As art dematerialized and moved out of the domain of the gallery in the late 1960s and early ’70s, photographic and filmic records gradually came to supplant the events that they recorded. Sawing through soon-to-be-demolished buildings, Gordon Matta-Clark exemplified this shift. In 1977, a year before his premature death from pancreatic cancer, he oversaw the ‘cutting’ of an Antwerp office block which overlooked the harbour and the medieval Steen Castle, a project that became known as Office Baroque. What remains is a set of photographs – some of them collaged to dramatize the play of shapes between the images – and a 16mm film showing a bare-chested Matta-Clark in blue jeans and a dust mask, wielding a chainsaw (all titled Office Baroque, 1977). His portrait is a further instalment in the image pantheon of US artist action heroes, taking its place alongside Richard Serra in his lead-spattered boiler suit and Jackson Pollock in cowboy boots and T-shirt. In Matta-Clark’s case, it proved to be an image of double foreboding, a condemned man attacking a condemned building.
The documentation of ephemeral art has produced a legacy of recent work – such as the films of Paul Sietsema, in which elaborate models are constructed only to be filmed or photographed – but Matta-Clark’s interventions also seem to have been structured in anticipation of the images that would be their only residual trace. Tear-shaped incisions were cut into a succession of walls, running through the length and depth of the building, so the camera’s view through the foreground aperture reveals planes of receding depth that are then sandwiched into a single shape by the photograph’s flattening of space. It is a superimposition of layers into what Michael Fried called ‘the medium of shape’, which he considered to be the essence of Modernist abstract painting’s pictoriality. In this sense, Matta-Clark’s art was transitional, with as much old Modernism as new Minimalism in its bloodstream.
The comparison with more recent art demonstrates how the use of documentary media has become self-conscious since the 1970s, but it also demonstrates the self-consciousness of Matta-Clark’s presentation, despite initial appearances. Sixteen-millimetre film projection has become such a generic sign for art films we have to remind ourselves that it was then simply the most practical means of making a short movie. The presentation of the still photographs, however – roughly attached to raw hardboard with uneven chunks of black isolation tape and fastened under a sheet of glass by a series of winged bolts – conforms to an anti-art aesthetic that is synonymous with the presentation of early Conceptualism as a form of didactic research that was careless of niceties. Paradoxically, it calls attention to itself more than a standard wooden frame would. The air of scientific objectivity is evident in the artist’s narration on the film soundtrack, which makes Office Baroque sound somewhere between an archaeological dig and an engineering equation to be solved through great ingenuity.
The breathtaking romanticism of the images qualifies this reading: the walls gradually lighten as the camera levitates through sections of the building, all the way down to a circle of pure harbour light. We catch a glimpse of the street below, where a mother is walking with her young son, who trails a column of yellow balloons that bob over their heads. It is a reminder that as much as Matta-Clark’s art is an act of violence (with a new set of resonances, post-9/11), it is also a defiance of time and gravity. A series of A4-sized black and white photographs of circular and elliptical incisions in the Antwerp building (Circus 2, 1977) suggest a mechanistic metaphor. They resemble rotating cogs, as though the architecture could be set in motion, like the inside of a clock, by piercing its shell. Time is figured in space and thereby circumvented. The images resist the transience that is their ultimate subject by metaphorically comprehending it. In Samuel Beckett’s words: ‘Time has turned into space and there will be no more time, till I get out of here.’