BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 23 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Annette Amberg

Kunsthaus Glarus

BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 23 FEB 12

Structure IV-VIII, 2011

What is the ineffable pull of modernist architecture for contemporary artists? The formal aesthetics of such building lends itself to the sober frames of film and photography, but it is just as much the Utopian ardour of such architectonics that inspire. In the case of the Swiss artist Annette Amberg, this question is more easily answered, initially. Her long-term conceptual project exploring the Cambodian modernist architect Vann Molyvann’s oeuvre stems, at least superficially, from an autobiographical impulse. Molyvann is her uncle; the dialectics his exceptional life has rested on – East and West, tradition and progress, nation building and genocide – include this odd one: the contrast of his pivotal role in Cambodian history with the quiet banality of the familial. We often forget that personages who embody the contradictions of an age are also simply daughters or sons, even uncles.

At Kunsthaus Glarus, the riddle of Amberg’s uncle’s existence – and, through him, the twentieth century’s – ran through two floors of galleries in the form of relics both found and made. The location was apt: The L-shaped museum was built in 1952 by modernist architect Hans Leuzinger, and its concrete-and-glass, pavilion-like forms owe something to the architectural language that Molyvann himself worked in. Thus, the first-floor gallery’s glass walls offered views of tropical-looking gardens. Inside, Amberg installed a series of black, concrete V-shaped sculptures – ‘Structure IV-VIII’ (2011) – on the floor. At once tersely geometric and softly vernacular (they might be abstract approximations of seagulls), the forms conjure the V-shaped gables Molyvann began to employ in the 1950s after he returned from his architectural studies in Paris (where Pol Pot was simultaneously immersing himself in Marxism).

Nearby, a small TV monitor screened Documentation (2011), a 16mm film that the artist shot of Cambodia’s built landscape. Hand-held footage of Angkor Wat temples slowly switches to Molyvann’s modernist marvels: the monumental sports complex built for the cancelled Southeast Asian Games of 1963; his own gorgeous house. The film’s soft, nostalgic colour, and the conflation of ancient and modern architectonics, give the work an air of timelessness – it might have been made in the 1960s or now. This quality, contested by Cambodia’s unrelenting twentieth-century timeline – modernist nation-building in the 1950s, social engineering of a primitive agrarian society and genocide in the 1970s, the return of the monarchy in the 1990s, democracy today – gives the film an aching frisson. Likewise in the oddly timeless Untitled (Blvd. Mao Tse Toung 107) (2011), a series of un-colour-corrected film stills that line the back wall; each image of a Cambodian house increasingly flush with sunspots and psychedelic color fields.

Though lovely, the mannered prettiness of these works was dispelled by the excellent installation upstairs, entitled Everything But Arms (2011), which left lyricism for more Brutalist aesthetics. Here, a light-filled gallery was outlined by an inclined, red-carpeted platform, like those rolled out for visiting dignitaries. For Portrait (Phnom Penh) (2009–11), the walls above were inscribed with the names of Phnom Penh boulevards, each a nod to a Cold War patron: Charles de Gaulle, Mao Tse Toung, Joseph Broz Tito Yougoslavie. Interspersed was Untitled (Life and Work) (2011), a selection of 1960s black and white photos from Molyvann’s personal archive showing the young architect picnicking with his Swiss wife and surrounded by soldiers; building his house; or with other professional Cambodians, most of whom would not survive the coming regime. Taken together, these works offered a deft and devastating portrait of the way formal aesthetics literally frame and are framed by political and economic forces – and the way that both forces dovetail to constitute our inheritance. Amberg’s evocative exhibition title, also ‘Everything But Arms’, spoke to this fact: how the threat of war shadows all cultural exchange, even during peacetime; how personal agency is amputated or fragmented by the political systems to which we must surrender. The spectral Grecian marble figure conjured by her title nods its heavy head.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).