BY Ludwig Seyfarth in Features | 08 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2

Measure for Measure

Leonor Antunes uses iconic buildings as points of departure for precise sculptural installations which confound architectural models with measuring systems

BY Ludwig Seyfarth in Features | 08 AUG 11

‘camina por ahí. mira por aquí / walk around there. look here’, 2011, Installation view

Often, we relate neither physically nor emotionally to the buildings we move through or walk past. The work of the Berlin-based Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes does establish such a connection but in an unusual manner. Antunes is not interested in specific associations, metaphors or symbols. Instead she subjects existing, often architecturally significant buildings to her own mode of observation and measurement. In so doing, Antunes focuses less on the whole the overall shape of the building than on the details, the structural features, literally the load-bearing elements. She removes such elements from their original context and translates them into other spaces and materials, always retaining the scale of the original. I love buildings, says the artist, but Im not interested in architecture, as one might say I love clothes, but Im not interested in fashion. Im interested in space, sculpture, and its context. For the buildings referenced in her works and for the spaces where she exhibits her work, she looks for points of departure based on her own physical experience. She maps out her own territory which superimposes itself as a second level of reality over what is already there.

When Antunes came to Berlin in 2005 for a year-long residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, one aspect of the formerly divided city particularly struck her: a number of buildings exist twice because both East and West Berlin needed an arts academy, a national gallery, a state library, a broadcasting tower and a museum of applied arts. What was duplicated was not the architecture itself but the function of the buildings. But as these structures are essentially doppelgängers, they inevitably have something ghostly about them. This phantom quality is also present in the five sculptures shown by Antunes in her end-of-residency show: Modo de usar #7, #8, #9, #10 and #11 (Instructions for use, 2003ongoing), a series featuring delicate constructions made of thin brass wire that look like three-dimensional drawings in space, each a full-scale quotation from one of the five duplicate buildings part of the floor or, in the case of Mies van der Rohes Neue Nationalgalerie, a section of column. The five sculptures fit together in a wooden box that also contains a booklet explaining each pieces urban context and offering instructions for assembly and dismantling. All the works in the Modos de usar series look like three-dimensional architecture models drawn in space and are housed in similar wooden boxes. And the box, too, is based on a model: an old box containing various brass instruments, probably for teaching, discovered by Antunes at a Berlin flea market. Almost inevitably, this series recalls the portable museums Marcel Duchamp produced for La Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase, 193540): miniature retrospectives in small boxes.

Folded back against the pillars, 2008

Like Duchamp, Antunes has an obvious fondness for geometrical systems, projections and unusual units of measurement. The four works in her Chain of Triangles series first shown at Mark Foxx Gallery in Los Angeles in 2010 large constructions made of black ropes and brass tubes that hang down four to five metres from the ceiling are based on the measurement of spaces according to the principle of triangulation. Such triangular maps are issued to visitors by Antunes as instructions. At first glance, the Chains of Triangles hardly give the impression of following precise measurements. They seem to have gone slack, collapsed, as if the volume had gone out of them like air out of a balloon. Their overall shape recalls a dangling harness, or Robert Morris Felt Pieces. Although associations with classics of Conceptual and Minimal Art often occur in Antunes praxis, the references are not given centre stage as is the case, for example, in Jonathan Monks ironic cover versions of works by Sol LeWitt or Ed Ruscha.

Triangular forms also played a major role in Antunes exhibition camina por ahí. mira por aquí / walk around there. look through here at the Reina Sofía in Madrid this summer, which included only works created for the show. One of the three points of reference woven together here in physical and conceptual terms is to be found in the Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 Worlds Fair in Brussels, designed by Ramón Vázquez Molezún and José Antonio Corrales. The basis for the Pabellón de los Hexágonos (Pavilion of Hexagons), one of the most famous Spanish contributions to the architecture of the 20th century, consists of hexagonal structures assembled out of triangles. They form a flexible modular construction which could easily be reassembled elsewhere and which allowed the pavilion to be transferred to the Casa de Campo in Madrid in 1959. The second point of reference is the labyrinth and the thread given by Ariadne to Theseus to help him to find his way out after slaying the Minotaur. Not only is the floor of the exhibition space almost totally covered in a pattern of heavy triangular brass and rubber plates referring to the architectural structure of the Spanish pavilion; there are also black ropes laid out in irregular wavy lines. The repetition of the geometrical pattern, the systematic disclosure of an architectural structure, is confronted here with the thread that indicates a visible path through a dark and confusing building.

El trayecto de la cuerda (String travel), 2011, Video still

These two points of reference for Antunes evermore labyrinthine-looking exhibition concept finally met in a third: Maya Deren and Marcel Duchamps unfinished film Witchs Cradle (1943), shot among the often free-standing, organically curved displays, offering surprising lines of sight, that were designed by Friedrich Kiesler for the exhibition The Art of the Century in New York in 1942. This architecture, too, consists of a modular structure (although far freer than the Spanish Pavilion) which was realized at other locations, such as the Centre Pompidou for the Kiesler retrospective held there in 1996. Witchs Cradle features a rope with an eerie life of its own which winds its way over human bodies a motif quoted by Antunes in the 16mm film el trayecto de la cuerda (string travel) (2011) shown in the Reina Sofía exhibition. The immaterial projection of the film turns solid architecture into a drawing of light and shadow in space. When Antunes transfers the dematerialized architectural phantoms back into the physical experience of space and material, the familiar three-dimensional world seems to be populated by ghosts with different coordinates.

This recalls the novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) written by the British mathematician Edwin A. Abbott to give scientists and non-scientists alike an insight into the fourth dimension that lies beyond our capacity for spatial conception a much-discussed problem in the late 19th century. To this end, he imagined a world that has only two dimensions. The horizon of its inhabitants is tied to flatness in the same way ours is tied to three-dimensionality. In Antunes art, it is often far from easy to follow the path from the initial measuring up through to the various sculptural realizations, which subject our capacity for visual conception to a similar test. Antunes uvre increasingly appears as a network of individual works interlinked like a modular mesh and continually taking on new shapes.

The concept of Modos de usar sculptures that travel in boxes also contains the basic principle of Antunes art as a whole. Her other current exhibition at Museu Serralves in Porto features works made between 2004 and 2011; less a retrospective than a recombination, the show includes Folded Back Against the Pillars (2008), Antunes complex survey of Eileen Grays house Villa E-1017 (1926-29) in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte dAzur. In October, part of the Porto show will travel to the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen in Dusseldorf. In the end, it is easy to lose the thread one had laid out for oneself, such as assigning Antunes praxis a clearly defined place within the terrain of todays post-conceptual strategies. But perhaps it is a deliberate trick on the part of the artist to knot her threads in such a way that the difficulty of following them prevents an abstract outside perspective. Thats precisely the type of perspective that doesnt interest her in the first place when she sets her sights on a building.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Ludwig Seyfarth is a critic and curator living in Berlin.