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The minute I entered Phyllida Barlow’s Tate Britain commission entitled “dock” I knew I wanted to write something about it. In order to do so I felt I needed to read as many articles and reviews about it as I could. Mostly because I am not an art critic and I felt rather insecure to express my opinion. Almost all of these texts were slightly fragmented descriptions with a poetic air about them. Focusing on different parts of the huge constructions, the writers came up with interesting metaphors that came to their minds when they visited “dock”. However I felt I did not read anything that accurately described the truly powerful feeling I got from this work which most importantly for me I also found truly architectural.

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Lately I have been to quite a few exhibitions that attempt to interpret architecture and ultimately see it as conceptual art. I always applaud the endeavour because of its degree of difficulty but also because us architects, do think of ourselves as artists as well and not only as technocrats who constantly problem-solve.

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What really struck me with Barlow’s sculptures, is that they are more architectural than any architect’s installation that attempts to be purely artistic. These massive creations speak of volume and scale and start a dialogue between the body and space. Good art has the ability to make one go within, in a psychoanalytical manner. It brings about forgotten memories or even previously unknown realisations and touches us because we identify with it. At least most contemporary art aspires to do that, compared to classical works that were more about creating masterpieces that inspired awe to the viewer.

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Architecture closely as it flirts with visual art in borrowing aesthetics and trends from it has its own vocabulary that mostly derives from the fact that buildings are meant to be inhabited by people. Hence they reflect their bodies as they are designed to accommodate them. What I am saying here is that architecture can be very artistic in expressing existing philosophies or views of the world. It can also create entire pieces of the world which aspire to expand people’s understanding of it. However, even the most controversial building’s conceptual references manage to somehow incorporate the human body. This is what is defined as “the human scale” and buildings are often judged by how successful they are in reflecting it.

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Standing next to the “dock” sculptures I had an immediate sense of my own body’s size and how big these structures were compared to me. I watched and photographed people walking in, under and around them and I thought I was back in university making rough scale models for some unit project. The figurines though were real people and the scale model that I used to make out of some club’s flyer and sprayed cardboard was hugely blown out of proportion.

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I do not want to go into details and share what each of the structures reminded me. There are plenty of articles that do that as I said in the beginning. I also do not enjoy much being very literal. Using a phrase that haunted me throughout my student years from one of my favourite books of all time, Gaston Bachelard’ s Poetics of Space: “The poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”

The poetic dimension of Barlow’s sculptures took immediate root in me. But that did not happen because I have been trained as an architect. It happened because architecture refers to bodies, and I have a body through which I experience the world as much as I do with my mind.

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The sculptures will be on display in Tate Britain until the 19th of October 2014

Tate Britain’s site on the exhibit here

Read more about Plyllida Barlow here

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Alexander Brodsky is considered one of Russia’s most important and famous contemporary
architects. However his career has been unconventional from the very beginning. He graduated
from Virginia Tech University in 1978 while he was already starting to build a reputation
with his paper architecture projects (which is another term for fictional architecture
that can never be built). This early work is almost a crossover to pure art that tends to point out the political and philosophical repercussions of architecture. Brodsky’s art is so unique and haunting that during the 80’s, he and his partner in crime Ilya Utkin, produced drawings that history has placed amongst the best that Post Modern era has to offer.(see the post on Post-Modern exhibition here)

Both images by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin/left image:Villa Nautilus Bulwark of Resistance c1987/right image:Columbarium Habitabile

When asked the reason for not getting into architectural practice by the end of his studies Brodsky
has said that the only option in Russia at the time would have been to participate in state-sponsored low-quality housing projects. Not willing to do this, he retrieved into a fantasy world that according to him was not a straightforward political attack on the system, however was inspired by
Russian  politics  and evoked a dystopian feeling that reflected it.
When I visited Calvert22 gallery I actually did not know that much about Brodsky which at times I
consider a good thing in order to have a less biased opinion of someone’s work. I was familiar with his work with Ilya Utkin and I liked it a lot but I was not aware of the magnitude of his success in his home country.
The first room I entered was the White room which had an odd elongated shape. The short sides
had mirrors on them creating the illusion of an infinitely expanding space. The long walls were covered with white curtains and the lights concealed behind  them resembled softly defused daylight.

White room from White room/Black room exhibition by Alexander Brodsky at Calvert22 gallery.                                   Photos by Mania Oikonomou

There was a row of small wooden beds with pillows on them next to one of the curtained walls. They were approximately 1/10 scale which I always thought is an awkward scale in architectural modelling. It looked like a strange dormitory but the tiny people implied to live there were absent. The space evoked a subtly unsettling feeling and reminded me of David Lynch films where little people unexpectedly appear from doors hidden behind curtains. There was also a strong sense of abandonment and isolation.

Black room from White room/Black room exhibition by Alexander Brodsky at Calvert22 gallery.                               Photos by Mania Oikonomou

The entrance to the Black room was not immediately noticeable but walking along the row of beds I saw an opening on the opposite side towards the far end. The black room was actually pitch
dark and the my eyes took a couple of seconds to adjust. Around the corner there was a construction similar to an octagonal amphitheatre. Its roof and walls were only implied by the 3D octagon’s edges and in it were sited a number of male figures around what looked like a hearth. They were all identical which each other and they had weirdly shaped heads. They sat in the same position holding their chins as if they were contemplating something.

First image:Rotunda, Nikolo-Lenivets, Russia 2009, photo Yuri Palmin via RAA/middle image: the Ice Pavilion on Klyazma reservoir Russia photo via Architizer/right image:The Penultimate Day of Pompeii.1997 photo via Bednoe

Most of Brodsky’s work is described as site specific architectural installation art and looking at previous examples of it, this is actually an accurate definition. Although I have not physically visited them, in the photographs they look very powerful. The White room/Black room installation seems much more cryptic. Both rooms,especially the dark one is very mystical in a latent religious way. Still it is not obvious what the creator is attempting to achieve, nor the connection with architecture is revealed. Possibly, since Brodsky has been producing actual buildings for  the last decade, (having finally established his architectural practice in Moscow) he is able to dive deeper into the production of art when he gets the chance to do so. It seems that the line between architecture and art is not as blurred as it used to be in his older projects. When he makes building, he makes buildings, when he makes art he makes art. Regardless of the field, he is known for his inspired work and I admire his experimentations and fluctuations between the two domains. Somehow it feels that his involvement in both helps him to develop them further. After all architecture is most definitely an art and since most architects have no choice but to be pragmatic it is refreshing to encounter one who has managed to stay truly imaginative.

left image: Vodka pavilion in Russia. Photo via The fox is black/Middle image:Vodka pavilion in Russia. Photo via Thersic/right image:” Your prison” installation. Photo via Vanchaa

The exhibition is open Wednesday to Sunday and will be on until the 25th of November

Find the Calvert22 exhibition website here

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