‘The New Monumentality’ posits a shift of J.G. Ballard’s infamous quasi-question ‘Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?’ by transmuting sincere architectural functionality to indeterminate cultural speculation.
Starting with the environs of the University of Leeds – one of the most significant postwar European university campuses, conceived in 1960 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, architects of London’s Barbican Centre, and still somewhat vulnerably unlisted – this exhibition, curated by Penelope Curtis, vibrates across the yawning fault lines of Modernism to investigate fitness for purpose, and perhaps more importantly, the individual citizen’s right to ‘dream’.
Gerard Byrne’s subject (2009), described tautologically as ‘a historical dramatisation with actors’, is a radicalized feat of dramatic history, dealing with representation of meaning as both subject and object. The film – a new commission for the exhibition – is a witty aggregate of idiosyncratic written material acquired in the early 1960s by the university library, drawing on sources that range from campus drug-use, to Ted Hughes’ poetry, to sly advertising slogans for Guinness. Actionless vignettes are positioned in dramatically-static sites across the university, portrayed by a floating cast of seven young student actors (who are, in turn, acting students), each with Leeds-cadenced accents, ill-fitting 1960s clothes and strangely similar gappy teeth.
One character tells of her experience of first love, ‘I was struck dumb: dumb struck.’ Hanging off this syntactic reversal, the tension of the idiolect plays against the regularity, or again the smoothness of Modernism. Across the 30-minute film frequent references to often nefarious acts that may well still be happening on campus, are evaluated by the individual characters in words that are clearly not their own, becoming increasingly impossible to process into sequential narration, and drawing our attention to tiny details in order to unlock meaning: each door handle, each costume change, each sigh.
‘“Everything I tell you over the next hour will be a lie,’ he explained. ‘Of course, that would not really be a lie, would it?’ he added. ‘What I just said is too accurate for a lie. The only way to really lie is by telling the truth.”’ So begins Aporia (2009), Dorit Margreiter’s 12-minute film, scripted by the critic Norman Klein, read by an evenly modulated female voice, and populated by six University of Leeds students standing in for actors.
Margreiter’s aporetic procedure is a delicate composure of copies. Also newly commissioned for the exhibition, and shot in the university’s own television studio (a corner of which is hidden by a great green curtain alarmingly reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz), the film’s awkward cast is charming by turns, and serves well to keep us from becoming too involved with continuity of action, for whilst they are reading scripts to each other, the only voice we hear is that of the narrator. So too the pauses of blank screen feel like sullen punctuation marks, rather than scene changes which adds to a feeling of motionless travel as the film visits or rather perhaps would-be visits versions of somewhere that may be, but is certainly not, Venice, through Klein’s script. This is of course a quite familiar strategy, unpacked in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), and made screamingly flesh in The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. Here however the use of ‘Venice’ is oblique, for we keep being reminded visually of Leeds.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s film Marquise (Canopy) (2007) makes an unsteady intervention into the totalising vision of Oscar Niemeyer’s São Paulo Biennial building by depicting a construction of a gaggle of 14 plywood columns built by the artist around just one of Niemeyer’s. The building is itself a linkage structure, an arterial canopy to his other buildings in the city’s Ibirapuera Park, and as such must surely resent an intervention that might divert its users from the main business of formalised leisure.
In this respect, Gonzalez-Foerster’s five-minute film is an apt addition to any discussion around the politics of space and the behaviour it creates in its inhabitants: even a small white poodle is captured in a moment of uncertainty, obediently following its owner, but clearly titillated by the prospect of so many pillars to piss against.
Marquise (Canopy)’s deadpan documentary style is unsettled by the narration, a very young boy’s voice, trying to recount something that may never have happened at all. His parents certainly don’t believe him. Proof if needed, that just like the skateboarders who whizz around the canopy’s real and fake columns, the perfect flip trick is better acted out in memory than in reality.
However Gonzalez-Foerster’s inclusion in the show suffers from the lack of the local (local to Leeds that is), for whilst the two other films also refer to the national and international, they do so in a way that returns us to Leeds, and are all the more immediately critical because of it.
It is interesting to note that all three of the works that constitute ‘The New Monumentality’ are technically reliant on young voices to slice through and react to the solidity of Modernism. An optimist might deduce from this that Modernism can only ever exist in the future and never in the present. But what might an art student make of it?