OBJECTS TO BE DESTROYED - PAMELA LEE
Carve, excavate, eviscerate, reveal, unearth, unveil, skin. In Matta-Clark’s work, structures such as buildings, bridges, homes, curbs, become a vehicle to roam about, onto, into and un-to, the notion of public and private space and its transformation through time. These investigations raise questions about a space’s relationship to its proprietor(s), to other bodies of space and the transformation of those relationships as the structure ages, decays, disintegrates and, sometimes comes back to life. Before diving into Matta-Clark’s interventions, it might be interesting to quickly define an archetypal process for «structure-making,» one that will grossly resemble the constructions Matta-Clark will later interact with. When the need for a new construction to happen is announced, it often is linked to a precise intention: housing, beautification, market-ification. A blueprint is made and approved, based on a series of «reasoned objectives,» foundations are thrown into the ground, they provide an armature for the concrete that will be poured onto them. Then quickly, these structures are dressed, wrapped up in glass, wooden panels, anything. Each structure can now become an entity. A creature of the urban jungle. The entity is usually provided with a second blueprint addressing the how to use the space to best fulfill the original intention: how to navigate it, furnish it, inhabit it. It is ready. Now, the creature exists. But when does it not exist anymore? When does it die? What does it mean for a structure to die or have died? Can a structure be killed? Is imploding a building killing it or is evacuating it? Do any apply? In these questions, death becomes a slightly more compelling word for obsolescence. «Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises and then become available to others» Jane Jacobs Matta-Clark has been able to investigate how to play with the growing state of obsolescence of certain structures. Growing state of obsolescence is a phrase
meant to emphasize the possibility for obsolescence to be understood as a dynamic, time-based process, that can be worked, re-oriented, so long as the structure itself will lend itself to such transformations. This text aims to study the cornerstones of Matta-Clark’s process in reframing the notion of decay. FOUNDATIONS It seems right to start with foundations in the most literal of ways. Many of MattaClark’s art pieces involved challenging a building’s foundations to emphasize his desire for a more open, unstable yet dynamic ecosystem. Because they come first, foundations tutor the urban creature into its state of structural adulthood, they are instrumental to that construct’s existence and yet they are often one of the usual suspects once the same construct is deemed obsolescent, workless. Like a skeleton, they provide a tailor-made outline for the creature’s purpose, they hint at different functions, they vary from creature and they can be be disassembled, though most people would agree to turn to such alternative in the last resort. Again, like skeletons, they also quickly become limiting. This notion of containment seems to be one of Matta-Clark’s greatest concerns: fighting the containment provided by «rational» modern architectural ideals. Which in turn very often involved starting by investigating a targeted building’s foundations and casting a new light on them. Cast iron buttresses, concrete blocks and wooden armatures make for a beautifully gripping medium. Their mere visibility, our (as viewers) blunt awareness of them can trigger very contrasted emotions of reassurance or fright, empowerment or intimidation. Two of Matta-Clark’s pieces explore the importance of a structure’s foundations and their perception in the dissolution of space. In the first one, Cherry Tree, 1971, set up at 112 Greene Street, Matta-Clark aims to stretch the spatial possibilities of the building, «extend a room beyond its permanent limits.» (Lee, 65) To do so, he tries «digging deep enough so that a person could see the actual foundations, the «removed» spaces under the foundation, and liberate the building’s enormous compressive, confining forces simply by making a hole.» Although the attempt will be inconclusive, it is interesting to point out that to begin transforming the space (a response to the space’s own unsuitability or emerging signals of obsolescence based on Matta-Clark’s intentions as an artist in residence?) Matta-Clark sees the foundations as a necessary consideration and an important tool in re-assessing the space. The whole aims to help evacuate the sensation of confinement, to reduce the pressurizing sensation it imposes of its visitors. The cherry tree he decides to plant becomes a a promise but mostly a contrasting element, the entropic nature of the plant now confronts the timeless hostility of the concrete walls. In planting the tree there (especially because it died) Matta-Clark himself challenges the foundations and overall structure of 112 Greene Street and fails, at least at that very specific level. It is interesting to see he dissolves the tree into a second piece, Winter Garden where the covered up hole and the tree’s ashes seem to mourn to plant’s departure. Here the artist overcomes the brutality of the building by framing it in its most unforgiving light, a killer of life.
On the other hand, Circus, 1978, helps better grasp the power of foundations, especially when revealed. In this piece, there is a direct activation of space, of its vulnerable yet sound presence, of its scale, and hostility. As the iron armatures appear they scream their indifference to the viewer: «You are here, you see me, you realize how much you need me, you depend on me, and yet, I am stoically unresponsive!» Here, the armature becomes intimidating, tormenting, unworkable, independent, wild, until tamed. Can it be though?
OWNERSHIP Tame. Appropriate. Comprehend. Condition. Claim. Are we owned once tamed? All these words live in the kingdom of ownership, a realm regularly explored by Matta-Clark. As seen in Circus, the circumambulating visitor learns to tame the space, or perhaps, learns to be tamed by it. As described by Pamela Lee, the «illegible» (Lee, 154) space seems to almost inflict itself on the visitor. The sense of scale of the installation emphasized by the endless succession of revealed floors together craft that very distinct sensation of vulnerability of the space and visitor, but might also instill a slight hostility between the two. Its wild-ness, is characterized by this very sensation of unstable space. It’s wildness becomes a testament of its reluctance to be tamed through comprehension. Its wildness makes it free of temporary ownership. We are faced here with a very phenomenological understanding of ownership which perhaps deserves a little time to wrap our heads around it. In the mean time, let’s look at a much more tangible instance of the concept of ownership through the lense provided by Fake estates. Fake estates embodies the absurdity of certain types of property. The reality of this absurdity is very palpable because of its relationship to the human scale: the second you see the photo, read the measurements, project yourself into the space, the space is distorted, compressed, through a series of perceptual computations we (as viewers or potential consumers of the space) arrive at a conclusion very close to: «this space is «workless,» it then becomes obsolete in many regards. These stretches of land, «an ironic punctum of the suburban imaginary,» (Lee, 99) are the product of a rational logic mis-applied to the urban landscape. They are entities, fragmented by law and awkward turns of events. Unlike Circus, they seem passive, unthreatening, deactivated, or merely un-activateble. Obsolete. However they share with Circus the ambiguity they emanate, whether one screams its immensity or the other murmurs its apologies for existing, they both exist at opposite symbolic thresholds of usability, workability, and for that reason, one could argue they are freer than most spaces. Untamable. Ambiguous. It is I think in these states of ambiguity that space, objects, people, products of society escape the containment offered by their foundations. This dissonance with their surroundings ushers what Jane Jacobs refers to as the «availability» of a given
structure: «Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises and then become available to others.» (Lee, 94) Available. Welcoming. Outgoing. Interested. Curious. Permeable.
PERMEABILITY Buildings, lands, objects, have surfaces. Membranes. Every structure’s ability to live within an ecosystem will always be based on its permeability. Permeability refers to a space or construct’s ability to welcome new ideas, adapt, or, host, protect certain ideas and activities, a process which once more can be facilitated or hindered by the structure’s foundations but also its status as property. «Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises and then become available to others.» Time is not the only factor to influence the calibration of a structure’s permeability, yet it is the only consistent observer, quantifier, of the shifts in its permeability. The notion of permeability of a space can be used as a framework to explore questions of publicness, dynamism, exclusivity, diversity. It focuses on a piece’s willingness to open to outside stimuli or ability to protect itself from it. Splitting is a great example of art addressing questions of permeability. The nuclear home of the 1970’s urban landscape, here the protagonist (victim?) of Matta-Clark’s intervention, was built as many of its sisters as a citadel of privacy, security, a petty dish among millions in which families could grow (or fester) in a very controlled environment. The structure itself and its foundations, were highly impermeable. If MattaClark’s intervention «suggests a threat to the space of domesticity,» (Lee, 21) it above all questions such an isolationist take on it. Domesticity, he seems to posit, is not specific to a house but to its greater ecosystem, outside its walls. The cleaved building is reminiscent of a flesh wound, it calls for irrigation, evacuation, infiltration, exchange, but also for a careful calibration of these flows as the wound might also get infected if open too long. Private and public are meant to live side by side, as interchangeable programs for the hardware offered by buildings. As many other gates in the world, those which guard the «permeability» of such houses or even works of art all have keys and key holders. Pamela Lee clarifies this notion when speaking of Buren’s work: «The implied relationship between the internal support of the picture and the architecture that remains outside requires demystification by the artist» (Lee, 27). The words «picture» and «architecture» can easily be replaced by other pairs such
as «house» and «neighborhood,» «cubicle» and «office,» «phone» and «hand» or «pocket,» however, regardless of the creation at stake, its ability to fully interface with the outside environment depends of the creator’s willingness to let it fuse with it, be tamed and tame it. A perfect counter example of this equation is once more Matta-Clark’s Circus. Through his subtractive use of space he has mystified his work, or granted it the power to be free (but perhaps not from him?). CONCLUSION Of all three themes, Foundations, Ownership and Permeability, Ownership and the question of property, a structure’s viability as a property, whether it is workable or not, whether it matters or not that it can be transformed, its ability to interface with its environment, and the owners coming to terms with its potential decay or transformation, seems to be the hardest bit of the dissolutive process to grasp. Each artwork by Matta-Clark offers a variation of the understanding of property in the face of decay, they become temporary fables, tangible, phenomenological manifestos. Nonetheless, they too, as works of art mostly seem to be contained within the world of art, within the great prison-like estate of contemporary art. Only two pieces in my eyes seem to transcend and probe the barriers of art and fundamentally dissolve themselves into society: Food, the restaurant, and the publication of the ad «RiverView Studio’s» about the Office Baroque. Both bypass, by imposing themselves into new contexts (of restoration and real-estate), the framework offered for the integration of art into the everyday, and create new, ambiguous works that cannot necessarily be owned (at first) by the art-world.