Mallarmé had always been aware of the fact – unrecognised before and perhaps after him – that language is a system of highly complex spatial relations whose singularity neither ordinary geometric space nor the space of everyday life allows one to appreciate. Nothing is created and no discourse can be creative except through the preliminary exploration of the totally vacant region where language, before it is a set of given words, is a silent process of correspondences, or rhythmic scansion of life. Words exist only to signify the areas of correspondence, the space onto which they are projected and which, no sooner, signified, furls and unfurls, never being where it is. Poetic space, the space and ‘outcome’ of language, never exists like an object but is always spaced out and scattered.
Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Book to Come’, A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing, Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay (eds), Granary Books, New York, 2000
This text explores the ideas in Andrew Kennedy and Blaine Western’s exhibition, a hollow action, a room held together by letters, which took place at Artspace from the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014. The main characters in our story are matters of spatial considerations – discreet interventions carried out on the gallery’s blueprint: a series of perforations in the ceiling and the floor; the partial removal of two walls; the accentuation of volume by means of sculpture, and a careful consideration of action in space through photography, filmic projections and pictorial reproductions.
a hollow action, a room held together by letters exists and stretches between the borders of presentation and representation.
The steel structure erected ad hoc in the main gallery might be thought of as the spatial application of the Autopole, a flexible and multipurpose photographic device. The grid that is formed constitutes the playfield in which Kennedy and Western’s interests come together yet at the same time exist independently. The display derives from research into the history of exhibitions and temporary structures with a particular attention being given to examples dating back to the 1950s, a time when photography was finally being recognised as an art form. Decisions pertaining to the materials employed and their assembly were jointly carried out by the two artists.
It is not so simple to delimit the boundaries of a collaboration. Visitors to the exhibition often asked which artist had done what. The lines are blurred in the decision making around impacting on the gallery’s blueprint and in the chronological steps through which those gestures and actions were carried out in the physical space. The aperture in a wall at the back of the gallery, the movable screens on tracks hanging on the steel structure, the temporary elongation of the corridor through the extension of one wall with poplar plywood (the same material that was then used by the artists for the insertions in the ceiling guiding the steel rods upwards) can all be ascribed to the cooperation of Kennedy and Western. Their partnership is also suggested by echoes, slight references, similar tones and continuities found in the individually credited works.
Andrew Kennedy’s photographs come in three sizes, are printed on coated paper and framed in oak. No glazing shields the prints. Thirteen of these are evenly suspended along two braided metal wires, hooked on the horizontal arms of the steel structure; only one photograph (a diptych) is hung on the wall, at a slightly greater higher than the suspended prints.
The framed images are so light that light eddies of air created by the circulation of visitors in the space easily makes them swing. The series depicts hands: the artist’s and his partner’s. Each image shows a fraction of some task: activating a window by a rotating handle, cutting a square within a square with a craft knife on a grey piece of paper, stirring the paint in a bucket held still between the artist’s work boots.
The idea of a series was envisaged by Kennedy to visualise a breakdown of consequent actions – similar to the pictorial strategy employed in users’ manuals. The images suggest a sense of cause and effect, yet the chain of logic is interrupted in space and time by isolated fragments. A tension between abstraction and reality is reinforced by the non-specific nature of the referents. Many gallery visitors have been puzzled by the images; some, casting a quick glace at them as the enter the gallery, have thought that they detail paintings.
The partial absence of the object or its material and compositional ambiguity is at the centre of other images: a portion of an upholstered chair with a red leather seat; the creasing of dark paper (suggesting folding); a grey pipe extending from a felt rug; a reflecting tile; the detail of a black metal window frame.
During a conversation, Kennedy retraced the inspiration for some of the images. The artist recounted the discovery of penstocks (an enclosed pipe that delivers water to hydro turbines) during a discussion with his grandfather about dams in New Zealand’s South Island. The subsequent images’ research highlights the resemblance penstocks have with common PVC tubes, and the aptness of their surface to reflect light in the economy of a photographic composition.
On approaching the photographs, the viewer’s spatial perception is heightened by the enigmatic representation of architectural details. The works choreograph equally the space of their surface (the hand gestures, the objects represented) and the movement of viewers in the gallery.
At all times, from every angle, only some of the fronts of the photographs are visible; from other positions, the viewer only perceives the back. When the viewing position is shifted, the backs of the images become the fronts, and the fronts of the images become the backs. What is offered is a sequence of readable images juxtaposed with voids or blank images; backs and fronts behaving like the whites and blacks on a chessboard.
With these images, rather than connote the speed, the acceleration of our contemporary world and its interfaces, Kennedy chooses instead to slow things down. The movements these images hint at are fixed on the photographic surface. The gestures represented have an instructional tone, which is generic and universal. The artist’s intentions are at once as present as they are emptied out and stripped back in their constant and dynamic redefinition of the images’ components. The logic through which each photograph was produced in the studio is rigorous and follows considerations of structure, labour and surface. Every colour, gesture and juxtaposition has been meticulously chosen.
American conceptual photographer Christopher Williams is one of Kennedy’s artistic points of reference. Like Williams, Kennedy is not scared to employ the technical refinement and skills of commercial photography. Kennedy intentionally chooses a dialectical relationship with the real – instead of being descriptive, the images self-reflexively mirror themselves and their production. The actions, rather than serving a function, reproduce their ‘hollow’ meta-structure.
Maurice K. Smith
In his ponderings on literature, Italian writer Italo Calvino offers various examples of plural perspectives used to develop a narrative: multiple viewpoints and alternating subjects are the keys to a plot’s dynamic unfolding.
In a hollow action, a room held together by letters Blaine Western engages with the poetics of the architecture of Maurice K Smith, and does so in manifold ways. Western’s practice has consistently shown a genuine interest in built forms and architectural ideas, and here it pursues new threads within that expansive framework. In preparation for the exhibition, the artist consulted archives offering information on the expatriate architect, visited the surviving buildings ascribed to Smith in the North Island of New Zealand, and talked to his former colleagues and friends.
Some of the elected material is presented in the exhibition on a table of collected ephemera and made available for viewing in the pages of this publication. Several images come from Smith’s online archive digitised by MIT, where Western discovered the photographic notes Smith took, like the series that captures details of built houses harmoniously entangled with natural stone and rock formations. Western brings his own engagement with materials and their building process to the project.
In another series, several images depict the skeleton of a house; while others, taken from the inside of the construction, look out. Through these documents we witness Smith’s buildings growing like organisms. An impression of the passing of time is deliberately suggested: the photographs often register seasonal changes, the different quality of light in the sky depending on the time of year, or the presence of snow or leaves. Trees, vegetation and the landscape are equally meaningful presences in Western’s works, where the natural environment is often bears silent witness to the construction, the alteration and the erosion of manmade architectural formations.
This exhibition is made from a precise combination of selected fragments. Maurice K Smith provided the point of departure for Western’s project, but in the exhibited artworks new perspectives surface through association. Literal meaning leaves space for a figurative, poetic interpretation.
A wall-sized polychromatic mosaic which used to be in the Odeon theatre on Queen Street, Auckland and now looks unassuming in the darkened space of an internet café which has taken over part of the building; the formwork of a wall which was either knocked down at the Frith concrete building in Hastings, Hawke’s Bay or which only existed on the original blueprint; the shape of a house that gradually reveals portions of itself through the windswept landscape of Karekare: these are some of the other filmic and sculptural traces Western feeds us in the exhibition.
During his research, while visiting the privately owned Thompson House, Western encountered a painted mural by Maurice Smith. At the beginning of his career in New Zealand, Smith built houses mainly for friends, and was known to leave personal touches on the buildings, suggesting an intimacy with their first owners. Rather than reproduce the mural at Artspace in its entirety, Western decided to present some of the sections he had photographed on site, asking artist Rohan Hartley Mills to paint two rectangular portions of the mural on two gallery walls. The green backtone is exactly the same as the original; the black, brown and red marks, lines and geometries of an abstract nature give the impression of an archaeological find, an incomplete fragment of a larger story.
On one side of the gallery, a wooden relief occupies the hollow cavity created by removing the bottom half of one of the plasterboard walls. This sculptural installation renders the formwork for a wall that either never existed or has been removed from the Frith Concrete Offices in Hastings, a building designed by Smith and Len Hoogerbrug which is currently occupied by a company producing prefabricated sheds and trailers.
The construction of a formwork – the wooden mold into which concrete is poured to make a wall or a pillar – is inscribed by Western in one of the gallery’s walls; wedges serve as footings and support geometries in position. The architecture of Artspace is momentarily interrupted and part of its shell is revealed, showing the potential of what might have been. The formwork retains its autonomy ‘through the representation of its own materials or the process of its construction’ and can be viewed from both sides as well as through the centre of one of the square panels which makes up its architectural and sculptural pattern. The potential rotation of the square inspired Kennedy to make one of his photographic series and publication designer Nell May.
In four of his photographs Kennedy’s hand cuts a square on grey paper, the next three actions articulate different moments of the inscription of a second square within the first. The final step in the series shows the disappearance of the hand holding the craft knife, leaving a hollow square containing a fully rotated one. Nell May learned of the use of the referential geometry of the grid in the works, which were emulating the logic employed by Smith in his architectural form, and she has kept all of this in mind when constructing the typeface for a hollow action, a room held together by letters.
Smith’s architecture, as we learn from a special 1982 issue of the magazine Spazio e Società (included as an item of ephemera in the show) is inspired and affected by the thought of American poet Charles Olson. In 1950 Olson composed the manifesto of Projective Verse, advocating the idea that ‘ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION’ and embracing open form as the way of developing a composition. Olsen also advocates a somewhat stylistic and improvisational freedom at the centre of the creative act: ‘I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what that stance does, both to the poet and to his reader.’
Olson offers a complementary take on the material, object-quality of words and things which creates a nice parallel with concerns that are apparent in Western’s practice: ‘What seems to me a more valid formulation for present use is “objectism,” a word to be taken to stand for the kind of relation of man to experience which a poet might state as the necessity of a line or a work to be as wood is, to be as clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature, to be shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it.’ A room held together with letters.
When conceptualising this project, Western entered into dialogue with Maurice K. Smith’s peers – Harry Turbott, Len Hoogerburg, Tony Watkins, among others. From their recollections the artist edited and recited a script. An evocation of memory occurs through their associations and the fragments of conversations. There are pauses, flashbacks, scenes that hover in time and space, and several voices coalesced into one, but the narrative created is far from linear. Meanings are not fixed, in a similar way as the use of a building inevitably changes over time.
In Western’s films there are no close-ups, nor are there abrupt changes in angles. The consistent horizontal camera movement gives the impression of a seamless flow, yet the loop is made of the juxtaposition of independent fragments which gently transition from one into the next. The windswept sub tropical landscape and the rock formations beside the beach frame segments of the house that architect Harry Turbott built for his family in the 1950s in Karekare, on Auckland’s West Coast, approximately 40 kilometres from the central city. Through the way the work is made and shown, Western unveils its apparatus. The filming on site ensued from the artist’s construction of tracks along which to slide the video-camera. The collected footage is projected in the elongated gallery on a screen hanging from the protrusion of one of the metal arms which enters from the main space. The screen, which is constructed from wood, is inspired by the photographs of the interiors of Smith’s buildings; the timber frame stretches a translucent material that allows the work to be viewed on both sides. In this respect, the screen appears to have neither a front nor a back. At the far end, a platform assembled in American white ash (a pale type of wood) and resting on sash clamps, offers a slight elevation. The status of the platform is ambiguous: it is not functional enough to be considered a piece of furniture but it is too practical to be a sculpture. The elevation creates an island from which the script can be heard and paired to the film, and at the same time it allows glimpses of the other video projected onto an adjacent wall, which consists of a succession of tracking shots of Smith’s polychromatic tile mural for the Odeon theatre. The film records the flow of the tiles’ once-bright colours, now muted by the dim lighting of the internet café, and magnifies the dust that has gathered in the interstices. At the opposite end of the room, the script, now less audible, competes with another set of sounds, those recorded by Western in the surroundings of Turbott’s house. The environment Western has created is intimate; his installation challenges a straightforward bi-dimensional experience of the works: it invites the viewer to move through the space, discovering different audio, visual and sculptural clues.
A rhythm underlies all of Western’s works; attentive details are repeated. It happens in the formwork with the rotating square increasing and decreasing, in the mosaic tiles changing colour, and it is reiterated in the endless circularity of both films’ loops.
No beginning, no end.
Caterina Riva, 2014
Printed in a hollow action, a room held together by letters, Artspace, 2014
- The signs interspersed across the gallery’s spaces offer several variations on basic geometric forms, such as the square and the circle. Their repetition, in both small and large scales, generates an engaging rhythmic pattern which expands and contracts harmoniously. Separate components – as in a musical score – are attuned into key.
- The book Display by designer George Nelson offered Western and Kennedy multiple examples of modular and exchangeable exhibition design; and the show The Family of Man, organised by Edward Steitchen for MoMA (New York) in 1955, provided an essential reference for a large number of photographic works to be displayed and viewed.
- Some of the definitions of ‘hollow’ describe ‘a cavity, gap or space within; an indented or concave surface; a void, and emptiness’; however, Kennedy’s iteration has more to do with the inherent potentiality of his polysemous images.
- In the novella Calvino published in 1979, If on a winter’s night a traveller, the same story is recounted many times, yet it always feels different because each time a new genre, style and subject matter is introduced.
- Maurice K Smith (born 1926, Hamilton, NZ, lives in Massachusetts, USA) graduated from the University of Auckland School of Architecture in 1950. In 1951 he left for the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship that led him to the Kansas State University and then The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In North America, he was exposed to the teachings of, among others, Gyorgy Kepes and Buckminster Fuller. He returned to New Zealand in the mid-1950s and again in 1968. Back in the USA in the 1970s, Smith was made a professor at MIT. See http://www.lostproperty.org.nz/architects/maurice-k-smith/.
- In his 2012–13 work The Fold of the Land, Western investigated the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre, designed by New Zealand architect John Scott. The artist’s installation explored the building’s current state within the Te Urewera National Park.
- Accessed online through MIT’s library website http://dome.mit.edu.
- A selection of his Western’s photographic architectural notes from California and Mexico City has recently been published in distracted-reader #2, A ridge, a section, an existing boundary, additions, a removed partition. A floor; concrete (where possible), Blaine Western and Michael Parr, split/fountain publishing, Auckland, 2013.
- Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, October, vol 8, Spring, 1979, p 5.
- Maurice Smith, ‘Frammenti di teoria/pratica = Fragments of theory/practice’, Spazio e Società, v 5, n 18, June, 1982, pp 36–63.
- Charles Olson (1910–1970, Massachusetts, USA). In 1950 Olson wrote his manifesto Projective Verse, and a year later he was hired as a visiting professor at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; in 1960 he composed his poetic opus The Maximum Poems.
- See http://www.angelfire.com/poetry/jarnot/olson.html.
- Smith believed that a building’s form should flow from its use, and that that functional reading would change over time, see http://truthandservice.com/?p=2578.
- Harry Turbott, New Zealand’s first Harvard-educated Landscape Architect, is responsible for the landscaping of Freemans Bay, Auckland consisting of a series of apartment blocks built for the Auckland City Council between 1968 and 1971.