‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it’s a really stupid thing to do.’ So quipped Elvis Costello in a 1983 interview published in Musician Magazine. The line has been variously attributed to Martin Mull, Sonny Rollins and Laurie Anderson (who featured it in her 1986 concert video, Home of the Brave), and has now become something of a cliché – an easy jibe at music critics. But why must music be ineffable and architecture inert? Using dance to consider how the built environment conditions our behaviour, Pablo Bronstein plays off this proverbialism. So it seems appropriate that for his solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts – his largest show to date – he was given full reign of the building, from the galleries and the theatre to the stairwells and the café. This was a first for the ICA, and a smart decision from incoming director Gregor Muir. Unravelling the architectural histories of the site, the exhibition framed Regency-era extravagance in with constraints of the current climate of swingeing cuts, turning the collision of the neo-classical and the avant-garde into a Postmodern performance of sorts.
‘I’m interested in how we look at buildings,’ Bronstein has said, ‘how we re-evaluate them from a present perspective.’ The title of the exhibition – ‘Sketches for Regency Living’ – established this interest in history in the present tense, suggesting that all of the works were in some way provisional, inevitably wedded to their own temporality. Take Tragic Stage (2011), a ballet in the lower gallery, for which a partition wall was removed to create an open, piazza-like space. The backdrop was a vast painting of a forecourt and façade in the style of John Nash, the architect responsible for Carlton House Terrace, the former stables of which have housed the ICA since 1968. The action was a dance that collapsed the affectations of the neo-classical with the pomp of the white cube, symbolized by the empty plinths dotted across the stage. Bronstein’s allusions were accentuated brilliantly with costumes by Mary Katrantzou, whose acclaimed autumn 2010 collection developed digitally printed fabrics from images in Architectural Digest and World of Interiors. Here, her outfits helped to dramatize Bronstein’s anachronisms: in between performances, each dancer would sit nonchalantly on a plastic chair at the edge of the space, their posture at odds with their fanciful dress, which – as Katrantzou describes – ‘put the room on the woman, rather than the woman in the room’.
‘Designs for the Ornamentation of Middle Class Houses’ (2011) comprised 66 drawingsof facades that ascended the stairwell like a factory production line. The dense hangwas suggestive of Georgian excess (the Prince Regent was renowned for his reckless profligacy) and reflected the birth of mass-produced architecture, which took place during this developer-led period. The monochromes chimed nicely with the patterned linoleum flooring (designed by Jennie Moncur in 1987), while the repetition helped to drain the drawings of any illusion of architectural superiority: ‘ideologically, they are no better than a Barratt home,’ as Bronstein said in an interview accompanying the show. Every detail was excruciatingly well considered. In the upper galleries, the artist turned his attention to decoration and the 19th-century zeal for metamorphic furniture. A large cabinet unfolded into an office, and two console tables could be joined into a campaign bed. The gallery staff that demonstrated these transformations (at regular intervals during the exhibition) emphasized the ridiculous nature of these furnishings; as The Architectural Magazine bemoaned in 1834, the trend ‘created an incessant demand for novelty, which no designer, unless he possesses […] an almost unlimited stock of ideas, can long supply without degenerating into absurdity’.
The ordinary movement of these gallery attendants (who wore everyday clothes) jarred with the elaborate items they were handling and was typical of Bronstein’s long-standing interest in sprezzatura – a term coined by the great Renaissance diplomat Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528), meaning ‘a studied carelessness’. Their ‘task-like’ gestures also resonated with the Judson Dance Theater and experimentalists such as Trisha Brown, who has explained her aim ‘to make the structure as visible as the dancing’. Regency Box (2011) did this quite literally: inside the ICA’s usual theatre space, Bronstein built a simple structure embellished with Regency details, which was painted a classic Georgian cream on the exterior and a vivid blue-screen colour within. Visitors could be seated inside, or could peer through Giorgio De Chirico-esque windows to watch the events that Bronstein programmed for the space, including performances from Seb Patane, Nils Bech and the quintet Living Room. In either instance, they were forced to be conscious of themselves as a body in a building, bringing a heightened awareness of how an exhibition interacts with its site. Setting the scene for a new era at the ICA, Bronstein’s show was poised between lightness (all subtlety and sketches) and density (rich with references), as he presented an achingly contemporary re-imagining of the Regency age.