A glimpse into the political unconscious of architecture

Photo: Anu Vahtra / ekkm.ee

Contemporary (Estonian) architecture cannot really brag about indulging in impressive theoretical fireworks or posing existential and intriguing questions right now– quite the contrary. At the same time however, art has increasingly begun addressing issues concerning space – "spatial studies" have become interesting for so many artists with backgrounds in photography and installation that it almost seems like a phenomenon in its own right. This time Anders Härm from the Contemporary Art Museum Estonia (CAME) took it upon himself to study space as a tool of ideology, a projection of fantasies and desires.

The exhibition "Black House" displays five series of photographs, four videos, one sculpture and one installation – so, even though the focus is on spatial issues, most of the works actually confront them through the representation of space. This is a secondary space – the curator primarily concentrates on two-dimensional media and when it comes to space, above all he is interested in the mediation – an analytical approach. Härm's previous attempt to problematize architecture, "Simulacrum City" at the 7th international Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000, also tackled issues of the surface of space, mediation, representation and ostensibility.

Being on the inside, in the interior that should be the prime concern of architecture, is not the primary issue here. Even works that analyse interiors (Eve Kiiler's panoramas of the Sakala centre, partly also Jasmina Cibici's re-enactment of a fictional encounter or Dénes Farkas's maquettes of spaces) are still only presentations, panoramas. This works to actualise the symbolic, representational aspect of spatial power – how architecture "speaks" and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the more subtle aspects of space related to bio-power. In this way the concept of power is approached more in the vein of Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, as something oppressive, rather than in the Foucauldian sense, as something dispersed, bodily and productive.

Yet it is also true that when power is represented in this particular way, "something else" always also comes through: a space, materialised as architecture, also articulates aspects of ideology that it would not dare to put into words, the existence of which within ideology is not acknowledged. This is what Žižek says, and his works are the theoretical backbone of this exhibition; surprisingly though, despite his unfathomable grasp when it comes to cultural analysis, he has only recently begun writing about architecture.[1]Žižek bases his claims on Jameson's concept of the political unconscious: aesthetics is ideological and the creation of an aesthetic or narrative form is an ideological act that provides imaginary "solutions" to unsolvable issues in society. In architecture, just like in the aesthetics of other fields of culture, there is a coded message that often functions as the return of the repressed – something that the official ideology cannot publicly speak of, expressed in the mute language of architecture. A building is capable of conveying "knowledge we do not even know we possess". Architecture shapes rejected or subliminal beliefs, so that we can leave our agenda unarticulated and retain our "innocence", yet still take advantage  in seeing the agenda at work.

Therefore, Dénes Farkas's "Green Diagonal" (2006) displays the standardised violence written into a rationalised organisation of space – in everyday life, ideology functions best in the most innocent allusions to utility. In contrast, Eve Kiiler's juxtaposition of the house of trade unions and City Plaza (2003/2014) illustrates the all encompassing "larger than life" complex of the desires of neoliberal capitalism. Similarly, Jasmina Cibic's video "Framing the Space" (2012) shows Villa Bled's ability to morph into a representational space for different regimes, while displaying the stunning compatibility between these ideologies. Under the guidance of the architect Vinko Glanz, the former summer palace of the Yugoslavian royal family became the residency of Josip Broz Tito in the 1950s, and even though the process of modification was accompanied by extensive ideological discussion (re-enacted in the video as a stiff, detached and melodramatic conversation), the physical space and its aesthetics act as a "muted language" through which what cannot be articulated still comes though. Nevertheless, the video does not show the third ‘life' of the same building as an exclusive hotel, opened last year, where its fascinating history and the visitors' desire for an "authentic" totalitarian environment only add to its market value.

Mario García Torres's research project spanning a number of years, "¿Alguna vez has visto la nieve caer?" (Have you ever seen the snow?) (2010), was driven by the illusion that a space can retain an authentic touch of some sort and instigate an impossible dialogue by acting as a bridge between different times. Torres tries to trace the life of the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti, while he was living in Kabul in the 1970s, and looks for evidence of the hippy hotel "One", that Boetti used to run, from an environment and a society that has now become completely transformed. When there is nothing else but mediations left – photographs, notes, satellite images, but also memories, rumours, gossip, fantasies, the fictive place and the fictive story become entwined and what becomes the most significant part of it all is the process of intertwining itself. Still, there has to be a reference point in reality that can maintain this kind of obsession. What is this power in a real or imaginary space that holds up such a fixation?

The culmination of the exhibition is Neeme Külm's laconic installation "House" (2014), a steel cage in the shape of an archetypical house on the roof of CAME – it simultaneously makes the spatial boundaries dispersingly illusionary and disquietingly present. Again, it causes me to admire Külm's concentrated precision that allows him to convey a very specific, yet complex set of ideas without becoming too sweetly metaphorical or ramblingly narrative. The last time I visited the exhibition, a bone-piercing sound of a high-pressure washer (?) coming from the adjacent Tallinn Creative Hub construction site could be heard the whole time. For me this unscheduled sound effect transformed "The House" into a cell in Guantanamo where the complete lack of privacy and the interrogation tacticsusing sound[2] reduce existence to bare life.[3]This accidental experience "overwrote" and developed the work further, yet without erasing other initial interpretations.

So does space have any chance of escaping the clutch of ideology? Žižek mercifully gives us the hope that we can find freedom in accidental ‘leftover' spaces that appear from time to time as the co-products of adaptation – this is not far from Peter Eisenman's "spaces of undecidability"[4]or Jameson's "minimal difference"[5]that creates freedom with the aid of the potential for irony. If anywhere at all, utopia survives and functions in functionally empty gestures, as demonstrated in Anri Sala's documentary "Dammi i colori" (Give Me Colours) (2003), which presents an attempt to tackle the very utilitarian problems in Tirana by directing available resources to painting the facades of houses in bright colours. Paul Kuimet's 16 mm film-loop "2060" (2014) points to another alternative – establishing one's own time. Among other ways, power also functions in space by ruling over time, by dissecting and instrumentalising it. A space that has been politicised from the top down divides time into frozen units, a free-flowing and undefined time is expelled from that space. However, in the time loop Kuimet created, Edgar Viires' (1932–2006) sculpture becomes the ruler of this space by establishing its own time and, from a minor position, conquers the institutional, knowledge-producing museum space that would otherwise define the way the sculpture is to be looked at. 

All the works exhibited at "Black House" are really strong, in both senses – consummate, undisputable in their own way – each one is like a slap in the face. And so, the exhibition as a whole is more like a sequence of independent slaps.

The viewing experience and the overall impression of exhibitions that discuss space are without a doubt influenced by the space the show is being presented in. The physical space of CAME is fragmented, the viewers have to piece the whole together in their heads, and this is complemented by the physical experience of moving in the museum, where the space constantly keeps making itself known in a very immediate manner. CAME could very well be an art space with the most intense character of its own in Estonia, which requires an equal amount of strength if the work wants to survive.

Contrary to what might be expected, not many works commenting on the specifics of space have been displayed at CAME – only Anu Vahtra's installation "17,9°" in the gantry in 2012 during the Artishok Biennale comes to mind. But even more, the space, considering its current condition, makes the viewer think about CAME's institutional position and nature: clear traces of it being independent and self-initiated are combined with the desire to be almost a white cube or a ‘proper' institution and with competence. There is the desire to be both things at once, to use the credibility of both models – CAME as an institution and a space inhabits an exciting in-between state. The fact that this exhibition lacked a self-analytical approach to this issue is probably my only grievance against the show, otherwise so pleasantly muscular.

[1]See: Slavoj Žižek, The Architectural Parallax. – The Political Unconscious of Architecture. Re-opening Jameson’s Narrative. Edited by Nadir Lahiji. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011, 255–297.

[2]Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare At Goats. London: Picador, 2012, 169.

[3]See: Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Souvereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, 1998

[4]Peter Eisenman, Zones of Undecidability: The Process of the Interstitial. – ANYhow. Edited by Cynthia Davidson. Boston: The MIT Press, 1998, 28–35.

[5]Fredric Jameson, Is Space political? – Anyplace. Edited by Cynthia Davidson. The MIT Press, 1995.

Recycling utopias
Architecture photo with a small boy

Add a comment

Email again: