January 30, 2013

Shards of Hope

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Visitors to artist Michael Genovese’s solo show Lines and Cracks and Zebras and Horses at the OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles have cause for concern — massive, silvery cracks run along the otherwise pristine gallery walls. The room appears to be on the verge of crumbling. These fault lines are not really chasms (although you can never really be sure about these things in contemporary art). They are more like casts of chasms, memorials to anything that might take on the form of a line, however sacred or banal. Accompanied by a book of line-dominated images, notably a thunderous herd of zebras, the impossibly reflective sculptures are arresting for their scale and symbolism. Each sculpture is the convergence of disparate worlds: Pompeii frescoes meet Metallica; a crack from an Iranian Mihrab dated 720 A.D. fuses with a mortar line from the vicinity of Castillo de San Marcos in Florida. Looking at them, it’s entirely appropriate to feel like you’re in the throes of an earthquake.

In an interview with ArtSlant magazine, Genovese explained that his work is about “designating value” to fragments of life. Whether it’s staring at stray hairs in the bathtub or gazing at a historical landmark (a very loaded term, in the context of this show), these moments mean something because, in that instant, we are registering the things around us and trying to make sense of them. By turning a crack, usually associated with damage, into a sculpture, Genovese alters the meaning of the crack.

I like Genovese’s work. It can be simultaneously gentle and violent as it interrupts the everyday and forces you to look at everything twice. The art I am most drawn to often doesn’t conventionally look like art. It’s the kind of art that can be mistaken as debris and accidentally get cleared away by a zealous museum cleaner, as happened to Gustav Metzger’s installation at the Tate Britain in 2004. Incidentally, Metzger’s work was conceived as a comment on the finite nature of art.

Another urban intervention is The Shard, presently the tallest building in Western Europe and London’s highly metaphorical monument to the new kind of financial world, among other things. The Renzo Piano-designed building, with a top like a shattered beer bottle (as The Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright has rightly pointed out), is a baffling and unmistakable sight in London’s South Bank.

Among the most prescient critics, I think, is Prof. Hal Foster, art, of Princeton University. In an interview with The Guardian, Foster prefaced his critique of the building by admitting his ambivalence about perceiving the building as image. It is too tempting for many critics to condemn The Shard as no more than spectacle. Foster does not succumb. He reminds us that architecture can bring order to urban life, and “too often in cities people are lost” as they don’t have “symbols to guide them.” The Shard, a striking pyramidal assemblage of splintered triangles, could certainly come in useful as a landmark. That’s at least one point its detractors can agree on. Foster’s allusion to orientation is also unsurprising, since it’s a well-established tenet of urban theory. The landmark is one of the five elements of the city’s new image proposed by the urban planner Kevin Lynch; the stronger and more prominent these elements are and the more harmoniously they are stitched together, the more legible a cityscape is.

I found most of Foster’s commentary almost disappointingly uncontroversial, until he seemed to light up, near the end, when he likened The Shard to “radical surgery” where “they stick a needle into your heart to get it to go again.”

The violence Foster employs is, I believe, justified. His view is that, juxtaposed with other iconic buildings like the Borough Market, The Shard disrupts the neighborhood. There is no attempt at mediation, to bridge the gap in scale between the pedestrian strolling along the Thames and the gargantuan building. I am inclined to agree with Foster’s assessment, though I will add that if The Shard is indeed a monument to a glittering financial world, then the violent disruption is fitting.

Meaning making is a highly tenuous exercise, as should by now be obvious. The more theory I try to read, the more apparent it seems that interpretation is the unification of seemingly unrelated elements, like how Genovese merges ancient Italian frescoes with American heavy metal. Nevertheless, the whole exercise makes perfect sense to me, because I have never been able to forget the words of the first theorist I encountered at Cornell. In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch wrote, “Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences.” I know it can all go very wrong — you can end up very lost or injured as you invest more of yourself into everything that you read and write. There’s also a fine line between creative interpretation and well, delusion, and who should be the judge of where that boundary lies? When so many others seem to have said something cleverer, why should I expect to arrive at something newer and better? I defer to the wisdom of those who have sought and found. Former Prof. Colin Rowe, architecture, wrote in The Cornell Journal of Architecture with characteristic adventurousness, “Therefore to agitate and to animate a very few ideas we will begin with a set piece which is going to be partly history and partly parable.” Or more simply put by Renzo Piano, designer of The Shard, “The best things in life are always a little dangerous.”

Original Author: Daveen Koh