Passant Pàgina. El llibre com a territori d’art

Sala Muncunill de Terrassa

del 31 de març a

24 Hours of Artificial Light. After Alvar Aalto. Martí Peran

In exploring the present in order to uncover its origins, contemporary literature paints a blurred portrait of our time. There is a sort of tacit consensus whereby a description of now can only be approached from a negative angle. Although frequently misinterpreted as a banal incitation to fearful pessimism, it is actually the conviction that only by shaking up our universe and recognising that its principles and values are vulnerable and headed for obsolescence can we find the right words for today. A negative approach marks the distance between the present and the world it is leaving behind.

Although this implies moving forward and striving to overlay the past with a new vocabulary for the present, the shadow of our origins still hovers over the scene; we still hear the murmur of what we are fleeing. In attempting to break our links with the past we inevitably define the present as its opposite. Indeed, rejection of what has gone before is just one more symptom of its intrinsic fragility.

In 24 Hours of Artificial Light, Domènec constructs a stage for an experience of the here and now but, as posited above, it can only be the result of a thorough exploration of the past. Domènec’s installation is an architecture that does not bury earlier forms, but simply turns the walls of ruined rooms inside out. It does not reject the original structure but seeks its identity through its very refusal to remain there. Thus the first home must be explained in order to mark the distance between them, revealing the subversion implied by creation of this new shelter.

1

The latest modern dream, filled with enthusiasm and confident of its power to change, is expressed in different forms. Sometimes it consists of incidental parcels as, for example, a mere renewal of the language of the arts. At other times it involves a programme to be generally applied and intended to provide a full structure of meaning. It is on this ambitious scale that the apparently strict architectural register of the Modern Movement must be interpreted. Beneath its machine- age rhetoric, the earliest forms of rationalism shaped a firm ideal that involved pragmatic and functional reasoning with the aim of adequately satisfying all the basic needs of modern man. The objective was so specific that early rationalist discourse was found to be barren and often bordering uncomfortably on doctrine. It lay down principles with pretensions to universality, making no concessions to any particularity which might deflect it from its stated aim of constructing a new world appropriate for the new man. Nevertheless, the normative character of this approach was soon to be shaken to its very core.

Architectural history has chronicled different crises in the Modern Movement, but rather than remaining loyal to the orthodoxy of academic analysis it needs to describe the essential adjustment that was soon made to early rationalist theory. It is crucial to look back and pinpoint this deviation from the rationalist norm, to tone down the original programme’s fundamentalist approach, detaching it from its rigid dreams of universality and cosmopolitanism and making it more human. Doing this involves three steps: first, we must overcome the idea of an archetypal modern man and resuscitate the concept of individuals with their own particularities and identities. As a logical consequence of this, the idea of a stripped-down space guaranteed to meet the needs of every individual must give way to a rediscovery of the specific features that mark each local and individual experience. Lastly, and as a recapitulation of the entire process of revision, we must rethink the very idea of housing in order to make it not only mechanically perfect but a true life shelter for the individual subject.

The first step in this corrective process – re-establishing identity as the core of architecture – soon becomes an organicist proclamation. By making the human factor the essence of architecture, the allegory of the machine is replaced by a call for organic, living spaces. This change means that new spaces will not be laid out only in accordance with a technically defined function but will be subject to all the vicissitudes of emotion. In short, this new approach to architecture is an attempt to reconcile the individual with the world of technology, thereby ensuring an added value of humanism. As Aalto pointed out, it is simply a matter of saving man, who is condemned to live in a meaningless ant hill. Man is not an abstraction within a theoretical programme, but the living reality around which research must gravitate and the leading figure at which reasoned speculation must be aimed.

Because the individual subject is the new imperative for action, it is essential too to reestablish the semantics of the particular place, the concrete space in which man’s life experience will take place, In architectural terms, we must move from mechanised modular models to a more voluble repertoire of forms and typologies so that quality of life can be based on the opportunity to live in harmony with things. In short, architecture must aim to construct spaces that are literally “living”, and this involves providing a place in which individuals can develop a fruitful relationship with their surroundings. Aalto –who embodied the idea of this renowned “regionalism” that was introduced into the rationalist programme– expressed it eloquently: habitats are found in millions of different places, the peculiarities of which are constantly changing. You cannot standardise surroundings as simply as though they were machines. With this clearly phenomenological attitude the Finnish architect gave considerable importance to tactile objects. The individual truly appropriates a space when it is filled with things to be touched and physically used. Indeed, when architecture shapes a tangible environment, it no longer simply creates a space for man –the first step in architectural correction– but constructs a true centre of his very existence.

The maximum expression of this refocusing of early rationalist orthodoxy is the emphatic declaration of the idea of the home. The problem of housing –as an essential module of the urban structure– and the problem of habitat –as a functional cell on a domestic level– were priority issues in the Modern Movement’s original programme. Within the framework of that programme, the accent is now on making that perfectly reasoned space into a genuine home. In line with Heideggerian analysis, building houses is not enough. What contemporary man genuinely needs is to elude spiritual poverty and rediscover a home, a place of his very own where he can touch and interact with tangible objects and build a world. This is the true meaning of a home: the place where man discovers his genuinely human properties.

 

2

The revised rationalism summarised thus far really aimed to improve the movement’s initial premises. It is not a rebuke born of suspicion. On the contrary, it aims to be a constructive contribution. It fosters no dreams of radical change; it is simply an attempt to revise the original idea in order to make it yet more effective. But although this is obvious, revision reroutes the dream, channelling it towards reality, and this change almost inevitably awakens an imagery that is diametrically opposed to rationalism. Indeed, during the same period that Aalto was rethinking the rationalist discourse from a humanist angle an entire group of thinkers conceived of contemporaneity in terms that can now be interpreted as a sudden interruption of that dream and an explicit awareness of the darkness that envelops it. If rationalism can be made more human by refocusing on the individual, by creating surroundings where he can live together with objects and, in short, by building him a spiritual home, the reverse is also true. Thus, the search for a particular, subjective identity can become a cruel exposé of a precarious and vulnerable body; the effort to shape surroundings filled with things can mark the boundaries of an arid territory and, lastly, the need for a home can be confused with simply Finding an adequate shelter.

In order to accurately depict the way the humanist ideal can become a portrait of an exiled subject, we must take our model from literature. Domènec’s work constantly refers to Beckett’s characters, who weave a sinuous tale of the poverty that stands in the way of life’s sole undertaking: finding an identity of one’s own. Their search is stubborn and persevering but based only on the flat statement; I exist and survive in my own fashion. In Beckett’s universe the need to acknowledge a singular subject (the same objective sought by the organicist version of rationalism) forces a changeover that ends up reducing the subject to the category of a feeble organism characterised by its vulnerability to pain. As noted earlier, the idea of a subject is not a rhetorical abstraction but a living reality. If one is totally immersed in the search for its specificity, we must necessarily acknowledge its fleeting state. Loyal to Aalto’s watchword and following it to the fullest, we make an unexpected discovery: the ultimate basis of identity, what really makes man inextricable from the very instant of existence, is pain and illness. Jünger, Bernhard and Sontag have all acknowledged this, though with different degrees of acceptance.

The recovery of phenomenology was the second thing new humanism introduced in its attempt to correct rationalist ideology. This involved rescuing the world of objects for man’s experience. Still according to Beckett, this also has its cruel side. Indeed, far from describing a world consisting of interplay between subject and objects, the author chronicles the constant inaccessibility of the most elementary and necessary items. Molloy, Moran and Malone –the characters in the author’s trilogy of novels– fight vainly to get their hands on things which, though trivial, are essential to their survival: a basin in which to cough up phlegm, a cane with which to grope one’s way in the limited confines of a room, or a notebook in which to write a miserable testimony of thought. They all hide and vanish at the crucial moment when they are needed. This utter physical solitude depicted in Beckett’s novels, this failure of the principle of tactile objects proposed by Aalto, is exactly the same vacuity in which figures sculpted by Giacometti (a good friend of Beckett’s and another reference in Domènec’s work) attempt to exist. They are characters cast out into the void, with no prospect of existing among objects of any kind.

While the axiom of individuals needing physical contact with things enabled man to dream about a home, this same man, turned into a fragile figure groping with empty hands, can do no more than hide. A light-filled home is the cavern of man’s dreams. In the rationalist utopia, and even more so when it is toned down by the organicism of humanist thought, the aim was to construct a residence of feeling for the complete individual. Now this living space must become a place in which to withdraw, to lick one’s wounds and preserve one’s fragile identity. Applying that same criterion of preservation, it must be an aseptic place, barren, shorn of objects. And although such surroundings claim to be comfortable, the home actually becomes a sanatorium.

Thus far we have consistently referred to Aalto’s work as a symbol of a particular idea of modernity and Beckett’s fiction as the embodiment of the last horizon, where that same idea is shattered. So it would not be fair to insinuate that Domènec’s 24 Hours of Artificial Light deliberately refers to Aalto’s sanatorium in the Finnish town of Paimio (designed in the early 1930s) as a strategy that involves reinterpreting Aalto until an essential proximity to Beckett is revealed. This is not a matter of complicity between architect and writer. One has only to read Aalto’s description of the sanatorium to realise this. Aalto’s report stresses the need to do everything possible to guarantee that the building will be both functional and user-friendly. Indeed, he underscores his desire to create rooms with abundant light, balanced acoustic qualities, a use of colour that ensures a generally tranquil atmosphere, and even equipped with special hand basins that would be as quiet as possible to use. All this is unquestionably far removed from the anguished spaces of Beckett’s literature. 24 Hours of Artificial Light proposes something very different from this manifestly absurd analogy.

Domènec’s installation proposes to place the viewer precisely in the midst of his own story in order to reveal internal tensions rather than polishing the rough edges and presenting it as a happily coherent tale. The core of this work is not an attempt to undermine Aalto’s ideas. By taking the sanatorium in Paimio as a model, Domènec aims to demonstrate that the very roots of the most optimistic modernism contain the seeds of its own deviation. Indeed, Paimio is exemplary in its zealous approach. It is a paean to civilisation filtered through a humanist ideal. Nevertheless, it cannot hide the fact that its final destiny is simply that of taking in and attempting to comfort the ill. In other words, it is the very descent from early rationalist theories to individual reality that allows us to acknowledge that misery and pain are its only constituent elements. Though the rooms in Paimio are flooded with natural light whose healing effects were scrupulously studied, they nevertheless fit into a story that could end up in the artificially-lighted existential spaces inhabited by Beckett’s characters-inmates: I must frankly say that there is never any light around me, never any true light.

 

3

I have attempted to reconstruct the essential points of the story that literally hovers over Domènec’s work. A number of sculptures and installations recreate Aalto’s repertoire of forms, now transformed into furnishings for a Beckett set. Pillow cases and hand basins become assaulted objects, banal items are presented as therapeutic instruments and, paradoxically enough, ergonometric forms deny all possibility of comfort. 24 Hours of Artificial Light explicitly develops the rumours behind Aalto’s work, culminating in its definitive subversion. Indeed, all Domènec’s work can be viewed from this angle. It really seems that his work stands at the crossroads which lead to Beckett’s world. In fact, although Aalto’s spirit is evident in 24 Hours of Artificial Light, it could perfectly well be the room in which Malone awaits his death.

Domènec’s work always explores the strain caused when two spheres of interest collide: his fascination with the natural organic world, expressed in biomorphic forms and the use of materials like wood or leather, is offset by always neutral settings with a strictly cerebral atmosphere. Still, this Hybrid balance –which recurs in a number of the artist’s works– has gradually become ever more tilted to one side.

In an earlier and quite numerous series of works, the most striking feature was Domènec’s insistence on cataloguing and conserving organic forms which were so vague and ephemeral that they could only be preserved by freezing. Titles like Freeze indicated that our only relationship with the world of objects involves chilling them down in order to protect them. And even though lowering the temperature of the real world aims to save it; it is actually the first step towards acknowledging its disappearance. This form of resignation, irreversibly determined all Domènec’s subsequent work. From then on he abandoned the last bastion of sentimentality and turned all his efforts to constructing a space for the withdrawn mind. Deprived of the real world of objects, we witness his retreat into an absolutely artificial space. El rostrè aliè (The Alien Face) and Sota Zero (com a casa) (Below Zero (just like home) were already rooms inhabited only by banished thought. Despite their similarity to rationalist –and minimalist– severity, the starkness of these installations does not hint at the possibility of staking out a real territory that can be taken over and turned into a frame for a life experience. Instead it marks out a space for solipsism and poverty. The progressive accentuation of this process culminates in a sort of mockery of the transcendental idea of the home. In Blanc com la llet (White as Milk) only the title maintains that balance between the coldness of thought and the warmth of the organic world. The work itself shakes the distant dream of the individual house, repository of our possessions, to its very foundations, turning it inside out once more. Because it is purely visual –it’s a photograph– and because of its soft, crude structure, this architecture is no longer a house but the very longing to seek shelter in a cave. It may not even be a shelter: perhaps it is only the shape of a hole, the starting point for the downward fall.

Martí Peran, 1998

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