An Artist Who Unbuilds to Build — Christianna Bonin

As part of the guest post series, PhD student Christianna Bonin writes on the current exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts center, “Katrín Sigurdardóttir: Drawing Apart”. See it before the exhibition closes on April 12! — AK

I employ architecture to describe places; I copy architecture to redraw and re-experience a moment. Whereas the work of the architect is traditionally prospective, my work with architecture is almost always retrospective.

—Katrín Sigurdardóttir

Ellefu series on view in Hayden Gallery, as part of the exhibition Katrín Sigurdardóttir: Drawing Apart. Photo: Peter Harris Studios.

Installation view: Unbuilt Residences in Reykjavik, 1925-1930, on view in Reference Gallery, as part of the exhibition Katrín Sigurdardóttir: Drawing Apart. Photo: Peter Harris Studios.

Instead of precious, fiercely preserved artworks, visitors to the exhibition “Katrín Sigurdardóttir: Drawing Apart” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center encounter precious, fiercely broken artworks. Neither poor climate control nor absentminded, backpack-wearing visitors are to blame. Instead it was Sigurdardóttir herself who sliced, smashed, or burnt the architectural models distributed through the show’s two expansive rooms. “Drawing Apart” begins in the Hayden Gallery, which contains floor-bound, rectilinear models from the series Ellefu (meaning “eleven” in Icelandic). Each model has been meticulously crafted in a rhythmic alternation of wood and pristine, all-white hydrocal. A wall label tells us that the models—each scaled slightly larger than a dollhouse—are fragmented sections based on drawings that the artist prepared of her childhood house in Reykjavik. The show’s second gallery also contains scale models of houses. But unlike Ellefu, which leaves unassembled the fragments of an unseen house, Unbuilt Residences in Reykjavik, 1925-30 strives to reassemble into whole houses the tesserae of models built and destroyed by the artist, and now arranged across a wide, white horizontal platform. This difference—between immaculate, resolute fragments and sullied, precariously reassembled wholes—sharpens the juxtaposition of the two rooms. Both works expose the complexity of “fixing” and “building,” suggesting that “unbuilding” and “breaking” are also inherent to those processes.

On view through April 12, “Drawing Apart” addresses themes laden with historical and theoretical baggage: the nineteenth-century, romantic aesthetic of the fragment; nostalgia and the trope of the ruin; the tendentious relationship between memory, fact, and fantasy; the conceit of the avant-garde artist who rejoices in destruction to counter the conventions of art-making; the obsession of many modern architects in the early twentieth century with creating whitewashed spaces that would ostensibly “cleanse” inhabitants of illness-inducing living habits and “primitive” traditions.” These themes are familiar fodder for Sigurdardóttir, a highly regarded artist who works in New York. Her installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010 replicated two of the museum’s French, neoclassical period rooms full scale in de-familiarizing and ethereal, snow-white surfaces. For the Icelandic Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, she constructed a baroque tile floor that intersected both the interior and exterior of the Old Laundry at Palazzo Zenobio. In both works, visitors could catch the faux in the histories Sigurdardóttir had staged, for she left exposed the raw particleboard beams that propped up her prosceniums. Crucial to any assessment of these installations is the ways in which architecture can craft and disrupt the writing of personal and larger social histories. How do you construe what is past? On what authority? These questions also pressed me while viewing “Drawing Apart.” What is different and captivating about the present exhibition is how Sigurdardóttir and curators Jeffrey De Blois and Paul K. Ha have employed narrative, spatial, and visual absences to make room for those persistent, historical questions.

Ellefu’s most striking absence asserts itself when we learn of the work’s origins in the artist’s childhood house—a connection reinforced by the scale of each section. Because the open sections are too small for adults to view at eye-level, they encourage limber visitors to squat, bend over, and peer into each corner. This intimate engagement lends a kind of preciousness to the scaled-down, fragmented house, as if we are prying into the private and now exposed spaces of the artist’s childhood. Ellefu, however, exposes nothing of that sort. Instead, the surfaces of this childhood house are blank, seemingly unaffected by time past or sentiment. Ellefu pulls our mind toward the missing visual evidence of habitation. Weaving among the model sections, I was frustrated by their muteness. I did not miss the personal effects. Lacking for me instead was an acknowledgement of lived space as social space. The repetitive wood and gypsum cement seem to have abstracted lived experience into an empty arena. Was I, as viewer, supposed to be the activator of this unfamiliar, fragmented space? Should I want to fill in the empty walls with my own “memories”, of my interactions with parents, roommates, neighbors, or lovers?

On the other hand, this resolute blankness was also relieving. Imagine being unburdened from the trauma of childhood or of nostalgia for a particular place and time! I thought of Friedrich Nietzsche’s comments in The Use and Abuse of History for Life, written long ago in 1874. Nietzsche envied what he perceived as the happily forgetful herd of cattle grazing around him. The man says, “I remember,” and envies the beast, which immediately forgets and sees each moment really perish, sink back in cloud and night, and vanish forever. For Nietzsche, some forgetting of history was crucial to happiness. The challenge was to determine what should be forgotten and when. How to find “the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present”? On one level, Ellefu propounds a past compacted and neatly removed of personal and historical complexity. This “clean state” aesthetic is both comforting and disconcerting. For as feminist critique teaches us, “home” is also a place of confinement and dark secrets—an unheimlich, or unhomely place. Where, then, are the stranger, messier qualities among the model’s ever-so-smoothly-cut edges? How could one even presume to be able to clearly chart and execute the space of one’s past, particularly one’s childhood? In Ellefu, the cuts do fall at incomprehensible points—at times, through a stair, or in my favorite surprise, along a section’s lower edge such that just the lip of a window frame and door jam remain. Perhaps these illogical slices are Sigurdardóttir’s way of hinting that even if we try to rationalize or sanitize our histories, we can’t. Nietzsche knew this too: “No matter how far or fast he runs, this chain [of history] runs with him. It is something amazing: the moment, in one sudden motion there, in one sudden motion gone, before nothing, afterwards nothing, nevertheless comes back again as a ghost and disturbs the tranquility of each later moment.”

Eric Rondepierre, Etreinte No. 15, Ilfochrome on aluminum, 1997-99.

The longer I stared at the sections, the more I doubted that they could somehow be physically reassembled into a total house. The cuts seemed too erratic; their distribution across the space too wayward. My eye found formal echoes but no direct connections. Eventually, I stopped caring. The sections also stand their own ground as fragments and ask to be considered as such.

The fascinating thing about fragments is that we end up contradicting ourselves as soon as we start writing about them. In The Literary Absolute, Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe argue that a fragment closes and interrupts itself in the same place. Hence, the fragment is always both a distinct monument and an evocation. I find that paradox intriguing, meaning that I may in fact be a bit of a romantic at heart. And Sigurdardóttir may be as well. I do not mean “romantic” in the sappy and eternally-hopeful-journey-is-the-destination sense. Instead, I am referring to a historical interest and use of the term, when the fragment became a favored symbol of artistic and architectural creation in early nineteenth-century Western Europe. Examples of artists programming with an aesthetic of the “unprogrammed” fragment abound in nineteenth century Europe, when empire-funded archeological research and emergent nationalisms combined to produce strong preservation cultures. Consider Henry Füssli’s early watercolor “The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins” from 1779. It celebrates the greatness of the decaying classical ruin, just as it expresses a search for permanence fueled by the inextinguishable sense of one’s own temporality. Does treating each section of Ellefu as a fragment demonstrate a similar sense of impermanence? Sigurdardóttir’s fragments are certainly less melodramatic than Füssli’s, but they rely nonetheless on a similar creative process. The carefully crafted models hand us a part of her “history” (a childhood house) already fragmented. This move catches visitors in the netherworld between the available part and curiosity for a previous life that may never have been whole to begin with.

Treating each section in Ellefu individually also encourages viewers to attend to the object’s specific properties. For one, almost every fragment is cut such that it is impossible to distinguish between interior and exterior space. This aspect of the work plays on the paradigm of the modernist “blank box,” which emerged in the late nineteenth century in Western Europe and inspired many forms of design into the 1960s. “Blankness” and “transparency” were traits that coded for “honesty” in architecture. By exposing function and reducing rigid spatial divisions through the open plan, “honest” architecture was intended to incite more equitable social relationships to unfold within it. Sigurdardóttir’s fragments tell us that this approach has long been a subject of critique. If her modernist, whitewashed walls dissolve distinctions between interior and exterior space, they also remain opaque. No ‘equality’ is performed here. Moreover, even the elements that read as structure in the models have been subverted. As MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek pointed out in a recent public conversation with the artist, the walls of each section skew a conventional contemporary building technique. It is common to first construct a wooden frame, add insulation, and then cover the frame with drywall. For Ellefu, however, the artist filled in the wooden frame with hydrocal, such that the plaster supports the work. Jarzombek argued that this decision reinforces the flatness of the walls, reminding viewers that the objects first came from two-dimensional drawings.


Katrín Sigurdardóttir, Unbuilt 6-Dentist Hallur Hallsson Residence, Bergstadastraeti 73 – Architect: Sigudur Gudmundssoon, 1929, 2015, photograph by author.

If Ellefu speaks of its artificial transcendence of the past, the series Unbuilt Residences in Reykjavik, 1925-30, seems mired in history. For the Unbuilt Residences bear not only the scars of destruction and reassembly. Their labels also include a precise address, the name of the client and architect, and the year of the design. These details locate the models in distinct places and moments in Reykjavik, as well as in the city’s archive (where De Blois told me that Sigurdardóttir did her research). The empirical details also conflict with another tidbit provided to the visitors: these designs were actually never realized at full scale. This besieged and battered model ‘neighborhood’ has finally made an appearance on the white ground of the platform.

Modernism dreamed of erasing history, of reducing it to ashes and producing a tabula rasa. Sigurdardóttir’s work recalls that historical conceit but does not leave it unproblematized. To me, one of Sigurdardóttir’s strongest statements occurs in Unbuilt 6—Dentist Hallur Hallisson Residence, Bergstadastraeti 73 – Architect: Sigurdur Gudmundsson, 1929. Crackled bits of wood dangle on a bright, new wooden frame. In unbuilding to build, the artist has created a modern model that bears the marks of movement and choice, of hazards and pet heavens, of a past still present but changed as we picked up the pieces. This is an artistic project that can’t help but evoke an adage from George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss: “For the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair.”


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