Béton / Brute Clues

Kunsthalle Wien, Museumsquartier, Vienna / Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Curated by Vanessa Joan Müller and Nicolaus Schafhausen, Béton was a substantial survey exhibition of 29 artists who use or reference concrete in their practice. In an introductory text, the curators noted the-long held perception of concrete as a material without qualities – ‘the refactory of modern mass society’, associated with the ‘inhospitality of cities’ and grey, uniform buildings. However, in the 1960s and 1970s the use of concrete was cited as a positive affirmation of the present, a break with tradition and an ‘emphatic belief in the architectural malleability of the future’. The urban planning of late Modernism was concerned with ‘implementing a “concrete utopia” based on the most advanced material of the time’ (Exhibition Booklet, p.1).

Tom Watt, Tanad Williams and Andreas Kindler von Knobloch: Brute Clues (2016) Installation shot (Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2016). Concrete, wood, metal railing and water. Image © Project Arts Centre 2016.
Tom Watt, Tanad Williams and Andreas Kindler von Knobloch: Brute Clues (2016) Installation shot (Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2016). Concrete, wood, metal railing and water. Image © Project Arts Centre 2016.

The curators acknowledge the continued possibilities of concrete and the legacy of the style which became known as Brutalism – an unfortunate translation of the French ‘béton brut’ or raw concrete. Brutalism came to signify the architectural intransigence of large social, educational and cultural complexes which were radical for their time but became jaded and fell into disrepute by the 1980s. With concrete currently experiencing a renaissance, the curators identified the duality of expressive aesthetics and ‘Human Modernism’ as an underlying concept of contemporary architecture. The exhibition was inspired by both the problematic legacy and the potential of concrete for the present. Ranging across all media, the works were installed in the rectangular, high-ceilinged Kunsthalle space. A number of approaches were discernable, from architectural and social legacies to more formal responses.

Large concrete buildings privileged circulation and functional uses for idealistic and practical reasons, but with negative social results. Tobias Zielony’s slow photo animation of the Le Vele di Scampia (2009) complex in Naples subtly revealed drug dealing and other covert activities. The Mexican collective Tercerunquinto’s photographs Gráfica reportes de condición (2010-2016) explored segregation in public and private spaces, with overlaid graffitied texts as an inventory of social discontent. Mona Bonvicini’s photographs of modified real estate advertising slogans into graffiti on boundary walls in desolate spaces. Add Elegance to Your Poverty (1990/2016) substitutes for ‘property’, highlighting psychological pressures in a divided city such as Berlin, which implicitly accepted social-deprivation chic as a marketable image.

Liam Gillick’s wall projection showed paired views of Thamesmead, a planned satellite town near London. Stanley Kubrick filmed key scenes of A Clockwork Orange (1971) here. That film reinforced the dystopian reputation of anonymous new suburbs. Gillick’s Pain in a Building (1999) video doesn’t point to anything specific, but hints that little has changed since this town was built. It remains a clean, quiet but slightly depressed place. Ingrid Marten’s video Africa Shafted: Under One Roof (2011) wore its pain more openly. The Ponte City Apartment tower in Johannesburg rises to 54 floors built around a hollow inner core. Eight soaring elevator shafts daily transport residents of many different cultural origins. Filmed in this claustrophobic space, the multitude of interactions, voices and languages, and the generally low-light edgy atmosphere, all point to the failed idealism of this building and stoic human resilience in a vulnerable, degraded, space. Also observing the urban terrain, Susanne Kriemann’s circular wooden panopticon showed aerial views of extensive Swedish post-war social housing projects interspersed with nature shots, taken with a Swedish Hasselblad. This iconic camera was first used for aerial reconnaissance, which the artist sees as mirroring the investigative gaze of modernity.

A more current re-imagining of urban space by Heba Amin used video and voice recordings of the Speak2Tweet platform, which enabled protestors in Cairo to post news before the overthrow of Egyptian President Mubarak in 2011. Tom Burr’s Brutalist Bulletin Board (2001) documented student unrest at Yale University in 1969, when Paul Randolph’s iconic Art & Architecture Faculty building was set alight. A contemporary essay by architectural historian Vincent Scully about the architect noted that a building which is ahead of its time ‘puts demands upon the individual user that not every psyche will be able to meet’. In Scully’s view, despite Randolph having introduced more varied materials and personal spaces than had his functionalist counterparts in the 1950s, the regulatory and restrictive character of such buildings ensured that they remained a space of political contestation. Burr’s visual narrative of revolt also contained images relating to Jim Morrison’s arrest for ‘offending public morals’ during a 1967 concert.

An interest in concrete structures per se inspired Werner Feiersinger’s photographs, which record the cosmopolitan commitment underlying 1960s / ’70s Italian architecture, focussing on both the massive sculptural qualities of bridge supports but also the overgrown barren undersides. Thomas Demand’s photomontage Brennerautobahn (1994), recreated these structures as pristine cardboard models, as if to suggest that imagined versions of great motorway flyovers won’t harbour the urban and social impacts that complicate the initial idealism. The idea chimes with those of Robert Smithson’s 1967 photo-essay ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’: structures which had become relics of a once dominant idea, could be reimagined through the passage of time. Annette Kelm’s photographs House on Haunted Hill (2005 / 2016) examine Ennis House (1923), a ruined Frank Lloyd Wright building near Los Angeles. Coated in textile-style blocks and built in the Mayan Revival Style, it is now considered a preservable ruin. Similarly, Isa Melsheimer displays a series of excellent coloured gouache depictions of now demolished or ruined modernist buildings by eminent architects of the era, including Stirling, Gordon, Kiessling and Bancroft. Her Possibility of a Ruin (2016) sculptures, in which fragile ceramic forms are placed within concrete moulds on plinths, are a part-homage, part-reinterpretation of these buildings.

Few of the works sought to actively reinterpret the theme in this manner, David Maljković’s slide projection with sound being another exception. A crudely built installation of grey shelving, photographs and projections, A Long Day for the Form (2012), set up photographic colour interventions against the uniformity of concrete structures in Novi Zagreb, a typical former Eastern Bloc city. Seeking a specific visualising role for the artist, his interventions emphasise the prevailing grey of the actual surroundings and show the ‘the emptiness of failed utopias’. This project pointed the artist-viewer to a way through the thematic material. A progression from paradise to total ruination was very well done in Cyprien Gaillard’s 16mm film Cities of God and Mirrors (2009). Filmed in a nostalgic 1970s glow, it recalls a spring break by American college students at a Mexican holiday complex, a modernistic building mimicking nearby Mayan pyramids. Dreamy footage of visual pleasure with disco-ball effects gradually descends into an all-consuming implosion, reinforcing the theme of ruination in an age of vacuous pleasure.

Focussing on play, Sofie Thorsen looked at the art-in-architecture playground projects of 1950/1960s Vienna, which were developed as a foil for public art-education. Most of these have disappeared. Modified steel play frames provided abstract-formal props for casually-wrapped inject prints recording the urban planning vision here. In a similar vein, Jakob Kolding’s installation addressed the ambitions behind political and social utopias. Cut-out montages of grey figures in glass cases hinted at masquerade and staged roles, while framed constructivist-style black and white collages depicted young people appropriating suburban areas for their own activities.

Olaf Metzel: Treppenhaus Fridericianum (1987). Installation shot. Beton, Kunsthalle Wien 2016. Photo: Jorit Aust. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Wentrup, Berlin
Olaf Metzel: Treppenhaus Fridericianum (1987). Installation shot. Beton, Kunsthalle Wien 2016. Photo: Jorit Aust. Image courtesy of the artist and Galerie Wentrup, Berlin

Several artists concentrated on the formal qualities of concrete. Isa Genzken’s Luke (1986), a punctured smooth block of concrete, stood elegantly on a metal stand. Olaf Metzel’s green egg-carton facade cladding recreated a similar project from Documenta 8 (1987). Heidi Specker’s photographs were minimalistic interpretations of EUR, near Rome, a fascist-era project which became a film location for Antonioni and Fellini, and is now a residential and business district. In Jumana Manna’s Government Quarter Study (2014), three circular stelae with reliefs were full-size jesomite reproductions of entrance columns in the brutalist-style Government buildings in Oslo. Symbolic of the optimism of the Nordic Welfare State, these buildings were targeted by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Debate continues on whether to preserve or demolish them. Manna also integrates the work of Mark Boyle, Secretions: Blood, Sweat, Piss and Tears (1978), four formally-staged photographic studies which emphasise the abject materiality of the body in allusions which could refer to the skin and life of such buildings. Kasper Akhøj’s chunky bush-hammered sculptures recall the socially radical approach of the Escola Paulista architects in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, whose ‘alternate discourse of concrete’ reflected the social and political revolution of the time. There were similar formal presentations of urban experience by Klaus Weber, Maximilian Pramatarov and Hubert Kiecol. Karsten Födinger pushed the sculptural aspect by inserting a complex wooden criss-cross frame within a large concrete mould, probing the relative weight of both materials. Idealism isn’t entirely secular either. Andreas Bunte’s two films were a panegyric to concrete as the raw material of many post-Vatican II sacred spaces. And then there is concrete’s blunt functionality, shown in Miki Kratsman’s photographs of Israeli security checkpoints and public safety shelters. Finally, Ron Terada’s double-sided billboards at nearby Karlsplatz (2006/16) drew attention to the signal effect of certain words or signs placed in an unusual context. The texts ‘Concrete Language’ and ‘See Other Side of Sign’ acted as a clever play on both the sign text and the material.

Given the original idealism underlying Brutalist architecture, a critical focus on its societal impacts was an obvious outcome of this exhibition. While this was well achieved, by choosing artists to address the theme it was also inevitable that the works would be assessed not only for their critique of the legacy of concrete, but also for its potential for new ways of making or looking at art or architecture. With a few exceptions, most of Béton’s presentations seemed satisfied to document this legacy and its impact. This seemed like a missed opportunity to reactivate the potential of concrete for the present, to find new crossover points between functional and aesthetic possibilities. A less comprehensive presentation might have assisted in leaving space for investigating new crossover points between art and architecture.

A more open-ended approach to the use of concrete was taken in Brute Clues at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. An awkwardly shaped, wooden platform accessed by four steps, was hemmed in by an angular concrete wall 80cm high. This structure occupied over a third of the gallery space from wall to wall. Behind the concrete wall, the wooden platform edged over a perfectly-still blue pool, which could also be viewed at water level through a narrow slit under the platform, by accessing a low-ceilinged undercroft through a trapdoor.

This was an uncomfortable experience as it wasn’t possible to stand up properly. The whole structure hindered the usual experience of the space, creating an autonomous new work with no apparently useful purpose. It could be contemplated from a slim raised plastered bench attached to the walls and spanning the opposite side of the gallery. The three artists – Tom Watt, Tanad Williams and Andreas Kindler von Knobloch – aimed to create, according to the exhibition’s accompanying text, ‘a structure for engagement and a repository for their own individual approaches to art-making’, setting out to upset ‘the hierarchies of display in a white-cube context’. Based on field work in the South-Western USA, unidentified, leftover structures and ruins in desert and coastal sites, led the artists to develop the theme around architecture. Built interruptions in the desert inspired the use of concrete, in particular a dam structure found in Joshua Tree. These were depicted somewhat obliquely on six postcards recording photographs taken at the visited sites. By not pointing to a definitive denotation of this structure as a piece of architecture – a stage, a dam, a platform or an excavation – a more open-ended interpretation, in terms of an object between art and architecture, was possible.

A ‘homage’ or ‘monument’ to time spent travelling in the USA, the ‘take it or leave it’ approach of this installation was refreshing in its optimistic use of concrete and other materials. Raising more questions than answers, this intervention was a timely experience in light of the Béton exhibition and a general revival of interest in Brutalist architecture (as witnessed by a Jonathan Meades’ 2014 documentary and a number of blogs). This otherwise functional platform seemed apparently useless in the gallery setting. A patio of pristine failure, it seemed to aim to be nothing more than an autonomous new structure confined within the space. The most useful conclusion of this collaboration is that it pointed to the value of an open-ended non-specific approach to future possibilities, in contrast with the often counterproductive functionality and ease of circulation aimed for in Brutalist architecture.

Béton was on view 25 June – 16 October 2016, Brute Clues, 2 September – 29 October 2016. The Béton exhibition booklet is available at http://kunsthallewien.at/application/files/2914/ 6667/6680/Beton_BOOKLET_EN.pdf).