The Architecture of Experience

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Caroline Ongpin, 2010, Den and Bedroom, graphite on blueprint, 120 x 300 in. Installation View: UP College of Fine Arts thesis exhibition

Every art exhibition should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner that is easily apprehended and yet mystifying, a painting seizes upon our imagination by the space it gives us to feel and think. When we see a good painting, we hold on to an image of it long after we left the gallery mainly because we are compelled or attracted by something we have seen or thought about while viewing it. In the same sense, we are not the same when we leave a building, as we were when we entered it mostly because of its peculiar way of demarcating our movement and constricting or framing our view.

This proposed exhibition explores the connection between the similar experiences between paintings (also installations) 2 and architecture in the way it defines space and how we live. This exhibition is a result of the powerful transformative experience of art.

The concept for ‘Architecture of Experience’ dawned upon me while walking the side streets of Binondo—Manila’s Chinatown. After having lunch at President’s Palace (a building converted from an old cinema), I decided to look for some souvenirs and thereupon noticed the architecture of the houses and the buildings. Not that it is physically any different or special aside from being perpetually crowded and Chinese-looking but mainly because we were walking and in walking the streets we were pressed to experience the place. From walking, we noticed that in Binondo, rapid demolition to replace antique houses with high-rise offices and condominiums is common.

Old houses are now being phased out and those that are still standing, although fairly ordinary without special attention given, are remarkable in the way they have been adjusted.

1 Appropriated from George Steiner in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monograph (Phaidon, 2003) edited by Robert McCarter

2 The term ‘painting’ here will mean all gallery works including sculpture and installation. reconfigured to muddle through the ravages of time. Chinatown is remarkable precisely because decay, demolition and replacement has always been treated ordinarily. With the history behind the place, Chinatown is an interesting case in local urban development. Merely walking in its streets is an educational experience. This quality of a place and the quality of the experience I had is the thing I seek to communicate with others. Great works of architecture, like all great works of art, take hold of and shake us.

Victor Hugo once wrote about this experience saying that a piece of good architecture “is like a storm-wind, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.” (1) Though I do not intend to make Chinatown an integral part of this exhibition, as curator I sought to record the similar impact of other places that my selected artists have considered special. “To put their shaken houses in its previous order” in these chosen paintings and installations so that we can put in order the shaken houses of our minds. Through some primary instinct of communion, I seek to convey to others the quality and force of my experience which can also be found in the quality of good architecture. The goal is to persuade the viewer to see them released into space and the existences that occupy it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the insights that we would like to share with the community. There is no better way to present this other than through the intense and captive walls of a museum or gallery. To defamiliarize, to make the presentation as, Viktor Shlovsky would put it, ‘distinguished from practical language on the basis of the former’s perceptibility’ (2). I see it as a timely and even necessary reaction because of the present dominance of ‘information’ over personal perception in the understanding of architecture.(3) In our exhibit, we return to living with rather than examining the structure, striving to essay what makes architecture an art form in the first place.

According Jacques Rancière, after the recent ‘ethical turn of aesthetics’, art must now be either communally bonding or must partake of the sublime, and ‘bear witness to the unrepresentable’.

(4) Architecture is no exemption; we must see its function and significance amidst the context of a community that inhabits it. Art in general has been redefined more like architecture with Ranciere’s notion of its “communitarian function”—that of constructing a specific world space and with this also ‘a new form of dividing the common world’. (5) Ranciere’s view of the sublime prompts us to see through and not merely look at the artwork. By seeing through, I meant experience living with and placing importance on the immediacy of the ‘response’ that the artwork is making to its community. In other words, the encounter of painting with architecture is also the encounter of the painting and architecture with its community.

George Steiner wrote in his introductory essay for Frank Lloyd Wright’s monograph that “Today our ‘knowledge’ of the spaces and forms of architecture most often comes from media representations and verbal explanations—we need to be told what to remember about the space in which we are standing and how to ‘interpret’ the forms that shape our experience. It is rarely suggested in contemporary writings that our own actual experience of space has any value or should be the primary focus of study.” (6)

This has led, inevitably, to our general lack of capacity for visual and spatial memory, noted by Josef Albers; while most people can recall a musical tune, the visual memory is so poorly trained in standard education that few can accurately remember a ‘shape or form, the size of things, the extension of space and volume’.(7) That is Albers talking about a painting with regards to form. How much more if we take his insight combined with seeing what cannot be seen and presenting something that is deemed “unpresentable”—such as the discerning or perhaps contemptible scheme of painters painting in the manner of architects?

I eventually dispelled my anxieties about the feasibility of this exhibition as I underwent a kind of transformation along with my concept for the exhibition. This transformation is the thing that I would like to express visually (assuming that the curator and his artists’ visual memory is better trained than most) through the works I have chosen for this exhibition. The works here are heavily invested on the ‘experience’ of architecture and with regards to Alber’s comparison of painting to music; it will be like singing an old song to someone who has never heard it before. The fact is while we walk amongst buildings, live within houses and accumulate things, we rarely remember them structurally or recall its significance with the larger idea of place-making.

Experience of Architecture

Included in this exhibition are two works from the senior thesis exhibition at the UP Fine Arts. One is by Francis Commeyne, entitled “Cinematek: You can see real life in 3D”. This work evolved from his usual themes of forgetting processes and meanings attached with objects. Cinematek, essays his personal experience in connection with an old art-deco cinema in Belgium that shows 3D movies. The installation itself is made of a shipping crate he bought in North Harbor, Manila used as a video projection room that looks back at events in his life and objects and artifacts gathered from different destinations that evoke his personal nostalgia and his own reconfiguration of history in the context of his objects.

Also from this senior thesis exhibition are huge drawings on blueprints by Caroline Ongpin. Her works have often dwelt on the topic of impermanence of plans and erosion of purpose and intention represented by blueprints which present the ideal in contrast to hand drawings over these blueprints that depict the actual use of space. Her drawings are observations of the deviations of the occupants in an architect-designed house as well as the great separation between the dictation of plans and the escape of experience. I also wanted to include Mark Bradford’s installation entitled ‘Market>Place’ originally shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The work’s message rings similar to that of Commeyne and Ongpin in the way it tackles our understanding of public spaces. In ‘Market>Place,’ Bradford “wanted to create an environment that had something to do with trade, with public space, and the way people use it for pleasure, for business, for meetings, for secrets.” (8)

Ultimately he also essays the political element of occupying space and defining ‘a place’. I also have the intention of selecting paintings by Maria Helena Vieira de Silva, especially, “Século: XX,” “Paisaje Invisible” and “Construction” and Fernando Zobel’s works during his last decade that Rod Paras-Perez describes as more “architectural than painterly” and works that make “positive use of empty spaces (with) the capacity to create suggestive spaces” (9). Both artists abstracted from something seen. I have always regarded de Silva and Zobel as artists with effective ways to illustrate the inflexibility and clutter of structures and how these push the person beneath it into either repulsion or invisibility. As an interaction with the community that gave me the inspiration for this exhibition, I would collect objects and photographs supplied by Binondo residents and establishments and present some of them in the gallery in order to complete the essay of architecture contained in the works of the artists, with a touch of ‘artifactual’ reality. Like other genres of art, architecture involves the translation of multidimensional events and concepts into readable two-dimensional matter. Because of this process of translation, I see it as partly art and partly science. In the case of architectural drawing, directions and instructions are turned into lines, volume into contours, movement into shapes, ornamentation into line, colors into words, and words into marks. Marks that depend on established conventions or from on-the-spot improvisations, or constructed from a combination of the two.

Architecture translates the function and conduct of how we live into marks and delineations of walls, ceilings, doors and floors and I find it amusing that this process can also work in reverse as the artists I have chosen have proven.

The paintings, drawings and installation work to be presented in this exhibition will focus on the gaps and lapses within this relationship of architecture to human life. What I would like to call a ‘microcosm of a living space’ where art functions similar to that of an architectural design and reflects or projects its essence on the viewer. My goal as curator is to pursue reality or essence.

While my chosen artists have created it individually in their works, what I want is to express the connections between them all.

References

1. Levine, Neil. The Book and the Building: Hugo’s Theory of Architecture and Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. The Beaux-Arts in 19th Century French Architecture, edited by Robin Middleton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

2. McCarter, Robert. Frank Lloyd Wright, The definitive monograph on one of the masters of modern architecture. Phaidon, 2003 Most parts of this curatorial brief were patterned after George Steiner’s introductory essay in Rober Frank Lloyd Wrights’ monograph.

3. Crawford, Lawrence. Victor Shklovski: Différance in Defamiliarization. Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 209-19. JSTOR. 24 February 2008 <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0010- 4124%28198422%2936%3a3%3c209%3avsdid%3e2.0.co%3b2-6>.

4. Rancière, Jacques, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Polity Books, 2009, p. 119.

5. Rancière, ibid., p. 22.

6. McCarter, Robert, op. cit., p. 3.

7. Albers, Joseph., Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, 1963.

8. Bradford, Mark. Interview for “Market Place” installation at the Los Angeles CountyMuseum of Art. Art:21 Season 4 (Paradox) by PBS. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/bradford/clip1.html#

9. Paras-Perez, Rod. Fernando Zobel, Eugenio Lopez Foundation, Inc, Manila, 1990, p. 57

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