Critic’s Notebook: The void as muse


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NEW YORK -- With the available money for ambitious new buildings having shrunk to almost nothing in this country -- and with firms continuing to downsize in brutal fashion -- where will architectural ideas come from, and where will they wind up? What kind of impact will they have on the wider culture?

Those are among the tricky questions raised by ‘Contemplating the Void,’ an exhibition that opened last week at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. As part of its ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, the museum invited nearly 200 architects, artists and designers to propose fanciful new uses for the 90-foot-high rotunda of its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. Curators Nancy Spector and David van der Leer asked the participants, whose biggest names include Anish Kapoor, Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier, Toyo Ito and Rachel Whiteread, to leave ‘practicality and even reality behind’ as they produced ideas for filling the space inside Wright’s famous spiraling ramp.


The uneven results suggest there is one skill that will be more important for architects than any other as credit remains tight and cranes idle. I am tempted to call this skill the ability to make something out of nothing. But it is actually a slight twist on that idea that will be most valuable -- knowing how to make nothing mean something.

That the difference is crucial is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the ‘Void’ show with another exhibition now running at the Guggenheim, a conceptual piece called ‘This Progress’ by the 34-year-old Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal. The shows don’t appear to have been planned in tandem, but Sehgal’s brand of sleight of hand ultimately is far more substantial and evocative than the kind on view in ‘Contemplating the Void.’

For the purposes of the ‘Void’ exhibition, each artist or architect was asked to submit a proposal on paper. Other images and in many cases a written description to accompany the proposal are available online. And as is nearly always true in this sort of all-star cattle call, the results are mixed.

Several of the most intriguing proposals -- by the landscape architecture and urban design firm West 8, among others -- call for filling Wright’s rotunda with plants, trees or even a full-on forest: a new spin on organic architecture that in some cases seems foreboding, even apocalyptic, as if nature has reclaimed the museum at the expense of man. The proposal by Tokyo architect Sou Fujimoto, showing four towering trees almost as tall as the atrium itself, is entitled ‘10,000 years later.’ Artist Sarah Sze’s is called ‘Guggenheim as a Ruin.’

Other entries suggest suspending a balloon (Beijing’s MAD Architects) in the rotunda; filling it with a thin stream of red sand (Kapoor); tipping an airplane fuselage into it (Neil Denari); placing a totem or obelisk in the center (in the case of Tod Willams Billie Tsien Architects, one that appears to be made of ice); or unrolling a black scroll down the ramp and outside onto Fifth Avenue (the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma).

The Spanish collective Luzinterruptus proposes hanging laundry to dry on lines stretched from one side of the rotunda to another, while the New York architects Work AC suggest turning Wright’s ramp into a water slide. Michael Maltzan’s contribution -- sketched on a Post-it -- shows an abstract vision of the ramp unfurled like a ribbon across the Manhattan grid.


In its focus on devising ways to confront emptiness, the show is remarkably timely, especially for architects. Even as it is lightly derivative, as Decker and van der Leer acknowledge, of a show last year at the Centre Georges Pompidou called ‘Le Vide,’ or ‘The Void,’ it also shares a number of themes with a recently announced competition called ‘Mine the Gap.’

Organized by the Chicago Architectural Club, ‘Mine the Gap,’ with entries due by May 3, is seeking ideas for what to do with the hole in the ground, measuring 110 feet wide and 76 feet deep, that was produced when foundation work was begun -- and then halted, for lack of money -- on Santiago Calatrava’s 150-story residential skyscraper on Chicago’s lakefront. ‘Once the motor of real-estate speculation has stalled,’ the competition materials ask, ‘what can we use to propel ourselves, and the discipline, forward?’

‘Contemplating the Void’ is in the end less interested in confronting that question than in producing a thick pile of literal artwork: Nearly all of the proposals on view will be auctioned off beginning next month, with the proceeds going to the Guggenheim’s exhibition programming. The show, in other words, is a fundraising drive disguised -- very loosely disguised -- as an ideas competition.

Sehgal’s ‘This Progress’ flows from entirely different logic. It includes no art objects of any kind, just people, movement and conversation. You enter it -- you kick it into gear, in fact -- simply by walking up the Guggenheim ramp. When you reach a landing, you are greeted by a child who introduces himself or herself -- my first guide was a girl named Lauren who looked about 10 -- and announces, matter-of-factly, ‘This is a piece by Tino Sehgal.’

As we walked up the ramp, Lauren asked me how I would define progress, and at the next landing, after we’d talked a bit, she handed me off to a slightly older guide, a woman around college age, who took the discussion further. She in turn introduced me to my third guide, a woman who appeared to be in her 30s. For the fourth and final leg I was led by a man in his late 60s or early 70s. Once we reached the top of the rotunda he slipped away, and the exhibition was over.

Each of my guides had plenty to say -- the third wanted to talk about a recent piece by Timothy Egan in the New York Times on the future of suburbia -- but as a group were more interested in drawing me out on the subject of progress. Perhaps not too surprisingly, I heard myself talking about the effect of digital technology on the culture industry -- on architecture, on book publishing and, ahem, on arts journalism and criticism -- but also questioning my responses, wondering if I might have phrased them better. Meanwhile, the walls I was passing -- usually covered with artworks -- were bare.


I found the show, pretty much from start to finish, unexpectedly moving. (And brave, since its fragility and spareness makes it so easy to mock as a sort of adolescent, post-minimal folly.) It also works remarkably well with the architecture of Wright’s museum, allowing the ramps to act as the edges of a conceptual canvas, or start and stop buttons on an ongoing conversation inside the museum.

Perhaps most relevant of all, ‘This Progress’ is a fully worked-out answer to the question of how to produce art without physical structure of any kind -- or by borrowing that physical structure from the already-built 20th century city.

The participants in the ‘Void’ show, in the most impressive cases, have produced meaningful and provocative works in the context of an exhibition that seems perfectly content to keep its artistic ambitions low. They have made something out of nothing -- in a range of ways.

Sehgal, on the other hand, has made nothing mean something. He has taken a wisp of a premise and on that flimsy wire hung a rich group of themes: not just progress but aging, memory, language and regret. In this year of all years -- in this recession of all recessions -- architects could learn a lot from him.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Images: Top, Proposal for ‘Contemplating the Void’ by MAD Architects, from Guggenheim Museum; bottom, call for entries for the Chicago Architectural Club’s ‘Mine the Gap’ competition.