"The ruins of representation" revisited.

Christian Hubert, New York 2010

Almost thirty years ago, I published an essay entitled "the ruins of representation" in a catalog essay -- itself written several years after the event -- for an exhibition entitled "Idea as Model", that had been held at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. My essay attempted to address the duality of the model, as both a sign of something other than itself and as an autonomous project in its own right. The text explored the play between the two as an artistic strategy and sought to describe the link between them in terms of imagination and desire. Written at a time when the de-realization of the real was increasingly becoming a cultural preoccupation, the essay criticized the abuse of the model's metaphorical capacities by postmodern architects invested in rewriting the history of their discipline as a return to a past that had never existed -- a simulacrum. In its para-literary “performance”, the essay displaced some of the "recovered memories" that postmodern architects had projected into the model -- fictional histories in masquerade -- and condensed them into a world of Borgesian ironic insight.

It was only long after the publication of my catalog essay that I learned of Gordon Matta-Clark's "intervention" at the Institute in relation to the "Idea as Model" exhibition. Matta-Clark had been asked to participate in the first exhibit and had "shot out" some of the windows of the exhibition space on the twentieth floor, apparently using a pellet gun borrowed from the sculptor Denis Oppenheim. His intention had been to paper over the broken windows with images of smashed windows in a housing project. (see image) But when Peter Eisenman learned of the act, he compared it to the nazi rampage of Kristallnacht, and any trace of the episode was fully expunged from the documentary material I had received on the exhibit.


When I learned about the event, I felt that the whole structure of my essay had suffered a traumatic shock, that my own call for history writing was based on a repression of actual events. I felt that that my writing had been a form of carefully fashioned "wishful thinking". Yet even in his "anarchitectural" attack, Matta-Clark had employed some of the same artistic strategies that I had examined in my ruminations on models. While the social conditions that Matta-Clark wanted to address at the Institute were very different from the more purely architectural concerns of the other models on display, the symbolic forms of the act were nonetheless not so dissimilar from my conception of architectural models. Even an act that had been conceived as an attack on the architectural discipline still employed the symbolic power of the model to communicate -- to be both immediately present and refer to an "other". 

 The "Idea as Model" exhibit was held at a moment that some architects were attempting to introduce their models and drawings into the cultural and commercial circuits of the "artworld" -- through museum exhibits, specialized galleries, or thematic exhibitions in established galleries such as Leo Castelli's, while some artists, particularly sculptors, were simultaneously "poaching" in the thickets of the architects. Architects such as Aldo Rossi or Walter Pichler were able to present their drawings and personal imagery as artworks for sale or exhibition, although there was only a limited market for these works. Frank Gehry and Michael Graves were able straddle the worlds of art, architecture, and design, while sculptors increasingly addressed the physical context of their works, through installations or interventions in what Rosalind Krauss would subsequently call the "expanded field".

left: Charles Ray, Firetruck   right: Glen Seator, Whitney Director’s Office

left: Charles Ray, Firetruck

right: Glen Seator, Whitney Director’s Office

In subsequent years, I found some particularly striking instances of artworks that resonated with the representational strategies of the model in the work of sculptors like Glen Seator or Charles Ray. Seator's replica of the Whitney Museum's director's office, made with salvaged millwork from the office itself and exhibited in the same building in the 1997 biennale exhibition, transformed an architectural space of the museum into a sculptural object that both minimalist and "site specific". The piece both belonged there and belonged nowhere. It turned the model's desire for physical actuality into a kind of anxious conundrum, and the vertigo one felt looking into the tilted room so delicately poised was matched by its conceptual instability at the dividing line between the worlds of art and architecture.  Charles Ray's play with both size and scale (such as his striking figures of giant women or of children the same size as adults) have gently parodied the human body as a measure of scale. His sculpture of a fire truck, a toy truck enlarged to full size, and parked on the street in front of the Whitney Museum, remind one once again of Borges' maps, and our deep desire to take our models for reality.   


Today the "ruins of representation" essay brings back memories of the "Idea" of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies as a "model" for acts of intellectual imagination in the face of the reductive banalities of architectural practice and the lack of critical discourse in America at the time. The Institute was a laboratory experiment in the creation of a conceptualized reality, in which form and myth collided. It was no accident that Rem Koolhaas was working on Delirious New York there, while Peter Eisenman and his colleagues tried to transform architecture into a purely intellectual and formal construct. "the ruins of representation" is a relic from that far-off empire, but hopefully it retains some immediacy as well.