Monday, November 12, 2012

Invisible Entities

It was only going to be a matter of time before Stephen Hobbs would build another model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The tower was conceived around 1919 by the Russian artist and architect, and it is easy to see why Hobbs is fixated with its design. It was a grand scheme in every way; not only did Tatlin set out to create a building that would rival the Eiffel Tower, but it was conceived as an information and propaganda hub for the communist state – it was architecture about and in the service of an ideology. Tatlin had even planned for a projector to be located in its upper reaches so that messages could be cast on passing clouds.

The scheme itself turned out to be pie in the sky. Small models of the building were completed, but it was never built. Interestingly, it is this fact that titillates Hobbs, beyond its symbolism as a utopian project for social change. It feeds his fascination for architecture that has never been realised – can never be realised. It’s an unusual preoccupation, if not one that seems in contradiction with the objective of this discipline. There is a kind of poeticism to unrealised potential that has captured his interest, one no doubt fuelled by his own unrealised imaginings, or the limits of reality, particularly for an artist interested in urban space.
Tatlin’s unrealised building has become as iconic, certainly in artistic and architectural circles, as the Eiffel, to which it bears a strange resemblance; it’s like a twisted, contorted version of it. Many have argued that Anish Kapoor’s Orbit sculpture for the Olympic Park in London bears some resemblance to Tatlin’s tower.
Over the years Hobbs has been replicating this constructivist design in models and paintings – as in The End of Cities, shown at the Blank Gallery in 2009 – but his latest rendition of Tatlin’s model, now on show at an exhibition dubbed Dazzle Plans, presents another step in his long-standing relationship with this famously unconceived building.

Hobbs suggests that it is his cleanest, sharpest model yet. This is facilitated by the 3D-style printing that Brendan Copestake offers at Parts and Labour, the design studio-cum-project gallery space where Dazzle Plans is being staged. It’s a small exhibition, presenting a mixture of models using the 3D printing technology, previous works that bear relationship to them, and Hobbs’s own tentative sketches and collages.
Some of these ideas will manifest in a solo exhibition planned for Stellenbosch University early next year, but others, like Tatlin’s tower, will for ever remain unrealised. It’s not simply a way of avoiding failure or disappointment, but of preserving an inchoate idea at its height of potential.

Hobbs’s new model of the Tatlin tower may be the slickest he has made, but this is not what is interesting about it. It’s the scale. It is tiny – perhaps 15cm in height. In this way, Hobbs moves it even further from being or appearing as an actual building, or even an architect’s model. It’s like a plaything, maybe even a tourist souvenir like those tiny Eiffel Towers hanging from key chains that are for sale along the Champs élysées. In other words, it could be read as a response to the ubiquity, fixation with this iconic structure that never got a chance to become a landmark building.

In a way it didn’t need to become a landmark. It functions as one nonetheless, albeit that it is|detached from a physical setting. It’s a kind of imaginary nomadic building that keeps popping up in unexpected places, as at Parts and Labour, at Arts on Main. Hobbs’s obsession with reproducing the model, a model of a model, speaks of a drive to reach an unattainable ideal but also one to unravel its latent potential. What would the perfect model of Tatlin’s tower be, given it has not existed, but also what could it become?

The second striking aspect of this model is the large stylised cloud suspended above it. It is obviously in reference to the plan to project and disseminate messages to the masses from inside the tower. Hobbs has also covered the cloud in a “razzle dazzle” pattern, a monochromatic pattern conceived for warships as a mode of camouflage; its obscured hard edges thus thwarting efforts to direct an attack. Here the razzle dazzle pattern allows him to work at erasing the  boundaries of the hard material from which the cloud is made. It’s a tool of invisibility. In a way Hobbs has reversed the relationship/contrast between the tower and the cloud; the cloud is indirectly treated as if it has form, while the diminutive tower is less tangible but, ultimately, his intention is to reveal the cloud as another unrealised part of the tower, as an architectural extension that purely embodies ephemerality.

Bronwyn Lace is similarly fixated with the ephemeral. Her concern is perhaps the grandest of all; to grasp the mysteries of life/death. Religion and science are usually relied upon to explain seemingly inexplicable natural forces, but Lace doesn’t seem interested in teasing out the politics of these opposing epistemologies, though she does indirectly make reference to them.
Her aim is to give visual expression to phenomena we cannot perceive with the naked eye. A series of blind embossings of dead insects evokes historical collections of butterflies pinned behind glass casings that served to catalogue nature, though ironically in doing so the insect had to die.   But in these blank traces of small bodies left on the paper we can perceive not only the absence of life – the absence of a body – but also the trace it leaves. This engenders the notion that somehow Lace has, through this invisible imprint, captured the essence of life - this unseen quantity.

God’s Finger, a circular column of fish-gut lines suspended from a window to the floor, similarly gives expression to an invisible force. It is not so much the particles in the light that are evoked through the coloured glass pieces suspended along the lines – as the title implies, it is the life force itself, the act of creation, an unseen presence, deity perhaps, that is made visible.
It helps that Lace’s medium, the translucent wire, is invisible. Of course, the colourful glass shards also summon an atomized stained glass window common to church design, where God’s presence is perceived through coloured light reflecting into the building.
There is something quite grand and awe-inspiring about this installation. This works for the work, and against it; it reinscribes the mystery. Lace is simply (re) visualising the enigmatic without disturbing its enigma. As a result, the installation feels superficial, a mere aestheticisation of the unknown. It can’t offer us any concrete evidence, knowledge, because their isn’t anything substantial that is available. - published November 18, 2012, The Sunday Independent. 
Dazzle Plans is showing at Parts and Labour, Arts on Main, until December 9. Lace’s exhibition, A Tendency Towards Complexity, is showing at CIRCA on Jellicoe until December 3

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