by Ingrid Ruudi (1/2014) in kunst.ee
Text Is Space Is Text
Ingrid Ruudi develops a framework of architectural theory for the project "Evident in Advance" by Dénes Farkas, which represented Estonia at the 55th International Venice Biennale.
Leon Battista Alberti wrote of perspective, painting and architecture, but he also created a little known treatise on peace of mind. His text "Della tranquillità dell'animo", published in 1442, recommends treating anxiety or heartache with mathematics or architecture. Alberti describes how he has sometimes spent hours planning buildings, orders and giving shape to the capitals of columns in his fantasies, until sleep has taken hold of him1 – architecture frees our mind of anguish and brings order to our thoughts.
A bit less than five centuries later Ludwig Wittgenstein seemed to hope the same, as after finishing his treatise "Tractatus logico-philosophicus" in 1918 he was convinced that he had solved all philosophical issues and could put the discipline aside. After his rather unsuccessful attempts to work as a teacher in a village school and then a gardener, he received a welcome challenge in the form of a building project from his sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, which had initially been commissioned from Ludwig's friend Paul Engelmann. Wittgenstein was expected to take care of the details – the doors, windows, radiators – but the restless philosopher dedicated himself to his task with such intensity that it led to him take over the entire design process.
Of course, the aforementioned details are the main elements that define the essence of the otherwise extremely reduced architecture with their absurdly precise proportioning and thoroughly laconic finishing touches. Once the house was built, it inspired awe and even fear, as his other sister Hermine recalled, "it seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this "house embodied logic" as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality."2 The rooms are based on the principle of sectio aurea, the exits are placed on the axis of symmetry with absolute precision, the staircase is built according to such a perfect formula that it became almost non-functional – not only Wittgenstein's biographers but also several architects have seen that house as a substantiation of his Treatise, as logic that has taken the form of space. It appears as a step from something that can be said, to an object that can only been shown.
Photographs, models, texts
Farkas' work "Evident in Advance" is similarly multi-layered and monumental in its minimalism that it evokes awe and a desire to remain silent rather than to fail in the attempt to verbalise the feelings it inspires. I will only attempt to discuss a fragment of his project here, which is the matter of space in the exhibition and the photographs that communicate in some verbally mediated way with the rooms of the house planned by Wittgenstein. To be more precise, there are photographs in the exhibition (which are actually spatial objects, when placed in light boxes) that depict models that spring from a text describing a house that spatialized a text. That five-layered translation process is anything but linear; it rather resembles a fragmentary network, where the meaningful moments or those that are essential and accumulated to the point of saturation actually remain elusive – they nullify their own meaning in that over-abundance. Only the warp threads of the network remain visible like signposts pointing in different directions. This exhibition is a field of possibilities laid out in a crisscrossed manner, a mass of redundancies – a hopeless labyrinth of consciousness.
A labyrinth – we are already facing a metaphor for architecture that is also a bit of a cliché. Architectural metaphors are in general cliché and anonymous, worn out by their daily use, meaning that they have permeated the language particularly thoroughly. It is hardly possible to speak of any system or organisation, or any kind of order without mentioning its structure, its foundation, bases or pillars, or it being built upon something.
Language and architecture mirror each other. A linguistic description, or the kind of description of the world that is shaped by language is essentially architectural. The classical architectural tradition is similarly encyclopaedic in its all-embracing ambition – an architect is then seen as a demiurge, the architecture as "the supreme science" or the synthesiser of all arts and sciences. It is precisely that reflection of each other which drives Wittgenstein to build a spatial equivalent of his philosophy – a structure that would last – and Farkas to find a spatial equivalent to the dysfunction of the communication and the loss of meaning – more exactly, to disintegrate a homogenous slice of the world simultaneously through language and space. Because above anything else it is a project of disintegration, of undermining: building tiny, fragile cardboard worlds to which photographs lend a scale and convincing quality incomparable with reality, sabotaging it at the same time as the photographic enlargement reveals their inevitable imperfection – the microscopic cracks turn out to be fissures that tear up the walls, the glue that has seeped out compromises the idealistically clean surfaces.
Farkas deals exactly the same way with Bruce Duffy's literary space: he compiles a dictionary as a guide, as a rule book filled with vague meanings, and transforms it – by jumbling up the spatial construction of the dictionary – right then and there into something dysfunctional. Or he establishes a library that seemingly promises access to knowledge covering all kinds of topics, but all the books have the same content, there is no new information, repetition has ruled out all differences.
The library built in the middle of the exhibition is its spatial counterpoint. As Daniele Monticelli has suggested, several spatial typologies get mixed up in the exhibition, such as the library, the archive, the classroom, the room of the exhibition3 – they are all spaces connected with producing knowledge and constructing a subject through that. At the same time, they are rooms that embody the interior, closure, self-satiety. It has to be said that the two presentations of the exhibition, one at the Palazzo Malipiero, Venice, and the other on the fourth floor of Kumu Art Museum, differ greatly in their spatial effect, drawing attention to different aspects of the exhibition. It seems to me that at Kumu the theme of communication and translation became more noticeable; however, in Venice the spatial impulse dominated, as the "living space" typology of the palazzo amplified the dialectics of the interior and the attempt to disintegrate it.
An interior, a closed unit of space, is a primordial element, from which springs the very same dominant Western architectural tradition that tries to abolish insecurity and anguish by bringing order into the world, creating perfect mathematics or producing standardized subjects. The interior means defining, clear and pre-defined spatial parameters, it organises, categorises, compartmentalises and stratifies. Farkas also seems to create interiors, but their contours tend to dissipate. The library room is not an enclosed container but has two exits in opposing corners: a solution that indicates movement. The room as a defined unit is only lightly accentuated. As to the picture rooms, they dissipate even more in the photographs – obviously they are meant to model interiors, but the photographic manipulation eliminates their closed state and emphasises their fictitious aspect.
Therefore, is space and spatiality among the most inevitable categories defining how existence is possible, and for that reason the most direct means of presenting it or altering it. The rooms in the pictures by Farkas and in the halls of the exhibition will not leave us with illusions of definition, of an organised state or the possible existence of fully satisfying logical solutions. The repeated interpretations, which turn text into a room and vice versa (and back once again), dislodge the fulcrums that we are used to relying on in such matters. They unravel the architecture, bring uncertainty into the rooms and offer x+n ways of making connections that fall apart even before they can take form, before becoming verbalised. "Evident in Advance" is a gently stubborn "spatial universe" with unabashedly delicious aesthetics – at first it appears disorientating, but then it feels cool, light and free of illusions.
Ingrid Ruudi is an architecture historian and critic; she works at the Institute of Art History in the Estonian Academy of Arts.
Dénes Farkas (born 1974, Budapest) is an Estonian-Hungarian post-conceptual photo artist, who lives and works in Tallinn. Since the second half of the noughties his work has focused on reducing a social structure that he studies into the shape of a representative model uniting a photograph that is as laconic as possible with its title. In 2013, Farkas represented Estonia at the 55th International Venice Biennale with the exhibition "Evident in Advance", which was re-displayed in 2014 at Kumu Art Museum.
1 A quote of Denis Hollier, Against Architecture. The Writings of Georges Bataille. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995, p 36.
2 Bernhard Leitner, The Wittgenstein House. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, p 23.
3 See Daniele Monticelli, Ette ilmne või tõlkes/tõlgetes kaduma läinud? – Vikerkaar 2013, No. 6.