopened formerly black-owned savings and loan functions at multiple registers as archive, library, gallery, and memorial, holding both permanent collections and the first in a series of installations in the main lobby. In addition to the ground-floor space reserved for rotating exhibits and installations, spread across all other floors of the building are programmed spaces for offices, a library, and several collections, most of which were donated to or purchased by Gates, including the private record collection of the late Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles. An archive of glass slides that was formerly in the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago Department of Art History has also been made available to the public. Around the corner, an imposing two-story hollowed out volume houses the complete holdings of the Johnson Publishing Company’s editorial and research archive. The reprogramming of this particular space is an instance where the most activist modification of the original structure takes place.

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Fig. 1 Library view, Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo by Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing.
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Conceived by the architect Mejay Gula, Gates’s colleague at the university’s Art and Public Life Initiative and the foundation’s so-called building strategist and construction manager, the design of the library utilizes reclaimed material to reinforce a tautology of sorts: the building is a building about building (Fig. 1). It reclaims its status as an institution by enacting the institutionalization of its contents. With a semantic sleight of hand, Gates’s renamed “Arts” Bank announces its rebirth as a repository of a different sort. The past is always present, but with renewal come possibilities for ongoing dialogue and civic engagement. History and the promises of the future are mutually inscribed at all scales.

Gates makes the most of the international attention paid to the exhibition—and, in turn, the city of Chicago—by optimizing the visibility of his practice in linking the site to one of only a handful of “offsite” Biennial venues. Not accidentally, the first corresponding site-specific intervention includes an installation by Carlos Bunga—a Portuguese artist whose oeuvre has long blurred the disciplinary boundaries between art and architecture production. Often deploying low and everyday materials, this installation is no exception. Entitled “Under the Skin,” the work proposes a new armature that recalls the naves and apses of the ancient Roman Basilica. Long sheets of corrugated cardboard and duct tape offset the existing neoclassic space in the restored lobby, which was originally designed by William Gibbons Uffendell and built in 1923 (Fig. 2).

Bunga’s interest in incorporating residual and overlooked wrapping and storage ephemera within a gallery setting elevates the latter to the level of a monument for contemporary art discourse. The container becomes the content. Further, the message of recycling fits neatly with the overall mandate of the foundation: with renovation comes renewal. Rebuild and repackage it and they will come. And while the Biennial itself has been praised for its internationalist and inclusive curatorial attitude, it also reflects a renewed interest in indigenous practices. To borrow the title of Biennial, the state of the art of architecture must engage both the local and the global.

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While not explicitly tied to the Biennial, the exhibition Grace of Intention: Photography, Architecture and the Monument at the Museum of Contemporary Photography also presents a meta architectural argument. The works on view illustrate moments where the notion of memorialization binds content with medium: as the associate director of the museum and curator Karen Irvine contends in a pamphlet accompanying the show, photographs, like monuments, capture a moment in history and yet are subject to the vagaries of circumstance. Both architecture and photography are endowed with shape-shifting powers. To that end, the organization of the exhibition itself is fragmentary; it is as if the museum operates in the thickened poché of the larger campus building, wherein Columbia College Chicago houses studios and offices (Fig. 3). The work is displayed in a broken sequence of galleries, niches, a stairwell, and what appear to be the museum’s holdings in flat files. As such, the space of the museum reiterates the position that the possibility of the visitor gaining a totalizing view of the work is rendered mute. Museums, like archives and like monuments, aspire to create unbroken narratives but rarely do.

Amidst the current conversations that encircle photography and architecture, one could begin with the term “architectural photography,” which presumes a preconceived disciplinary autonomy within the larger discourse on photography. On the other hand, the photography of architecture—or indeed the architecture of photography—encompasses a more heterogeneous field of inquiry that examines those images that function as part of a larger representational and historical matrix. The distinction is neither semantic nor accidental, and one could argue that the work in this exhibition falls into the latter category: Grace of Intention privileges artists who engage history as a fluid narrative, where the medium of photography is deployed in parallel registers as both record and interpretation.

Fig. 2 View of Carlos Bunga installation, Rebuild Foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo by Tom Harris © Hedrich Blessing.
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Among the eight artists represented, the word “monument” adopts different guises. Geert Goiris’s images, for example, harness the legacy of topographic photography by exploring remote locations, which are then monumentalized through photography. On the other hand, Nadav Kander’s images expose past monuments as present ruins—structures that have been rendered banal through their systematic material and metaphoric degradation (Fig. 4). While the structures he photographs are ravaged by time, there is a stillness in the way in which the images are composed. The fissures between beauty and political critique are also evident in the work of Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers. His subject of choice—totemic structures built during the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia—is presented in a series of photographs entitled “Spomenik” (literally “monument” in Serbo-Croatian). Here, history is flattened; with his camera placed frontally and at close range, Kempenaers captures objects whose authorial intentions, however latent, are subverted by the tectonic resilience of concrete. Object trumps idea (Fig. 5).

Ironically, two of the most provocative projects in the show are in fact not photographs but videos: a 3-D animation “fiction” by the French artist Nicolas Moulin and “Entre Temps,” a video installation by Brazilian artist Ana Vaz. Vaz’s video targets postwar French housing estates in a mode not dissimilar to Jean-Luc Godard’s in “2 or 3 things I Know about Her.” Long, deliberate tracking shots are intercut with black-and-white stills of architectural details layered with a voice-over. Another example of what the art historian Giuliana Bruno would call a cinematic journey of “psychogeography” is projected in a stairwell connecting the main gallery to a mezzanine space. Over the course of twelve minutes, Moulin’s piece mines recent architectural history by appropriating and collaging images of now iconic structures like OMA’s CCTV headquarters and I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower. It is with his seamless fly-through of an imaginary, dystopian “anti-city” in the sand that I return to the beginning. Moulin taps into an imaginary archive—an abstract space of knowledge that manifests in a hybridity of history and imagination, of past and potential futures. It is then concretized and represented within the gallery context.

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Fig. 3 Installation view, Grace of Intention: Photography, Architecture and the Monument.
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Nadav Kander, Fengine III (Monument to Progress and Prosperity), Chongqing Municipality, 2007.
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Fig. 5 Jan Kempenaers, 1945, 2010
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One cannot help but reflect on the ways that architecture via photography operates in the Biennial itself. Practices such as Johnston Marklee and MASS studies are examples of a new collaborative ethos between architects and artists, particularly photographers. Iwan Baan, James Welling, and Luisa Lambri, among others, have been enlisted by architects to serve as disciplinary interlocutors. How can photography engage the history of architecture, but more critically (and here I am channeling Claire Zimmerman’s writing on the topic), how does photography short-circuit our perception of architecture?

Meaning is elastic. In both these instances, architecture—in its physical presence but also through images—functions as a kind of palimpsest: the Stony Island Arts Bank and the works represented at the Museum of Contemporary Photography demonstrate the ways in which individual and collective histories have been written and rewritten. In Gates’s community-driven art practice, the material residues of Chicago’s past are re-presented within a future-driven call to action. The collection of fragments on display, within a larger fragment of what used to be, operate within the fluid discourse on and about the built environment.

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