Andrea Zittel is a puzzle. Is she a designer who chooses to work in the fine art arena, or an artist preoccupied with design? Her museum and gallery shows testify to her fine art status, but the well-crafted Minimalism of her exhibited clothes and living units suggest a canny designer with attitude.
A key to understanding Zittel's work lies in her catalogues. Like adverts for an interior design company, they present her pieces, extol their virtues and show images of ordinary people leading happy, fulfilled lives amid Zittel products. But unlike regular commercial catalogues, whose aim is merely to sell, hers carry unnerving hints of an ongoing role in the life of the purchaser. Obtain a work by Zittel and you become part of her performance. Their smooth blandness ensures that nothing detracts from the ghostly presence of their creator. She has worn the clothes and lived in the units, and they evoke her so strongly that they appear not to be autonomous objects, but mute, dependent witnesses to her presence. As such, they are discarded performance props, exhibited in the same way as Matthew Barney's film sets: component parts of a larger, complete work that exists within its own frame of reference. Zittel's continuing quest to refine human living is her long-term performance, and her exhibitions are dispatches from the work-in-progress. The clue-laden catalogues are performance PR. The fact that the series is entitled 'A-Z Living Units' gives an idea of the ambitious, utopian nature of the entire project: the artist presumably intends to address the entire range of human living needs.
The latest in the 'A-Z' series was shown at Sadie Coles HQ recently. Looking like an elegant summer house, this single-roomed unit consisted of a slender metal frame with walls of pale blue panels and glass, topped with a corrugated steel roof. Interior fittings include a reassuringly solid, comfortable bed and a worktop with cupboards, sink and stove. The whole thing induced both claustrophobia and a sense of comfort. Such a paradox drives Zittel's work: it addresses autonomy and independence, but via expressions of meticulous order and control. The simplicity and charm of this unit successfully emphasized the idea of 'owner independence' as it was virtually free of clutter (only a few seashells on a shelf above the bed - disposable!) and could be dismantled and re-erected in a matter of hours.
This is where the object revealed its American roots. Being less than 120 square feet, in the USA it would be classified as a 'temporary structure'. This means the owner could theoretically transport, erect and live in it wherever he or she pleased, without any need for bureaucratic approval. This freedom fits very well in a country where there are still wild, wide open spaces and people wary of government 'interference' in their individual and personal liberties.
Unfortunately, Zittel's A-Z 2001 Homestead Unit looked IKEA-bland in the gallery, and the accompanying drawings felt like a neutered attempt to integrate the unit into an awkward context. In contrast, her project at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was a chance to see a site-specific piece the uncompromised integrity of which made it a powerful example of Zitteleana. Post-industrial Birmingham has reinvented itself with conference centres, hotels, pedestrian precincts, loft living and rapidly increasing house prices. The last of these gave added bite to Zittel's work. In an empty studio space that is about to be transformed into a luxury loft she created her first large-scale commission in the UK. A-Z Cellular Compartment Units is a two-storey, ten-room construction in which Zittel (and friends) lived as it was built, customizing each room as required. Upon completion the artist moved out, leaving basic furniture and ephemera such as Post-It notes, loose change and a hairbrush as proof of the building's habitation. Being tall, I expected to hate it, but was surprised to feel instantly comfortable and even reluctant to leave. Although I'll come clean and admit that I'd rather live in the finished loft, my spatial demands were easily subverted, which proves the effectiveness of the project so far. The humorous irony of showing her alternative housing model on the site of a flash apartment was a nice touch, and certainly helped to provide a more complete reading of her work.