Renée Green's installation at the MAK Center's Schindler House is difficult at best. Filling the low-slung modernist structure with layers of sound, video, text and photographs, the artist and MIT professor has created a complex, three-dimensional poem intertwining the life and thought of the building's architect and onetime resident, Rudolf M. Schindler, with her own.
What emerges is not so much a coherent story as a highly personal constellation of moments that — with some patience — sheds light on how we organize and make sense of the world.
The autobiographical nature of the exhibition is evident upon opening the front door. Echoing through the small foyer, a voice recites a series of years, interspersing dates from the early and late 20th century. Through this simple but haunting device, Green introduces the connection between Schindler and herself.
The architect came to the U.S. from Vienna in 1914; Green went to live in Vienna (albeit temporarily) in the 1990s. Their journeys bookend the 20th century, and Green uses that glancing relationship as a productive point of departure.
In the center of the home's front room are three inviting, brightly colored mattresses surrounded by five different but obliquely interlocking videos that draw connections between various organizational systems, such as lists of ornamental plants, Green's journeys through Southern California, important dates in the life of Albert Einstein and Schindler's architectural manifestoes.
At first this approach feels scattershot and self-indulgent. Four of the videos are previous works by Green, and in the neighboring room she has even included a copy of her new book, a collection of writings. One begins to wonder if the exhibition is really a retrospective masquerading as an installation, or just an artist recycling old ideas.
Yet all experiences are at bottom personal. What else is there? Broadening the dialogue, Green introduces throughout the exhibition the lives and works of Schindler contemporaries who, like him, embodied a marriage of theory, practice and radical thinking, albeit in very different spheres.
A set of letterpress prints condenses the lives of Einstein and singer and activist Paul Robeson into lists of keywords, framed by their birth and death dates; a recording of poems by Muriel Rukeyser plays outdoors in one of the courtyards amid banners festooned with dates. Although not often associated with one another, they were all great supporters of social justice. By bringing them together in Schindler's house, Green reminds us that there were (and are) many Modernisms and that "progress" is more than technological development.
In the final room, known as the R.M. Schindler Studio, Green presents prints of two manifestoes written by the architect, one from 1912 and one from 1934. Both expound his belief in the primacy of interior space as the governing principle of architecture, but the earlier one is strangely formatted: the numbers delineating one point from the next often appear mid-sentence, interrupting the flow of the text.
They're like the sound of the years reverberating throughout the house: random but necessary demarcations in an otherwise overwhelming flood of experience.