Living among ruins. Living among objects, in one’s own and others’ spaces. Building upon the ruins of history. Abolishing the error and the horror? Building upon the projects of modernity? Beginning over and over again. Building upon poverty , upon silence and emptiness? No aesthetics without ethics. From the city’s desert following the battle, Berlin levelled by the bombs, expertly set by Roberto Rosselini in Germania, anno zero (1947), to the contemporary city’s opulence based on everyday speculation, for instance, the Barcelona in the devastation of one’s memory, reliably documented by José Luis Guerin in En construcción (2001). The transformations of urban space, changes in the ways of everyday life erase the moral memory of collective history, but also one’s own experiences, the mute presence of everyday objects, the invisible trace of public and private habits. In the devastated landscape of our individual and collective memory, the presence of architecture and everyday objects, the inner space, domestic space occupies a supreme territory in building our personal imagination, in building our shared life. “Architecture is the genuine battle ground of our spirit”, wrote Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in 1950.
In a scene from Ordet (The Word) (1955), the great poem set into a film by Dreyer, Johannes, the fool, the mystic ¾who, through his faith will make the miracle of life come true¾, in a conversation with the pastor, who feels perplexed, who enters Borgen’s house and states: “I’m a builder… I build houses, but man doesn’t want to live in them… They want to build them themselves… But they can’t no matter how hard they try. And therefore some live in half-finished huts… others in ruins… but most wander about without a house or a home.”
Around the time when Dreyer was filming Ordet, in August 1954, Heidegger, who had never uttered a word of criticism about the nazi barbarity, was completing a volume called, Conferences and Articles (Vorträge und Aufsätze), in which, among other papers, he mentioned his famous text “Build, inhabit, think” (Bauen Wohnen Denken), from a conference he presented in 1951. The philosopher stated: “The genuine penury of residing lies in the fact that we mortals must first seek to discover once again the art of residing, we have to learn first how to reside.” Because “only if we are capable of residing may we build.”
Around the same time, Maurice Blanchot, in L’espace littéraire (Literary Space) (1955), wrote that, in literary work, in the work of art, uncovering the truth will not lead us to see the light, unlike what Heideggaer stated, but rather will lead us into darkness, to the nomad’s desert, endless wandering, the anonymity of nowhere. Huts in the desert.
It may be cinema that is the art through which the difficulty of modern man to inhabit the world has been shown, in a more direct and diverse way, in a sustainable way, in balance with nature, and holding a conversation with the other, following the contemporary ways of life governed by speed, violence, usury, consumerism and the loss of individual and collective identities. The need of a house, one’s own home, a domestic space where it is possible to find privacy, even if this is set in a nomadic way of life, which beside spaces that are really public, allow a free, sovereign and supportive subject to become, in our society which is far too obsessed with show business, one of the primary needs of the contemporary individual.
One of the most moving scenes in the world of cinema at the end of the 20th century is the one shown in Offret (Sacrifice) (1986), Andrei Tarkovski’s cinematography testament. It concerns a six-minute sequence which shows how Alexander, the film’s main character sets light to and watches, silently, while his wooden house burns, situated beside the sea, on an island. This is no gratuitous or nihilistic feat, but rather a real sacrifice. It is a radical and solitary gesture, Alexander decides to get rid of everything, even his own home and his beloved son, so as to save humanity, his family, from a possible world catastrophe. Alexander’s house, the Offret house, makes up the symbolic centre of the extraordinary parable by Tarkovski which decries the materialism and nihilism of the western world and calls for a spiritual or religious experience, the individual’s responsibility, as the only ways for us to escape from destruction. The initial image and the end of Offret which are shown by Alexander’s son watering a wilted dry tree —symbol of faith, according to Tarkovski— symbolise hope in the future which the author of Andrei Rublev or Stalker wishes to convey.
Beside these messianic examples, the utopian dream of a modern project is built dealing with rational architecture which has also been inherited from the art and thought of the 20th century, which has struggled to project, with some obvious success and failure, a new way of life, a new way of residing, with the will, even, of succeeding in changing society. It is the tradition of the illustration project, of architectural modernity, majestically represented by Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe or Alvar Aalto, whom Domènec has reclaimed and revised in a number of the most outstanding works in recent years.
Domènec (Mataró, 1962), with admirable coherence and honesty, has focused his artistic work on critical and lyrical thought concerning the paradoxes and mysteries of modern life, concerning our way of residing, based on our relationship with space and objects. Based on conceptual processes of thought, Domènec has gradually created a pictorial, sculptural, object-oriented, photographic and video-graphic work which takes the project of object-oriented and architectural design as if they were one of the most productive and complex imaginary constructions of modern tradition. Domènec extracts ambiguous objects, disturbing facilities and perplexing visions from the contradictory results and the multiple fissures of the project of architectural, artistic and philosophical modernity, all of which raises the question concerning failures in political, social and esthetical utopias while addressing the spiritual misery and the existential absurdity of our everyday lives, our domestic lives. The cultural and social alienation of the individual as one of the clearest consequences of modern capitalism in the Western world becomes one of the most recurring ideas in the work of Domènec.
In an intuitive and gradual way, and thanks to the possibilities gained through recognition of his work, Domènec has gradually widened the scope of his artistic exploration, ranging from the creation of small-sized paintings and sculptures to the building of areas where one may walk through or even works of large scale facilities.
During the nineties, Domènec concentrated on the world of sculpture, always from a highly original practice, mainly working on series of exhibits with small dimensions which have gradually grown. Characterised by their sensuality of touch as well as being formal, the sculptures from the Freeze series (1994-1996), made in wood and nails, surprise one due to their capacity of creating fascination while at the same time, rejection or, even, disgust. As the fetishes of African cultures, the sculptures in the Freeze series do not leave us unmoved. These works, whose abstract organic shapes come from the subconscious or remind us of animal shapes or everyday objects, such as larvae or cushions, constitute single colour sculptures, an off white, covered, in some cases with nails or thorns, such as cacti, sea urchins or hedgehogs.
The works in the Freeze series provoke, voluntarily, distance, coldness. They are ambiguous sculptures, between the everyday object and fetish, which, because of their crafted finish and their organic shapes, become distanced equally from the pieces of a minimalist type and those of a conceptual origin. These characteristics are highlighted even more in the series titled Híbrids (1996-1998), sculptures also made of wood, hand turned on a lathe, equally monochrome, in white, in which the possible functional or aesthetic features of the object are mixed. Hybrids, mysterious enigmatic objects, which begin by showing holes, or opening up their inner sides until they form inhabitable spaces. Pieces which evoke the idea of a nest, the idea of a cave, the idea of the mother’s womb. The lack of communication, isolation, which the works from the Freeze series seemed to transmit, begins to become clear in the pieces from the Híbrids series, which appear to long to open themselves up to space and to hold a plausible dialogue with the other.
El rostre aliè (The Face of Another) is the title of two different pieces which, in my opinion, highlight certain milestones in the evolution of Domènec’s work. As a result of a joint workshop held in Montesquiu, in 1994, Domènec created an ephemeral installation titled El rostre aliè. This concerned a rectangular wooden structure placed outdoors, exposed to the wind and rain, hollow, and painted white, where the only thing highlighted was the appearance of a mantelpiece, also painted in white, which bore no object or thing. Like an empty secular temple, like an anti-monument, El rostre aliè (1994) was the first sculptural piece with an architectural structure created by Domènec. The opening to a dialogue, before someone else’s face, however, does not appear to be the functional aim of this construction at all, which fails to turn into a confessional or an area for transcendental meditation either. With the same title of El rostre aliè, in 1997, Domènec created a sculpture which had the shape of a mask but devoid of the openings for the eyes or mouth and which was meant to be placed on a wall, thus the likely wearer of the mask —as the creator himself has shown in a series of photographs— has to be placed facing the wall. It is the impossible task of striking up a dialogue, the impossible task of the glance, the rejection of the other. But, also, the need for otherness. Je est un autre, wrote Rimbaud. Our face is someone else’s face, the other myself. The dialogue, as Freud has shown us, begins in oneself. Without the inner opening, without the opening up to the other, dialogue cannot begin. It is based on this need for a dialogue, of this need for opening up, that the area opens up, where architecture appears like a place, a living space, a place where one can exchange things and a place for communication, or for a lack of communication, providing isolation or silence.
In an excerpt from the outstanding text titled “Ablèpsia, l’artista cec” (Ablepsia, the Blind Artist), dating back to 1997, Domènec reflects on a photographed portrait of Buster Keaton, who appears sitting with both his hands open covering his eyes. It is a still from the movie titled Film (1964), the only incursion into the movie world by Samuel Beckett. As if he were referring to El rostre aliè (1994 and 1997), Domènec wrote: “The difficulty of understanding what we see, the impossibility of the look. The artist is like a blind man within a totally white cold storage room, overtaken by a feverish dizziness, whom in an effort of dubious usefulness attempts to make art become a skin which wraps the chaos, the materialisation of a large hole. Petit vide grande lumière cube tout blancheur faces sans trace aucun souvenir [Samuel Beckett, Sans]. The white blindness, a nowhere place.”
The series of photographs titled Blanc com la llet (White as Milk) (1998) is the witness of the appearance of a number of fragile and delicate organic shapes, parallel to the latest works from the Híbrids series. This deals with enlargements of photographs of small ephemeral models, made in white plasticine and later destroyed. These are totally ambiguous from which may be compared to body organs or precarious living spaces, clay huts, the dens of several different animals. We may also evoke the irregular shapes of a cave. The danger and the strangeness of these mysterious and particular areas, elemental and simple living spaces, express a nomadic existence, exposed to the elements, reduced to the minimum expression. In Höhlenausgänge (Departures from the Cave) (1989) —as Franz Josef Wetz remarked in his study concerning the German philosopher—, Hans Blumenberg features man as a visible being who escapes from reality by sheltering in the invisibility of the cave. The visibility of the cave obliges man to become aware of his nakedness and his defenselessness. “There is only one way out of the cave —states Blumenberg¾, the one that is in ourselves.”
In the midst of a culture obsessed by show business, by audiovisual simulations of the virtual image, opening oneself up to a new critical look, building up once again from poverty, from the realities which we experience. A new primitivism, a new humanism, which places man above technique. If the experience of progress has led us to war and destruction, experience and poverty bring us back to everyday life, back to the pleasure of a simple and free life. This is what Walter Benjamin experienced in Ibiza, and where he set his article in 1933 titled “Erfahnung und arumt” “Experience and poverty”, some years before his tragic death in Portbou, in 1940, as recalled by Vicente Valero in his biographical essay Experience and Poverty. Walter Benjamin in Ibiza, 1932-1933 (2001). “A poverty which leads us to start all over again, to think all over again from scratch, to get by with very little, to build with almost nothing, without turning one’s head either left or right. Among the great creators, there have always been impeccable spirits who began from scratch,” says Benjamin in his article “Experience and Poverty”, in which he mentioned, for instance, the works by Paul Klee or Adolf Loos.
It is the tradition of modernity, of the avant-garde, always beginning again, which sought other ways, in the return to our origins, to primitivism, to the essential things, the freeing of the academia, the freeing of an accumulation of history, of being free from the dependence of technique. And if, from among the constraints and weaknesses of minimal art and conceptual art, arte povera was to arise, at the same time as the excesses of the most frivolous post modern art, there has emerged a more critical post modern art, and more politically compromised, which has taken up again and reordered ideas, attitudes and proposals of conceptual art, minimal art, of arte povera. Domènec places himself, with his unusual work, within this critical post modern art which, by critically going over the tradition of modernity, does not renounce, here and now, hic et nunc, the fact of building a livable area, both individual and collective, from the most extreme poverty and lucidity.
In the last years of the nineties, Domènec began to work on projects which are based on precise architectural references. The installation titled 24 hores de llum artificial (24 Hours of Artificial Light) (1998-1999) recreates on full scale a room in the tuberculosis hospital in Paimio (1929-1933) made by Alvar Aalto —considered as a model due to its open relationship with natural elements—, which becomes a large wooden model on a full scale, devoid of windows, where the beds and the hospital equipment become monochrome sculptures which have nothing to do with their original function, useless objects, lit up excessively by the blinding light of neon lights which dazzle the view of the visitor. The project by Aalto concerning Paimio, in the recreation by Domènec, no longer exists, it has been deleted, neutralised, annihilated. The place in Paimio has become a nowhere. Heterotopia has become displacement. Domènec brings us face to face with the transformation of a utopian space of a modern project in a displaced space, devoid of personality, lifeless. Domènec’s negative critical reinterpretation is no criticism aimed at Aalto, but rather, it is obvious, a criticism of the evolution of our society which has blinded, annulled, impaired modern architectural projects. As if Domènec has reinterpreted Aalto based on Beckett. As Martí Peran mentioned in his article “24 hores de llum artificial. After Alvar Aalto” (1998): “the installation, in spite of Aalto’s accurate shadow, could easily be the room where Malone lay in death’s agony”. Have we really ended up living in a universal cloned clinic?
Un lloc (A Place) (1999) and Ici même (dins de casa) (At Home) (2000) share the presence of a model, and the photograph of this model in the woods, in one of Le Corbusier’s most renowned works: la Unité d’habitation in Marseille (1947-1952). The emblematic building of living quarters designed by Le Corbusier in Marseille —which studies the creation of a rigorously new way of residence and of constituting veritable communities—, converted into a furniture-model (it could also be a mini-bar) made in wood, painted white, becomes the fetiche, the curio, the absent centre of a single room in the installation of Un lloc. Beside the model of the ”Unité d’habitation”, a bed, a chair and a bookshelf make up the austere and monochrome furniture reduced to the minimum expression. The contrast between the presence of the furniture piece-model and the absence of dialogue with the other inexpressive elements in the room, considers inverting one’s own place, from the private place, into the no-place of the impersonal space of contemporaneity.
What does the simplifying and trivialising model of Le Corbusier’s building stand for in the installation titled Un lloc? It is true that ¾as was explained by Stanislaus von Moos in his biography on Le Corbusier¾ the Swiss architect sets out formally from the idea of a case of bottles. The separate houses are placed in the reinforced concrete structure like bottles in a case. But Domènec is not so interested in the wealth and formal and structural complexity of the work as in the paradigmatic character of the building when considering a utopian housing project of, as an emblem of modernity as well as an aesthetic, political and social project.
In the work titled Ici même (dins de casa) (2000) the photograph of the model of the ”Unité d’habitation” has become a simple iconoclastic advertising slogan placed in an area reserved for publicity inside a shelter built for a bus stop. Domènec has even edited the image of the model of Le Corbusier’s building in a serigraph, photographed in a forest, to make it into a simulation of a commercial which had been placed in different places for urban exhibits designed in Mataró and Banyoles. The recreation of the emblem of modernity has become a make, a logotype, a simple advertising slogan devoid of all real aim save one’s own critical referentiality which is proposed by Domènec’s project. Like a post modern ruin, like a boat adrift, the image of modernity offered to us by Domènec is frankly pessimistic, between the pure propaganda and the theme park the remains of the wreckage of modernity arise. Faced with banality and simulation, just an archaeology of knowledge, a profound and critical look, can bring us back, even though it is with sincere scepticism, the spirit of utopia.
As a precedent of the work and urban involvement Ici même (dins de casa), Domènec, in the framework of the project of an exhibition called Segona estació (Second Station) in Benifallet, built the installation titled Ici même (2000). The same prototype of a bus shelter he designed for Ici même (dins de casa), made of wood, painted white, with a long bench to sit upon and a roof to protect the user from the elements, was placed in the middle of the countryside, in a place where no means of transport existed. The difference is that the bright space reserved for advertisements is empty, it only projects white light on the visitor to the exhibition. Ici même, here and now, hic et nunc. Domènec created a place, an area where time stood still, a new area for relationships, for exchanges, for dialogues, for conversation, for thought, which, above all because of its brightness, has been used at night in several public festivals, as a number of photographs and videos prove. This public place, which has also become a no-place, a place in white, hollow, devoid of all type of added symbols or images, an available place, a free place.
The video titled Amb el fred dins de casa (With the Cold within the House) (2001), he shows us how a common glass cup is filled with milk and how a hand takes the cup and straight away swigs the liquid down. This is a type of endless video, recorded with just one fixed camera, with a complete technical austerity. The raised volume of this daily occurrence and the infinite repetition of this anonymous gesture of filling and drinking the milk offer us an ambivalent and ambiguous reading. On the one hand, it makes us think of the need to value more deeply our usual actions, our everyday gestures; on the other hand, it brings us face to face with the repetition and the banality of our lives. As the shocking memory of a glass of milk gulped down every morning, the recollection and the presence of the apparently simplest and most insignificant actions also form part of our deep experience which make up our present and our future.
Like silent witnesses of a unique and enigmatic existence, the works by Domènec appear to us like anthropological objects, like anthropological places or like anthropological thoughts concerning the present from the field of art. The inside and the outside, the house and the street, before the workshop, the gallery or the museum, become the places where works of art are shown. Like the uninhabited area which was created by the burnt down house of Offret (Sacrifice), the film by Tarkovski, Domènec considers the work of art as a continuous new beginning from white, from emptiness, from nothingness. “In the true reality of our world today, the places and the areas, the places and the nowheres become intertwined, become penetrated among themselves”, states Marc Augé in Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (1992). Building the place for art is opening the area of thought; going deeper into the complexity of our existence; opening up our freedom, both individual and collective; preserving areas of privacy, the most particular things belonging to areas and cultures; while, at the same time, freeing the areas, the places and the nowheres, from political, economic, social and cultural borders which are limited by the physical and mental maps of our world.