Demented Architecture

Artists:  Edgar Roy Brewster, Brodsky and Utkin, Jasmina Cibic, Henry Coombes, Olafur Eliasson, Zbigniew Libera, Kirsty Lillico, Claes Oldenburg

City Gallery has a long history of presenting architecture exhibitions. We have shown surveys of national and international architects, installations by architects, architectural interventions by artists, and collaborations between artists and architects. However, we have never before staged an exhibition like Demented Architecture. This exhibition brings together works by contemporary artists that, for the most part, take on architecture and the mythology of the architect as a subject—often as a subject of parody.

Olafur Eliasson’s The Cubic Structural Evolution Project sits at the centre of this exhibition. Visitors are invited to start building with the thousands of pieces of gleaming white Lego scattered across a gleaming white table. Eliasson empowers his participants to ‘become’ architects and contribute to his work’s construction, destruction and reconstruction. The close proximity to Polish artist Zbigniew Libera’s notorious Lego Concentration Camp (1996), loaned from the Modern Museum of Art in Warsaw, reminds us that even the most evil of architectural structures are made by humans for humans. Both works emphasise how architecture symbolises and carries the best and the worst of human intentions.

Megalomaniac architects can be found throughout the entire exhibition—not just at Eliasson’s table. Jasmina Cibic’s videos restage historical debates around art, architecture and power from post-war Yugoslavia. State architect Vinko Glanz regularly features, aggressively arguing that art and artists must submit to architectural form. The opposite scenario plays out in Scottish artist Henry Coombes’s I Am the Architect, This Is not Happening, This Is Unacceptable (2012). The video is set inside the attic and the confused mind of retired architect Clive who slowly surrenders the order and rationality of his profession to the impulsive and chaotic values of art.

This is also the territory of American pop artist Claes Oldenburg. The exhibition includes one of his unrealised and unrealisable proposals for a ‘colossal monument’—a Civic Cathedral in Seattle in the shape of a tap fed by a hand crank that extracts and shoots water back into Lake Union.

Demented Architecture also includes documentation of an exhibition Palazzo Nero by Russian paper-architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin at City Gallery in 1992. It featured two wooden architectural structures—one located inside the gallery, the other outside in Civic Square. The latter work, Monument, collapsed after just two days of exposure to Wellington’s notorious weather. Wellington artist Kirsty Lillico’s soft-sculptures sit somewhere between paper architecture and real architecture. For one of these works, she traced, cut and folded the floor plan of her modernist apartment into a piece of carpet salvaged from a skip bin. A second subjects Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (1952) to the same brutalist treatment, rendering his modernist vision flaccid and dirty. A third turns to fictional architecture, remaking Dr. Robert Laing’s apartment from J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise in City Gallery’s own dumped back-of-house carpet.

This gap between the architecture of the imagination and real-world architectural solutions is blurred further in Edgar Roy Brewster’s Norian House, built in New Plymouth in the early 1950s. Inspired by the beehive as a model for harmonious existence, all of its architectural features, fittings, and furniture took hexagonal form. In this exhibition, Brewster’s hand-drawn plans are necessarily—and arguably, unsympathetically—displayed in square frames hung on a rectangular wall in an equally rectangular gallery. His model for a hexagonal skyscraper of the future sits on a square plinth. The gallery, and the world it sits in, is not ready to become hexagonal—not yet.

City Gallery Wellington, 27 June–8 November 2015