Josiah McElheny & Lynne Cooke

LYNNE COOKE: I’d like to start this discussion by asking about a phrase I’ve often heard you use: “quixotic confluences”—which, I think, means things that, having come together in totally unforeseen ways, continue to resonate. You once told me that sometimes you begin a work by responding to a story or an event and that during the course of this pursuit, something else frequently comes up which overlays the piece. This was the case when your multi-part sculpture ISLAND UNIVERSE (2008) was installed in the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. Siting the work in this historic building introduced a set of references to architectural traditions involving glass and its ideologies that had not been envisioned at the beginning of the project. 

JOSIAH McELHENY: This takes me back to my piece FROM AN HISTORICAL ANEDCOTE ABOUT FASHION (2000), which began with a simple discovery I made while walking through an exhibition. Reading a museum label for a 1950s or 1960s year, I was surprised that it said the form was ased on a design by the workers, who were inspired by the dresses worn by the factory owner’s wife. That was so striking and I set out to make something more out of the story—something that, in a nod to realism, would remain faithful to the factory’s design aesthetics as well as to the fashions (in general) of that era. But it became immediately apparent that I would have to choose among many strains of mid-century fashion. While researching the period I kept coming across the phrase, the “New Look,” which originally comes from the American editor of Vogue. In a phone call (or cable) from Paris in the spring of 1947 to her Manhattan office, she said about Christian Dior’s first collection” “It’s the New Look.” I then found out that Dior’s fashion, this “New Look,” resulted in actual protests throughout the United States against Dior and then, paradoxically, widespread acceptance! Finally the term became a kind of catch-all for the return to optimism after the war. This seems to me a rare historical moment when fashion had found itself at the center of the cultural dialogue. So I thought I should attempt to meld, ad hoc, all of these unrelated, somewhat accidental and circumstantial notions, with my observation about an ostensibly minor event, building these associations into something larger.

LC: Did it ever occur to you that the wall label might be false or that it might be a disingenuous fabrication? Would it have mattered if someone had been playing games with the truth?

JM: Well, actually, you caught me because what the label really said—I told the story in “my” way—is that the vase was designed by the owner’s wife.

LC: Oh.

JM: A friend who had worked in the factory in the fifties told me that the label was not true. I pressed him on it, and he told me the name of the worker who had actually designed and made the vase. It all boils down to very strict class distinctions, to the idea that it was impossible for any factory worker to design anything. So the owner’s wife had to take credit for the design, for recognizing it as something good enough for the factory to produce. Even more surprisingly though, he told me that this sort of thing happened all the time; workers would go and see the latest couture in shop windows—he mentioned that he was particularly interested in Courreges—and then go right back to the factory and make something inspired by that at lunchtime. So you’re right,; it doesn’t matter whether the label is true or not. What’s important is that it’s completely unpredictable how ideas will move through culture and end up being expressed, how ideas will twist and sometimes eventually become something else altogether.

LC: The protests against the “New Look” in both the United States and France had to do with the vast amount of cloth it took to make Dior’s particular version of a ballooning skirt. This happened shortly after the war when rationing had only recently ended. In addition, the French government had continued to offer economic support for the couture industry (because of the jobs and manufacturing it stimulated) whereas the British and American governments did not support their fashion industries financially. So the French had an advantage in the marketplace. There was thought to be an ethical basis to the protests on both these counts. Looking to these vases, which are extraordinary luxury objects, and thinking about the factory owner’s wife’s dresses, remind us that today Dior’s look has ironically become the hallmark of the early post-war era. It has a look designed exclusively for the upper classes—though of course, there were replicas and knock-offs—and in that, essentially, it was about excess. Does your installation of refined glass vases pertain to this same luxury culture? Or is there a degree of ironic self-reflexivity? As we consider not only the vases but the way that you have chosen to display them, it’s hard to ignore the status of their prototypes.

JM: I think it is relevant that they are self-reflective and perhaps ironic. I found out later that the owner’s wife’s daughter believed I had missed the central point, which was that the factory workers hated their employer’s wife. I had depicted them as lusting after her, but they were Communists and she was the owner. And so these ironies, too, become part of the piece. This little history says something about the amorality of ideas. Once absorbed into other fields, even ideas with an ethical basis can become disconnected from their original morality, and thereby hopefully more generative. The notion that all ideas should retain their original moral structure is, on some level, dangerous.

LC: We have been reviewing this artwork in terms of luxury artifacts that belong to a particular history of design. What happens when we flip our perspective and start to think of it as sculpture? Should we now talk about the vases as non-functional objects? Thinking of them in sculptural terms introduces notions that don’t connect with the sorts of epithets we relate to luxury goods and their display. This is due to the relationship between categories of design and fine art, and the conventional hierarchies that subtend those categories.

JM: In the past fifty years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of people visiting art museums. But feeling connected to fine art is still confined to a relatively narrow band of society, whereas design—as a set of aesthetics that gets copied and repeated—influences all kinds of activities throughout society. Since the twentieth century, luxury goods are no longer the province of just the wealthy. They maybe be invented with the financial backing of the wealthy, but they inevitably get dispersed within society till they reflect the broad spectrum of all that is happening at the time.

LC: Within modernist design history, some of the best known early works came from the Bauhaus and similar groups who advocated a socially utopian role for design: they intended, or at least hoped, to better living standards by making works that would be available to a wide range of people. Venini glass belongs to a different history. Perhaps it depends on what kind of history one is writing, but I would not be inclined to place Venini in the same history as the Bauhaus, Charles and Ray Eames, and like-minded designers.

JM: It’s not unlike the field of art in the sense that there are so many trajectories and circles of art practice.

LC: In the histories of modernist art we prioritize radicality and innovation—whereas in design, the value of an object generally relates not only to its aesthetic but to its potential to be inexpensively mass-produced. This underlies, for example, the way we look at Bauhaus objects, like Wagenfeld’s glass designs. By contrast, when we look at Venini, we are confronted with an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and a realm of tremendous privilege, almost an haute couture of objects. Don’t we ultimately look at these artifacts in somewhat different terms?

JM: I would argue that our apprehension of these objects is almost always factually wrong—the truth is often the flip side of what we think. Aside from Breuer’s tubular metal furniture, most of what was designed at the Bauhaus was only produced in small quantities and never achieved any kind of broad influence until much later with Herman Miller or Knoll, or maybe now, with something like Ikea. Take Josef Hoffmann, for instance, whose work was made in small workshops that were located in the same building where he was designing them. Or Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prove, who also produced their own designs in very small numbers. I would be curious to know how many of Le Corbusier’s furniture pieces were really made when they were initially designed. In Venini’s case where the production was definitely in relatively small numbers, it nonetheless involved a factory with multiple teams of five to eight people working in shifts. While there is an intense collaboration among skilled workers and a very high level of workmanship, the process still takes place inside a factory. Our typical assumptions and perceptions about these issues are quite mixed up and do not necessarily line up with the truth of how things are made, the truth of the circumstances of an object’s production.

LC: Would you agree that, at the current moment, there is a greater distance than usual between artists who have access to extraordinary resources for the production of objects (not only film and video or related technology-based works employing special effects) and more modest forms of production? Is there a wider spectrum now than there was, say, in the sixties? Compare the fabrication of Judd’s works in the sixties, which required a skilled set of people to produce, with an artist like Richard Tuttle, who was using the equivalent of cast-offs. And then consider the spectrum today. There seems to be an even wider division between, say, Matthew Barney and Olafur Eliasson, whose production costs are very high, and others like Francis Alys and Joelle Tuerlinckx who, perhaps partly for ideological reasons, deliberately choose to limit the resources they utilize in any particular piece.

JM: We are now seeing a wider spread because society has a wider division of wealth between the working class and the upper class. But, on the other hand, it may not be so different: there were always artists who ended up gravitating towards highly sophisticated production. As Judd, for example, started to have more involved relationships with the people making and installing his work, it appears that the work became closer to how he really intended it to be. This is partly because he began making decisions in direct collaboration with specific people who were extremely knowledgeable about craft. But in order to do this he had to essentially take over a small metal working company. Similarly, Jeff Koons claims that his work has evolved to be more the way he wants it to be, but this has required immense monetary resources. So perhaps the scale has changed, buy the idea of utilizing expensive skilled fabrication techniques has not changed so much. From the opposite point of view I would argue that Matthew Barney—even though there is so much money necessary for his films—is deeply involved with his own studio in the making of his hybrid sculptural objects, both props and sculptures, and has an intensive relationship to them. The significant difference now results from true outsourcing—of artists claiming not to care how the work looks. “Here is a drawing. Come back with the finished version; however it turns out is fine.” This is a different development from the idea of building a support structure that allows one to get closer to the utopian goal of making an artwork look exactly the way it does in the imagination.

LC: Where does this situation leave painting? Whether a Susan Rothenberg or a Caravaggio, doesn’t it still comprise, ore or less, a piece of cloth with some colored dirt applied to it? Not only are the materials similar, but so is what it takes to acquire those materials and to work on them. Painting therefore seems to be in a totally different place from other art forms in today’s spectrum.

JM: The system of painting has not changed much since the Renaissance, but at that time it was actually incredibly difficult to produce a painting—to get the pigments, the labor, the commission to, let’s say, do a fresco or to pay for all the assistants it took to create a large history painting. But we have so much more wealth now and, at least in the West, we can leverage so much more labor than they could in the days of Rubens. You can get so much more “productivity” now for the same amount of money. There is an infinitely greater amount of material abundance now—paint and canvas (and time) are so much cheaper for us in Western society than they were back then. Painting sits in an economic situation that has a different relationship to history. In that sense the question of how it relates to production is a very old one.

LC: If you consider a shorter time span, a modernist history, does this situation change? Beginning with Manet, or better, with the Impressionists, painting has remained relatively unchanged in terms of scale of production: Picasso and Amy Sillman need more or less the same resources and amounts of stuff to make their works. With sculpture it may be similar. Given the fact that Rodin didn’t actually carve or cast his bronzes—his stone carvings were done by specialized craftsmen, as were his bronze casts—the scale and composition of his workshop and studio were not so different from some of those we see today, whether that of Koons or your own somewhat different situation.

JM: I would return to the idea that the economic and labor issues are not always what they appear to be. I believe that these are important questions because so much of the information about production that is visible within the artwork ends up becoming part of its content. We make a lot of assumptions from that information. Take, for instance, a Luc Tuymans painting. Part of our response to it involves a consideration of its modesty—even if we are mistaken about the work’s actual economic, labor, or production values.

LC: Does that mean that a certain pathos surrounds painting today?

JM: Well, yes, because a lot of these questions have to do with the idea of what we as individuals can do. Compared to other times in history, we don’t do very much. We have become so specialized that, as a result, we are severely limited in terms of what any of us can do. Painting, however, still represents something that we intuitively feel can be done by the individual. And in terms of sculpture, this constant question of what can be made by an individual or small group remains paramount even as production in the twenty-first century evolves further way from people. A hundred years ago, in this very spot where we’re sitting in Brooklyn, virtually every single everyday item would have been made within at two-or three –hundred mile radius, if not down the street. And that would have been true, more or less, in any other urban environment, but it’s absolutely not rue now.

LC: This seems compounded by the fact that, in many instances today, most of us can’t tell how something has been made. Nor can we precisely identifu its materials, nor can we understand the processes by which—especially with electronic goods—it functions. Perhaps that’s partly why we often savor things made by hand—painting included.

Parkett 86 2009
by Gregg Bordowitz

Josiah McElheny creates astonishing installations out of many materials, frequently collaborating with any number of experts. His projects have often begun with handmade pieces of glass, created in his own studio. In addition, he creates films and performances that are important features of his exhibitions. Catalogue design, new translations of historical texts, and book publishing are also crucial parts of his work. It is difficult to sum up the artist’s practice in a sentence or two, but one can fairly say that altogether his art is motivated by an intense curiosity about the unrealized potential of utopian projects captured in the forms of objects. Described this way there is something potentially morbid about McElheny’s projects. He collaborates with the dead. With each new effort, he summons long-gone artists and the fallen artistic movements they founded. Through allusion, appropriation, and reconstruction, McElheny stages seances where deceased designers, artists, architects, crafts people, and writers hold court with living contemporary counterparts. Mixing together in the gallery, the dead and the living constitute an intentional community of participants spanning generations, standing outside of time.

As a way of starting our conversation, the day that we were scheduled to meet, I emailed Josiah a quotation from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power.

The essence of this fight between the living and the dead is that it is intermittent. One can never know when something is going to happen. Nothing may happen for a long time, but one cannot count on this; each new blow comes suddenly out of the dark. There is no declaration of war; after a single death everything may be over, or it may go on for a long time as in plagues and epidemics. The living are always on the retreat. Nothing is ever really over.

I have been thinking about the role of the dead in current artistic production for some time. I was eager to discuss this with Josiah because he is intensely preoccupied with the gate of modernism’s failed attempts and dead ends. Here, I understand modernism as the period of history—roughly from the mid-19th century to the present—in which artists made and make conscious attempts to directly encounter and alter aspects of technology and industrialization. McElheny continues the modernist project by catalyzing persistent (nagging) questions about art’s potential to counteract unjust social hierarchies. He seems to still believe that by changing the actual shapes of material forms—objects we can touch, hold, weigh, see, and see through—people can make a more tolerant society in which the bargain between laborer and industry is fair and honest. His method is retrospective. He tries to discover a novel way forward by casting backward to reconsider unfulfilled expectations of the past. This approach is very hopeful. In fact, I never experience his installations as macabre encounters with the dead. McElheny’s exhibitions are delightful and rich. But there is something threatening below the shiny surfaces. One gets lost in a detail only to take a step back and become overwhelmed by an excess of possibilities.
–Gregg Bordowitz

JOSIAH MCELHENY: The first moment I experienced an extremely deep connection to art was in Rome, where one cannot help observe the layering of history that you find there on any one street. Somehow that layering also makes historical artworks feel as if they are more connected to the present. Specifically I am remembering the intensity of seeing the Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez for the first time. I was amazed by the way the cloth of his gown was painted! As artists, we feel inherently connected to history because we all begin our understanding of art through the notion of its being a long trajectory. At some level, we’re all part of this, connected to it, even to things that might seem completely culturally divorced from our present day experiences.

I’m learning about history in my own blind way. There’s a certain modernist aesthetic that I find viscerally, bodily attractive. I understand that these kinds of aesthetics that physically attract me come from a certain place and from a limited set of ideas. And that’s what makes them powerful. A lot of those ideas, in terms of modernist aesthetics, come from an ideal of universalism. History has shown that universalism is a step away from totalitarianism—a deadly kind of erasure that I find horrifying. The rear of fascism undermines my sensuous relationship to those things. I often wonder, are there any other alternative aesthetics?

GREGG BORDOWITZ: Your investigation into alternatives often leads you to reinvent old objects, or reenact past events. Thinking about your work, and especially the new work that you’re doing on Paul Scheerbart and The Light Club of Batavia, I thought about the ghostly nature of the characters, specifically in the screenplay for a new film you are working on.

JM: Yeah, Paul Scheerbart was a high school dropout who moved back and forth between Dresden and Berlin. He became part of the café culture, a feuilleton writer. He wrote reviews on architecture and fine art, as well as some very strange short fiction in a format called the German Novelle. It is a short, schematic story that ends in an ironic twist. I’d seen Schererbart’s aphoristic book Glass Architecture, but I hadn’t had such a strong connection to it until I read the first English translation of a novel of his, The Gray Cloth, published in 2001. And in it, there’s a footnote to another very obscure story of his—one that’s not usually included in his bibliography—entitled The Light Club of Batavia. It describes the interactions of a group of socialites who meet at a hotel in Jakarta to build a spa in the bottom of a mine shaft and bathe in electric light. This story has led me to a whole series of explorations: performances, books, collaborations, and now this new film, called The Light Club of Vizcaya.

Discovering Scheerbart has been very important for my work. His thinking about the future wasn’t totalitarian. He placed an emphasis on reimagination and failure. Scheerbart’s description of a future world was always a strange combination of, let’s say, Babylonian times and a science fiction future. He died in 1915, so all of his works are from the late 19th century and before World War I. You talk about ghosts—the more I learn about World War I, the more it seems to be the moment where history made this huge shift. What was possible to imagine before the Great War was no longer possible to imagine for a hundred years. It’s my hope that maybe in a small way, through art, we could return to this era, not nostalgically, but to actually find this broken path and pick it up again, keep going and keep asking questions abut it. Ultimately, what’s most amazing to me about Scheerbart is not that he had any answers, but that he was willing to propose things that had inherent conflicts. And he didn’t seem to be afraid of creating an almost absurd set of conflicting aims. I connect that to my own life experiences and the interior conflicts in my psyche.

GB: It seems to me that you work from a place of enthusiasm. I find your ability to be enthusiastic about the recovery of utopian projects remarkable and sometimes vexing, given all we know about the trajectory of utopian projects in the 20th century. I don’t even know how to formulate this question except as a kind of psychological question. Where do you get your enthusiasm? Or do you think your optimism is just a disposition that you possess?

JM: It’s definitely a disposition, but my enthusiasm also comes through frustration. I would call myself talented only at one thing and that’s perseverance. I mean, I’m really stubborn. I’m willing to do something over and over and over again and discard all of it until it has some sense of being right to me. A lot of times when I’m trying to imitate the ineffable quality of some, let’s say, specific object from 1956, I fail at actually achieving a true facsimile or replica of it. Still, I try to capture some quality of the original object, some aspect of the atmosphere it came from—but for reasons of time, or money, or inability, I never fully succeed. I just have to be satisfied with something “good enough,” something that has at least some aura of the history the design came from. Ultimately, the ability to at least approximate something from the past is where my enthusiasm comes from.

But our relationship to objects can constantly change. Something that looks wonderful can become awful and something that’s awful can become good. I try to make images of modernism that are attractive but that suddenly switch on you to become something else—perhaps the opposite of what you first perceived. However, even then they might still evoke hope at some level. There’s a reason why people had utopian impulses. It’s not that utopia went wrong. Utopia encountered reality. Utopia encountered its own internal contradictions. It’s not that the will to improve life or to expand life is an inherently bad thing. And yet I’m really aware that so much terror and totalitarianism came directly from utopian thinking. I’m trying to understand it myself, but I don’t know what the alternative is. What do you think?

GB: I’ve traveled a long distance from my Frankfurt School roots, and I have very different ideas about the origins of totalitarianism in Enlightenment thinking. I spent a fair amount of time when I was younger believing that romantic enthusiasm would only lead down the road toward uglier passions. Within the last few years, I have come to question the assumption that strong emotions like enthusiasm or passion must be carefully controlled, or they will lead us inexorably toward our own sadistic impulses. That’s a hard thing for me to accept but I’m letting go of those past assumptions in my recent work. I feel that I’ve exhausted the method of critique that places limitations on certain emotional states.

So, I respond positively to your enthusiasm but there’s a difference between you and me in the way that we think about history or histories. I don’t think there was only one modernism. I think that there were many modernisms and they were constantly competing with each other. It’s not possible to go back into the past and redraw the line of a trajectory so that it arrives at a different outcome. The linear trajectories that we’ve traced for ourselves as a way of explaining the horrors of the 20th century don’t exist as clear pathways.

I do agree that the past is always available to us to rearticulate. We can take ownership of the past for ourselves in the ways that you were describing. The dead are always around to remind us of their yearnings and we can respond by reevaluating and redoing, reperforming what we imagine as the actions and behaviours of people in the past. This won’t necessarily lead to our worst nightmares. I somehow feel irresponsible saying that because it challenges us to change the terms of well-worn debates concerning expressionism versus the anti-aesthetic. But that’s where I am right now.

JM: Right before 2000, I was working on this fashion project that focused on how ideas would move through and across class boundaries in very surprising ways. And that’s now come full circle to where I’m thinking about fashion again as a way of ideas moving through culture. But between those two periods, from 2000-2007, I worked on a series of projects where one of my main goals was the attempt to make an image of how the thing we are deeply attracted to can turn on us. For example, I reconstructed the space of the American Bar, which was built in 1908, the same year that the architect Adolf Loos gave a lecture that became his famous essay “Ornament and Crime.” The essay talks about the progressive development of society through the increasingly pure reduction of ornamentation. I thought, Well, what’s the end game with that?

I made an all-white version of this bar. White is the color of evil, in the sense of white as erasure. It allows for no color, no gradation, no dirt, nothing. And I made an all-white version of his essay, white letters on white vellum. Through great effort, I made this intensely bright, light space in which you would experience the bar, the barware, the bar sign and the essay. My assumption was that the viewer would go through a very simple process. (I always thought of display as a process, a performative thing.) First you would come into an all-white space that’s incredibly pristine. In theory, to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of upbringing, with a background like mine, it could be viscerally attractive, almost erotically attractive. And then I assumed another set of thoughts or feelings would follow. One would ask: “Where’s the color?” or “Where’s the dirt?” or ”Who cleans it?”

To my disappointment, 90 percent of the people who experienced this work never got to that second, perhaps more critical, stage. They just thought, Wow, this is so exciting, and sensually beautiful. And I was really shocked by that. So, I spent the next few years trying to push this problem as far as I could in my work. I made Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, a cube of “infinitely” repeating modernist shapes. I assumed that anything that’s infinitely repeated is bad, right? Infinite repetition means that there’s no room for anything, there’s no room for me, you know? There’s no room for you. It’s just the thing endlessly repeated. Again, to my great disappointment, this kind of reflection was not the most common reaction. My idea is that art is a place where we can play and ask questions. And I still want to believe that. Unfortunately, when I think I’ve made a very clear demonstration of corrupt and dangerous ideas, I’m often unable to get people to stand in that critical spot with me.

GB: What’s changed the direction of my thinking in the past seven years or so, is an ongoing engagement with the philosophy of David Hume. (I was looking for an alternative to my own education, which focused on continental theory and French Hegelianism, either for or against Hegel.) Hume thought that it’s impossible for Reason to establish the necessity of causal relations. That’s an enormously humbling idea. We can’t be certain that simple causal relations will always result in the same effects. And so I think that it’s completely possible to pick up an object from the past and use it in ways with unpredictable results. I have hope in the possibility of different outcomes.

In the past few years I also became very much interested in object relations theory and psychoanalytic theory. I’m very moved by the work of the analyst D. W. Winnicott. He described our developmental learning process as a process of finding the object through losing the object. Objects don’t exist for us until we’ve actually had them once, then lose them, and finally recover them. It’s only through the recovery of lost objects that objects become alive for the infant. This is a very hopeful theory and I think it is related to the methods you have for discovering objects, unearthing forgotten forms in the hope of discovering them anew. Novelty is a feeling. When you come across something exciting that appears novel, the object is not actually new—

JM: You are new!

GB: The sensation, the excitement is what makes you feel new.

JM: From our position in the postmodern world, we could imagine a future but we know our imagination of the future won’t be the future. Maybe in the modernist era you could imagine the future as the future. Still, even though we find ourselves in a very different position, people who have the privilege to present ideas in the public sphere have a responsibility to propose alternatives. And that doesn’t mean that they will be the alternatives that will become true. The proposal itself is something worthy and important; I mean a humble proposal with the awareness of its own limits. Just because the modernists made proposals for universal solutions that don’t allow for variation doesn’t mean that the very idea of offering proposals is wrong. Does it? Proposals are necessary, even it it’s just a moment that creates a sense of novelty about how we perceive the world.

GB: As I said before, I think that there are different modernisms and that the various modernisms have vastly different relations to historical materialism. And there are many different versions of historical materialism throughout the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. So it’s hard to come up with one statement about the use or abuse of modernism in general. That’s why it’s productive to talk about the specificity of your working process. The critical strength of your work is comprehended through the particular methods you employ to display the unique objects that you produce.

JM: This could be a digression but I think it may be useful or interesting. I was working on a show in Stockholm, which was about the retelling of modernist history. And also about Scheerbart and the architect Bruno Taut, who was Scheerbart’s collaborator and protégé, in a way. The curator, Iris Muller Westermann, proposed that we retell the story of modernism, in part by correcting it—which I’m all for—by expanding it, by saying the truth: the first person to paint a purely abstract picture in the Western canon was not Kandinsky, but a woman, the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. The curator invited me to co-curate a show of this artist’s paintings. It was a fantastic opportunity—we showed some of Klint’s works for the first time since the ‘20s. We cut a hole in the floor of the family foundation that cares for her work, in order to get out this incredible pyramidal, multi-colored painting, for example. Somehow they had gotten it in but the door was no longer big enough to take it out!

However, returning to your point about specificity, what’s been surprising and very encouraging is that the more specific I make something, the more it becomes something else. All these works that I have done that are essentially about the idea of postmodernity began with a piece called An End to Modernity. Maybe it’s a pompous title, but the idea is that both science and culture arrived, at almost exactly the same moment, at the realization that there are an infinite number of histories of the world. And that if we could actually observe from each of their specific viewpoints, we could see that they are all equally correct.

Anyway, I had the idea to make a sculpture, which eventually became An End to Modernity, in which every single aesthetic decision had a one-to-one relationship to the scientific information around the theory of the Big Bang, which postulates this infinite number of possible histories. I wanted to generate a sense of aesthetics that does not look random, nor systematized, and yet also doesn’t appear to be the product of a single mind. Even though the sculpture looks industrial, it’s not composed of repeated parts, which would seem to be the very definition of the industrial. It’s composed of individual arrangements of things, which defies the notion of efficiency, that is, modernity. I don’t expect that viewers get the very specific references that interest me, the specific scientific concepts. Rather, my goal was to infuse the sculpture with the scientific information in an absolutely accurate manner in order to create something whose biggest effect is uncanniness, or some kind of emotional response to its underlying, ineffable qualities. People I respect say they don’t necessarily see what I claim about my work in it, but they find something else useful for themselves. Maybe these works come from my own private dialogue, and their ultimate effect is something that I don’t understand.

GB: We’re getting to a point where I would expect you to address the topic of subjectivity and the role of subjectivity in art making. Actually, I can’t suspend that concern. For me, theories of subjectivity are central to the study of modernisms. I am inspired by the way Yvonne Rainer explores subjectivity in her films and choreography–through autobiography, through telling other people’s stories. Rainer uses quotations from personal accounts of the world and presents them through a variety of formal approaches. Her methods are primary models for me. I’m wondering where the role of subjectivity arises for you in what you refer to as modernism. In your discussion of modernism you emphasize its industrial character, its universalizing tendency, it multiplying potential. And you just talked about the way that you try to counter these aspects of modernism in your own work. You brought up the idea of infinite possibilities, which reminds me of another central tendency within modernism, the singularity of point of view. Where is the place for identity politics that consider points of view along lines of gender, sexuality, race, or class?

JM: I began exploring the history of modernism through ideas around exhibition, display, and education. Those things are interrelated to me. My first works were quasi-educational museum structures. The first artwork I ever made—and I didn’t consider it a work at the time—was a museum that you would find in the forest by accident. It had both originals and fakes in it that I made myself.

Now with my current work, I ‘m trying to explore exactly what you’re asking about. Contemporary art history provides me with a new model for how to investigate subjectivity in some sense. I did a work in “collaboration” with the artist Allan Kaprow, after he was dead; I was commissioned to do this by his estate and the curator Helen Molesworth. But importantly, it was Kaprow’s idea that his work could be reinterpreted subjectively by others. My response to the request to make a new iteration of Karpow’s Yard, a work created from used tires, was to take a panoramic picture of a neighborhood full of used tires. It will be the last industrial urban redevelopment neighborhood in New York—where they tear down an old neighborhood and start from scratch. And then last year I was collaborating with another dead artist, Blinky Palermo. I was trying to imagine what it would be like if he came to a certain place today with the same attitudes and emotions and feelings as he had, let’s say, in 1970. I worked with two of the most important Palermo scholars, Christine Mehring and Susanne Küper to get as much information as possible about his working methods, in order to test this theory of mine. Palermo proposed a kind of unexplored trajectory within “minimalist abstract conceptual art,“ in which the point is not to create a situation where a conceptualization is presented to the audience, but where the conceptualization is actually there to create the possibility of the audience experiencing something themselves. So instead of the artist saying “I was here,“ a structure is set up to create the possibility for the viewer to say, “I am here.”

So in Palermo’s idea of responding to space as a conceptual structure, he starts by measuring, using a dimension of the body—basically a hand’s breadth. For Palermo, each gesture was a subtle response to the space he occupied. He created straight lines, using a spirit level and 90-degree right angles, that always ended up diverging from the building itself. So basically the work is constantly showing the shift from the theoretical space of the architecture—its theoretical perfection—to the actual misaligned, imperfect angles that all buildings evidence. He was saying that ideas have to respond to the space the body is actually in. I think he wanted the viewer to think, Oh, I am in this specific space; and this specific space, if you take measure of it, has a peculiar set of qualities. It’s different than Sol LeWitt, who worked during exactly the same historical period as Palermo. LeWitt, said “Take a wall, any wall, divide it in half.” And, to me, that’s a way of obviating subjectivity. It could be any wall. It doesn’t matter where the wall is. The cultural situation of the wall doesn’t matter.

That relates to what my last show at Andrea Rosen Gallery was about, using abstraction as a way of imagining a new body. How did you see that show?

GB: I saw it as a very hopeful gesture. When I was walking through the exhibition I wondered if you imagined that it was possible through plays of abstraction to call to mind new configurations of gender. So yeah, I agree with you that the show held out the possibility of reimagining bodies, other people’s bodies, and body shapes, by reflecting on one’s own image of the self. We could continue this line of thought, but I’m mindful of the time and I want to ask one more question. You’ve talked about Scheerbart, Palermo, Kaprow, and others. How would you characterize your relationship to the dead? You seem to have a number of lively conversations going on with deceased artists.

JM: This goes back to your saying that, in a way, the dead aren’t dead, they live on through us. I think the idea of being haunted is something that runs through all of my work. Remembering itself is a kind of haunting. I often find it funny when people say that a sculpture is mute. Its very presence indicates how the thoughts of others persist. I don’t understand people who want to make “new” things, because it seems that if you intend to make something new you’re just going to reinvent something somebody else made before without knowing. It’s like saying that you make something only for yourself, without regard to what others have done. But when you create something that can outlast oneself, you’re creating a kind of, I don’t know, good ghost. It’s possible that an artist might add one more idea, one more permissive idea that could haunt the world in a positive way. That’s not my goal necessarily, bit it could be a pretty good outcome.

GB: You don’t believe that you can make something new. Do you believe that you can produce novel emotions?

JM: I would propose that one of the main purposes of life is to learn how to give and receive love. To do that, the past must be re-inhabited and reenacted. Just because something has been done once can’t mean that it doesn’t need to be done again. Perhaps, repetition can’t be avoided. I believe that doing is worthwhile, in the way the pragmatists understood learning through doing. I don’t mean doing without criticality or self-awareness. One can certainly evaluate the usefulness of the activity. I guess we’ve returned to the subject of enthusiasm.

GB: It’s interesting to start with modernism and end with love, because love is the one project that every individual must repeat and repeat in spite of previous failure or disappointment. It’s a matter of psychological survival.

JM: To close, I want to return to the topics of subjectivity and gender. Considering the current historical moment we’re living in, there’s one thing that gives me some hope—the beginnings of a deep change in our society’s ability to recognize an individual’s potentiality and right to determine their very own bodily psychic identity. I think that’s why I’m excited about the idea of combining abstraction with subjectivity. I hope it’s worthwhile to try to create new examples or manifestations of permissive, subjective thinking. My recent exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery was trying to do that. But I had a fear about the “Walking Mirror” pieces I constructed for this show. I was concerned that they would feel like a total erasure of the performer who was wearing them. So I asked the performers to improvise with them. But to my complete surprise, they became instead these absorptive bodies because while they were moving through space, the viewers saw themselves completely reflected in them. It’s as if they had absorbed you (the viewer). It seems I have moved from questions of display and education to the questions we’ve just discussed—How does subjectivity change historically and how are we changed by newly developing subjectivities?

BOMB 121/Fall 2012
Josiah McElheny

Photographs and drawings for the very first glass-clad skyscrapers were originally published in the summer of 1922 in the last issue of Bruno Taut’s short-lived journal Fruhticht. They depicted two designs by Mies van der Rohe: his unsuccessful 1921 competition entry for a site on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse, and the “Glass Skyscraper Project” of the following year. For the latter, he built a model with glass panels for use in his ongoing studio experiments with illumination and refraction. 

Architectural models typically include contextualizing elements: a city plan often presents us with abstracted, minimal representations of buildings that already exist on the site or imaginary buildings that might be built later. The lack of delineation is intentional. In order to not distract from the grandeur of the new design, Mies’s “Glass Skyscraper Project” was different. He created a series of photographs where the skyscraper model was situated amid two rows of detailed-if stylized-imaginary historical buildings. Some images even depict the skyscraper outdoors, set among real trees and sky. In the Museum of Modern Art catalogue accompanying the 2001 exhibition “Mies in Berlin, “ a hand-tinted print of one of these photographs is accompanied by a caption that states, “Glass Skyscraper Project-no intended site known.” Current research strongly suggests that Mies did not intend for the photographs to be understood as portraying a particular place; the model was intended as a proposal for a new theory of light in architecture. Yet Mies took the unusual step of placing his design in what appears to be a real site, replete both with history and evocations of nature. The caption that the catalogue gives the project seems to imply that it is for no place. This impression is paradoxical. The thirty story building clearly stands in a somewhere, and yet that somewhere is considered a nowhere.
The tower inhabits some kind of square, and the structures around it—made in the form of one-sided plaster facades by the Expressionist artist Oswald Herzog—are obviously intended to depict what would have been considered old buildings, even in 1922. It is a choice that creates an undeniable sense of place. To some, these scale buildings appear to be specific houses in a specific city or town; there have been repeated efforts to identify them. The oral histories related by Mies’s collaborators suggest that the buildings are an amalgam of architectural memories, and so create an undeniable sense of the familiar. A Haspburg-era square? A nineteenth-century northern European street?

The purpose of Mies’s gesture has generated a fair amount of scholarship of late, but also makes a simple statement: it seems he, at least briefly, imagined his new modernist vision existing not in a completely remade world, but in a world in which both the architectural past and nature were acknowledged. Most famous skyscraper cities, like New York, have become what they are by progressively replacing their historic architecture with ever-taller buildings. With very few exceptions, truces between the new and the old rarely seem to last. Here in Mies’s images we see what such a truce might have looked like. Here is a modernism that is not everywhere, only somewhere.
Everywhere soon became the paradigm. The year 1922 also witnessed Le Corbusier’s “Contemporary City,” and by 1925 he had introduced Plan Voisin, his proposal to raze entire neighborhoods and replace them with endless rectilinear housing blocks. While never built, this became a model for housing worldwide, much of which was a social disaster and ultimately a failure. But this new everywhere always seemed to require—or at least hoped for—a complete erasure in order to begin. Mies joined in with the program and before long we had a modernism that, in tandem with Taylorism and Fordism, could be implemented from China to Chicago, Moscow to Berlin—a modernism that was both everywhere and nowhere because it erased any somewhere that was already there. In the rare cases where people successfully objected, a solution was soon found: conquer the farmland and forest at the edge of the cities to create the concrete suburb. In either case from the cities of France to Cabrini Green in Chicago, social disaster ensued.

Mies is remembered to have said that the historical buildings surrounding his model were meant to be “hideous” housing: and the current trend among scholars is to describe them as decaying, caricaturist, “medieval” structures and connect them to architectural depictions in contemporaneous Expressionist films about horror and decrepitude, such as Robert Wiene’s 1919 “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Paul Wegener’s 1920 “Golem, “and F. W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.” This comparison is in perfect concordance with Mies’s own notion at the time: that the existing buildings in Berlin were a debased form of architecture. The critical interpretation reflects Mies’s own stated prejudices and perceptions, but do they also reflect our own? Looking at the sculptural models in the photographs without actively trying to imagine them as a horror movie set, the buildings seem more childlike than terrifying, more playful than neglected. In these visual experiments, as much as the skyscraper dominates the other buildings or trees and sky—as was perhaps Mies’s conscious intention—it is also humanized by their presence, offering us a familiar pre-modern anthropomorphic scale. Perhaps this disjunction between stated intention and result is indicative of a repressed impulse within Mies’s vision. Today it is more important to look for instances, however weakly expressed, where reconciliation with the environment might have been possible, rather than reinforce Mies’s declarations of disgust towards the existing historic world around him. In analyzing the past in light of our belated realization that resources are inherently finite, we need architecture to resurrect the modernist hope for new ways of living, but outside the confines of the economic ideology of “creative destruction.”

The unusual nature of these photographic studies suggests “”revisionist” questions: What if Mies were actually calling for the integration of new structures with the old? What if he were pointing to a modernism that acknowledged the architecture of the past as being compatible with—perhaps even enriching—the new modernism of technology, capital, and political “efficiency?” What if he were proposing an alternative to the erasure of the past, the clearing of the obsolete, the violent starting anew that modernism proposed and enacted? What if instead of a post-modernism that simply borrowed forms from buildings often long ago demolished or discredited, there had been all along an accommodation between the modernism of the new and the architectures of the past? What if they had been viewed as compatible, instead of fundamentally opposed?
When Mies created these photographs, it was not yet clear what would soon happen, how perfectly the modernist project would suit the needs of the developing economic and political situation, and how this alliance would decimate the old. The “Glass Skyscraper Project” is a proposal that—despite Mies’s efforts to demonstrate domination—provides a slender hope for accommodation. It presents a literal juxtaposition of the new and the old, a model for coexistence with history. The political implications of this idea that perhaps the modernist project could have developed in a situation of a somewhere, while perhaps fanciful, might also be far reaching. People’s identity is always formed by place. Perhaps these little experiments of Mies’s can function as a reminder of how plans for a new world almost always seem to forget that everywhere and nowhere do not exist, cannot exist. Everything and everyone resides in a somewhere.

1 Because of its baroque and at the time unrealizable nature the “Glass Skyscraper Project” represents the only moment when Mies can be connected with the more spiritual and romantic leanings of Taut and his colleagues. Taut’s group, the Crystal Chain had in the previous few years developed a manifesto for a new fantastical architecture that promised a politicized but quasi-spiritual experience for the common worker. Mies’s rejection from the 1919 Austellung fur unbekannte Architekten (Exhibition for Unknown Architects)—sometimes soon as a precursor for the Crystal Chain—and his subsequent decision to submit the proposal to Taut’s journal are significant in this light. For more on this see Iain Boyd Whyte, Bruno Taut and the Architecture of Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980) and Mertins, op. cit.
2 Terence Riley & Barry Bergdoll, eds Mies in Berlin (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), pp. 186-187. 3 See Spyros Papapetros, “Malicious Houses: Animation, Animism, Animosity in German Architecture and Film—From Mies to Murnau,” in Grey Room, no. 20. Summer 2005, pp. 6-37, and Detlef Bertins, “Architectures of Becoming: Mies van der Rohe and the Avant-Garde,” in Mies in Berlin, op. cit., pp. 106-133. There has been speculation that the facades depicted in the photographs were modeled after contemporaneous buildings on Friedrichstrasse, the site of Mies’s earlier project, but comparison with period photographs of the avenue does not bear this out. In fact according to Werner Graef, Mies’s former assistant, Herzog recounted that Mies instructed him: “Make me a piece of Friedrichstrasse as it once was; it does not have to be exact, only in principle.” (Papapetros, op. cit., pp. 19 and 24).
4 According to Mertins, there is no general agreement on a source model for those buildings (email correspondence with the author). Beyond literal identification, scholars have interpreted the classification of the surrounding buildings variously; some, like Michael Hayes (in email correspondence with the author), have suggested that they might be Biedermier, while others like Graef, have compared them to buildings by Mies’s former teacher, Peter Behrens. See Graef’s comment in Papapetros. op. cit., p. 26.
5 Papapetros. op. cit., p. 10.
6 Even when the model was first exhibited these surrounding buildings were redescribed as “poor:” See Papapetros, op.cit., p. 19. The fact that the sculptural models were built as facades not unlike movie sets suggests another reason for this contemporary reading. 7 In the historic downtowns of Europe—either surviving or reconstructed—tall buildings were typically banned and so this vision of the International Style in the midst of a historic town is incongruous and surprising today.